1969-1971
BILLY CONIGLIARO   OF

RIP to Billy Conigliaro, who was the first draft pick in Red Sox history. He also was the younger brother of Sox phenom Tony Conigliaro.

William Michael Conigliaro was born in Revere, Mass., on August 15, 1947. His older brother, Tony, was born in 1945, so the two played little league, American Legion and some high school baseball together. By the time Billy was a freshman in high school, Tony was already making headlines as a standout junior athlete at St. Mary’s High School. He was signed by the Red Sox in 1962, and Billy began to make his own reputation as a skilled athlete at Swampscott High School. He was a co-captain and starting halfback on the football team, and as a two-way baseball player, he hit .333 as a center fielder in 1963 and turned in a 7-1 record as a pitcher. Swampscott won the Northeast Conference championship in 1963.

By 1964, Tony C. was making news as a teenage slugger for the Red Sox. Billy did his best to create his own headlines too, as a junior in high school. He tossed a 5-1 no-hitter against Winthrop High School, striking out 13 in the process. He also had 3 hits to help his own cause and narrowly missed an inside-the-park home run.

The Red Sox had been able to sign Tony C. to a minor-league contract in 1962 by simply outbidding any competition. By the time Billy was a senior in high school in 1965, the rules for drafting amateurs had changed. Major League Baseball instituted the amateur draft that is still used today. Boston had the fifth overall pick in the draft, and they made Billy their first-ever first-round pick, for an estimated cost of $50,000 to $60,000.

Many other teams might have made Billy a pitcher because he threw two more no-hitters in his senior year of high school, but there was too much of a temptation to have him follow in Tony’s footsteps, so Billy focused on the offensive side of the game. He struggled at first with the Waterloo Hawks in 1965, but the 17-year-old adjusted quickly. The Red Sox moved him up to AA Pittsfield in 1966, but he batted in the .220s and was sent back to Class-A Ball.

A stint in the U.S. military wiped out most of Billy’s 1967 season, and he was assigned to Class-A Greenville to get back his baseball form. By then, he was 19 years old, which was the same age that Tony was when he reached the majors. Billy was a little slower to develop, but he could create the same excitement. Shortly after his return to organized ball, he hit one of the longest home runs that anyone had ever hit out of Spartanburg’s Duncan Park.

Billy didn’t let his slow rise to the majors affect his confidence. He hoped that a good showing at spring training in 1968 would put him back on track for a call-up. Instead of making the majors, the Red Sox assigned him to AA Pittsfield. He would get his shot at the big leagues in 1969, and the Red Sox would indeed have two Conigliaros on the team, but it wasn’t the dream scenario that fans had imagined.

Tony C.’s career had nearly ended on August 18, 1967, when he was hit in the face with a pitch from California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton. Billy and the rest of his family were in the stands at that game and witnessed his older brother’s beaning. Tony missed the remainder of the 1967 and all of the ’68 season. When the 1969 spring training camp rolled around, both brothers had something to prove.

Neither brother was expected to make the team in 1969. Tony C. had dreams of returning as a pitcher, but he said his damaged eye had healed, and he worked to regain his old job. Billy was ticketed to the higher minors, but he hit well in spring training and ended up on the Opening Day roster as well. He made his debut on April 11th as a pinch-runner against Cleveland. Billy promptly stole second base and advanced to third on a throwing error. His first MLB at-bat came on April 15th against the Orioles, and he struck out as a pinch-hitter. His first start came the very next day, and he struck out twice more, but also cracked two solo home runs off Orioles pitcher Dave Leonhard. He homered again on April 17th off Jim Palmer and finished the day a double shy of the cycle. Suddenly, Billy was hitting the ball as well as his big brother did.

The 1969 Red Sox had a very crowded outfield, however. Carl Yastrzemski occupied left field, and Reggie Smith was the center fielder. That left right field for both Conigliaro brothers and fifth outfielder Joe Lahoud. By the end of April, Billy had homered 4 times and carried a solid .313 batting average, but he had also struck out five times in his last seven at-bats. He was sent down to AAA Louisville on May 5th when the Red Sox acquired utility infielder Don Lock.

The younger Conigliaro returned to the minors and hit .298 for Louisville. He missed out of the International League All-Star team and was upset about that.

The Red Sox did bring Billy back in September. He saw limited action and hit .288 with 4 home runs and 7 RBIs. He became a starter in 1970 under new manager Eddie Kasko. Yaz moved to first base, and Billy and Tony played left and right field, respectively, with Smith in center field. The two brothers combined for 7 runs in an 11-10 win over Detroit on August 10th, with Billy responsible for 4 of them with an RBI single and a 3-run homer.

It didn’t last. Tony C. was traded to California after the 1970 season. It was part of a conscious effort to break up the Conigliaros. Billy remained in Boston as the left fielder and had another decent season, with a .262 average and 11 homers in 101 games. However, the 1971 Red Sox were a fractured team, and the headlines focused on the behind-the-scenes feuds.

In mid-July, Tony C. unexpectedly retired from the Angels, citing the worsening condition of his damaged eye. Around same time, Yaz was asked about Billy’s work in center field after a couple of fly balls fell for hits, costing the Red Sox a win. Yaz replied that Billy played a deep center field, unlike many others. He took it as an attack on his play and unloaded on those people he felt were against him on the team.

Boston finished in third place with 85 wins. It came as no surprise, though, that the Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers pulled off a large trade on October 10, 1971. Conigliaro, Ken Brett, Lahoud, Jim Lonborg, Don Pavletich  and George Scott were all sent to the Brewers in exchange for Tommy Harper, Lew Krausse, Marty Pattin and minor-leaguer Pat Skrable.

For a time, things were good in Milwaukee. Billy made his retirement official days later. He announced he was returning to Boston to help his brother Tony with a country club, restaurant and lounge that they owned. It seemed to be a permanent move, but then he announced in February of 1973 that he was applying for reinstatement, so that he could join the world champion Oakland A’s.

By the time he returned, Joe Rudi, Bill North and Reggie Jackson had solidified the outfield pretty well. Billy fell into the role of a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter. His batting average dropped to .200 by the end of the season, and he didn’t hit a single home run in 48 games. He started one game in the A’s AL Championship Series, going 0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts against Baltimore. He did rob the Orioles from scoring by making a diving catch of a Paul Blair sinking liner with Bobby Grich on first base. He also made three pinch-hitting appearances in the World Series, failing to record a hit. The A’s won the ’72 World Series over the Mets, giving him a World Series ring. It was Billy’s last season of professional baseball.

Billy was released by the A’s on March 30, 1974. He had undergone two surgeries to repair cartilage in his knee, and he decided to retire at the age of 26 rather than seek employment with another team.

Tony C. made a brief comeback with the Boston Red Sox in 1975, and Billy made a comeback attempt of his own with the A’s in 1977 because he was about 40 days shy of getting an MLB pension. The comeback ended when he refused an assignment to AAA San Jose, claiming it was too far from his home and business interests in Boston.

In January of 1982, Tony C. was working as a sportscaster in San Francisco. He had flown to Boston to interview for a job. As Billy was driving him to Logan Airport, Tony suffered a massive heart attack. Billy sped the 4.7 miles to Massachusetts General Hospital and spent the next few weeks virtually living at the hospital, being alongside with his comatose brother.

Tony C. eventually awoke after three weeks. Paralyzed and unable to speak much, he required around-the-clock care until his death on February 24, 1990, from kidney failure. Billy opened a deli in Boston and had other businesses, but he took care of his brother, brought in therapists and trainers for him and battled Medicaid and the MLB Players’ Association on Tony’s behalf.

Billy spent the rest of his life ensuring his brother’s legacy. He and youngest brother Richie led a campaign to have the Red Sox retire Tony C.’s #25. He represented his brother on an on-field celebration of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team at Fenway Park in 2007. They also were voting members of the Tony Conigliaro Award, which was started by the Boston Red Sox in 1990. The annual award is given to a “Major Leaguer who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage that were trademarks of Tony C.

Billy Conigliaro died on February 10, 2021 at the age of 73.