“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Gene Conley excelled at the major-league level of two sports and is the only athlete to own dual-sport championships in Major League Baseball and the NBA. Besides pitching for the World Series champion Milwaukee Braves in 1957, he was a member of three NBA championship teams with the Boston Celtics. He was the only professional athlete to play for three of Boston's professional sports teams.
He was the first player to earn Minor League Player of the Year honors twice and appeared in three major-league All-Star Games. His 15-year career as a professional athlete totaled 23 seasons that included 11 in baseball’s major leagues and six in the NBA. At one point he packed 12 major-league seasons into six years with not a day off between those seasons.
The middle of three children of Raymond Leslie “Les” Conley and Eva Beatrice Brewer Conley, Donald Eugene Conley was born on November 10, 1930, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was introduced to sports as a boy in Muskogee. He participated in swimming, football, and basketball and was a knothole gang member of the Class D Muskogee Reds.
When Gene was 12 the family moved to Richland, Washington. There at Columbia High School, he earned letters in baseball, basketball, and track. He enjoyed a productive senior year in all three sports. In baseball he lost only one of ten starts (to the eventual state champions) and batted at a nearly .500 clip. In basketball he averaged more than 15 points per game, led the Richland Bombers to their first-ever state tournament berth, and was selected to the all-state team. He was runner-up in the state track meet in the high jump with a leap of 6 feet 3 inches. He has been made a member of the Richland Bomber Hall of Fame.
As an 18-year-old and near his mature height of 6-feet-8, Conley chose Washington State University from the many prominent basketball schools that had offered him scholarships. At WSU he was also afforded an automobile and expenses by a grateful alumnus. Conley captained the freshman basketball team and as a sophomore led the varsity to the Northern Division championship of the Pacific Coast Conference. He was the top scorer for the Cougars, who lost to UCLA for the overall conference championship on a buzzer-beater. Conley represented the Northwest in the 1949 Hearst All-Star (baseball) Game, which pitted all-stars from the greater New York area against the top players from the rest of the country. Gene was named the United States All-Stars captain for the game, played at the Polo Grounds. He was the starting and winning pitcher, besting Frank Torre of the New York team. Conley called the experience of the preliminary games in Seattle, practice in Yankee Stadium, and game itself “as much fun as I ever had in my life.” During the spring of 1950, Conley starred for the Washington State baseball team that finished 32-6 and was runner-up for the national championship. He pitched in 16 games, winning five, including two shutouts, saving two more and averaging .417 at the plate. He was inducted into Washington State University’s Hall of Fame in 1979.
Conley’s pitching attracted scouts from most of the major-league teams. He initially resisted, citing his desire to finish college, but signed with Bill Marshall of the Braves, then in Boston, in October of 1950.
The Braves assigned Conley to their Class A team at Hartford of the Eastern League for 1951. His debut season was outstanding, with 20 wins, an earned-run average of 2.16, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio well over three to one. He was honored as the league’s Most Valuable Player and named Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. Conley’s success came because of only two pitches, a fastball and a curve, which was his complete repertoire for his entire career.
Basketball re-entered Conley’s life late in the 1951 baseball season. During the Hartford club’s last trip to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Gene was invited to suit up for a scrimmage with the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the American Basketball Association. The Barons’ head coach and owner, Eddie White, was impressed and offered him a contract for $5,000. When the Braves learned that Gene was considering playing professional basketball, he was summoned to a meeting with general manager John Quinn. At the meeting, Gene had been given a $1,000 check in return for his promise never to play basketball again. Conley honored the deal and labored as an ironworker during the off-season.
Conley’s 1951 season earned him a serious look by the Braves, who promoted him to the big-league club as the fourth starter for 1952. His stay was short because of three dismal and winless starts, after which he was assigned to the Braves’ top farm club, Milwaukee of the American Association. He did not get his first start there until the season was well into June but still finished with 11 victories for the pennant-winning Brewers. He chipped in with a .338 batting average, aided by a 5-for-5 day against the Indianapolis Indians. Earlier in the 1952 season, on April 26th, Conley was the 90th overall pick in the NBA draft, selected by the Boston Celtics. Katie and Gene decided, for financial reasons, that he should try to make the club. He did so and, surprisingly, secured Quinn’s permission to play. He played sparingly for Red Auerbach’s Celtics, but established that he had the ability to play in the league. The Celtics made the NBA playoffs and were eliminated in the second round. As a consequence, Conley was late in reporting for spring training in 1953.
The year of 1953 was one of promise for Conley as he fully expected to make the big-league baseball club. But he did not. He was again sent to the Braves’ top minor club, which had been displaced to Toledo when the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee. Conley started fast and kept up the pace until late in the season, when he was sidelined by a troublesome back. He won 23 games before his early exit and was named the American Association’s Most Valuable Player. For the second time The Sporting News selected him as the Minor League Player of the Year. He was the first player to be so honored more than once. After a week’s stay in a Toledo hospital, Conley was fitted with a back brace that he was told to wear for six weeks and then begin a therapy regimen. He immediately discarded the brace and after a couple of weeks his back was feeling fine, enough that he again made the Celtics for the 1953-1954 season. Once again Quinn intervened but this time matched the Celtics’ offer of $5,000 to induce Gene not to play basketball. Conley accepted and spent the winter working in Toledo.
En route to Florida for 1954 spring training the Conleys were involved in a serious auto accident. Though their car was demolished, they sustained only minor injuries, and Katie’s pregnancy was not compromised. Conley, now well-prepared by his three years and 54-22 record in the minors, made the Braves’ Opening Day roster. However, because of the Braves’ solid and deep pitching staff, headed by Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, Gene was not initially placed in manager Charlie Grimm’s four-man starting rotation. After he recorded a few solid starts, Grimm revised his plans and went to a five-man rotation. The rookie responded and was selected for the 1954 All-Star Game in Cleveland but was the losing pitcher. By the end of August he had notched 14 wins, but his season was cut short again because of back problems. Conley finished third in an outstanding class for Rookie of the Year honors in 1954. Wally Moon and Ernie Banks finished in the top two spots while Hank Aaron rounded out the group.
As he had the previous summer, Conley recovered quickly from the back ailment with treatment and rest. Once again he tried out for and made the Celtics, but shocked the team by resigning on the eve of the season’s opening game. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family and was not sure he would be able to continue as a two-sport athlete. Conley made a difficult decision that he hoped would prolong his baseball career.
Conley was selected for the 1955 NL All-Star team, but was not slated to pitch as he had only one day’s rest. He was forced into action when the NL came back from a 5-0 deficit to send the game into extra innings. Gene was called in to pitch the 12th inning in his home County Stadium and struck out Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon, and Al Rosen in order.
The shoulder problems were still with Conley at the start of the 1956 season and he was once again on the disabled list. Therapy promoted healing and he returned to the team and won for the first time, in relief, on May 28th. The Braves continued their fine play and won both the National League pennant and the World Series. Lew Burdette beat the Yankees three times, while Conley had a single lackluster relief appearance, giving up two runs in Game Three.
The pitching career that had been so promising just a few years earlier came unraveled in 1958. Conley’s shoulder was still a bother and the Braves’ pitching was stronger than ever. Conley, when used, saw mostly relief action and became frustrated, began drinking heavily, and was constantly at odds with manager Haney. He finished the season 0-6 and did not appear in the World Series, again against the Yankees.
After the horrible and disappointing season of 1958, Conley decided to give basketball another try. He called Red Auerbach and was told that Boston did not need him and that Red did not think that he could make the team anyway. Auerbach gave in to Gene’s demands for a tryout, but refused to pay the expenses for his trip to Boston. By his sheer determination Conley made the Celtics and signed a contract over the objections of the Braves. On the court he was strong, hustled, could out-jump most anyone in the league, and excelled on defense and in rebounding. He would prove that he had staying power as he played three seasons with the Celtics, who were NBA champions all three seasons.
The Celtics’ playoff run was cause for Conley not to report to the Braves in the spring of 1959. The Celtics wrapped up the NBA championship on April 7th and Conley had his second championship ring. He was the first athlete to play on championship teams in two professional sports.
A few days later Conley was in Florida, albeit late, for spring training. It was near the end of April before he made an appearance. He began in relief but was soon moved to the starting rotation and finished with 12 wins for the last-place Philadelphia Phillies. He was picked by his former manager, Fred Haney, for the second 1959 All-Star Game in Los Angeles, where he pitched two perfect innings that included strikeouts of Ted Williams and Yogi Berra. He was also named Comeback Player of the Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
The 1960 baseball season was not much different from the previous one, but Conley’s wins dropped off to eight. The Phillies offered him $20,000 to forgo basketball the next winter. He made a counter-offer that ended the negotiations and resulted in his being traded to the Boston Red Sox on December 15, 1960. Conley called it the “biggest trade in baseball” because at 6-feet-8-inches he was swapped for Frank Sullivan, who stood 6-feet-6.3
On April 11, 1961, the Celtics wrapped up another NBA championship, against the St. Louis Hawks at the Boston Garden. Conley was quickly off to Florida for an abbreviated spring training and came back to Boston to start for the Red Sox against the Washington Senators on April 25th. Just two weeks removed from the basketball court, he made his first appearance in a Red Sox uniform and pitched eight shutout innings. But after just a few games the pain returned to Conley’s pitching shoulder. He kept the recurrence of the rotator cuff injury to himself and continued through the season, pitching lust shy of 200 innings and winning 11 games for the sixth-place Red Sox.
Conley had been left unprotected by the Celtics when the NBA held an expansion draft in the spring of 1961. He was selected by the Chicago Packers but did not report, intending to take the winter off. Instead he signed with the Washington/New York Tapers in the fledgling American Basketball League.
The Tapers’ season ended in time for Conley to participate in most of spring training with the Red Sox in Arizona. He parlayed a productive spring and a resolve to control his alcohol use into a productive 1962 season. He recorded career highs in wins and innings. The season was not without incident, however, as the shoulder pain returned along with his drinking. After a 13-3 shellacking on July 26th in Yankee Stadium in which he gave up eight runs in two-plus innings, Conley embarked on a venture that has remained signature to him. When the team bus became mired in New York City traffic on the way to the airport, Conley and teammate Pumpsie Green stepped off to find a restroom. This was later dubbed Conley’s “intentional walk” by the press. When the players returned, the bus was gone. Left in New York, the pair did some drinking before Green realized he was in trouble and decided to return to the club. Conley continued his binge for a few days and at some point decided to go to Jerusalem. He went so far as to buy a ticket and went to Idlewild Airport (later renamed JFK), but was denied access to the flight because he had no passport. The bizarre incident was well covered by the press and resulted in a substantial fine by the Red Sox, but Conley eventually returned to the good graces of the club.
Before the 1962 baseball season had ended, Conley’s NBA rights were traded from Chicago to the New York Knicks. He signed on and played center for what turned out to be the NBA’s worst team that year. Two injuries ended his basketball season prematurely, a broken index finger on his pitching hand and a severely sprained ankle.
Because of his early exit from basketball in 1963, Conley was able to participate in an entire spring training. The basketball injuries proved to be a major issue, as was the chronic shoulder injury. He was unable to pitch smoothly and without pain during the exhibition season. He struggled during the early going of the regular season but came back late in the year. He did not know it at the time but when he started and won against the Twins on September 21, 1963, it would be his last major-league appearance.
As was now usual, Conley picked up basketball, again with New York. Just after the 1964 baseball season got under way and before he made an appearance, the Red Sox released Conley on April 21st.
Gene and Katie made their home in Foxboro, Massachusetts, for 40 years. They established and operated together, for 35 years, the Foxboro Paper Company, which dealt in industrial packaging supplies. Gene had his last drink in 1966. Katie Conley related that a baseball fan told Gene that he was too good to be drinking and that he (the fan) did not like to see him that way. In 1966 Conley was asked to try professional basketball again and played and coached in the Eastern League for Hartford and New Haven on weekends for two years.
After his professional sports career, Conley continued to be active with skiing and golf. He never had his rotator cuff repaired. The Conleys were instrumental in gaining pensions for the NBA’s pre-1965 players.
Gene died on July 4, 2017, at the age of 86.