Showing posts with label Boston Celtics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Boston Celtics. Show all posts

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Gene Conley recalls the rocky start to his major league career

At six-foot-eight, Gene Conley towered over his competition on the mound and the hardwood. He used his tremendous athleticism to claim his stake in two professional sports in a way that no other athlete has done since.

The two-sport star earned Major League Baseball and NBA championships respectively with the Milwaukee Braves (1957) and the Boston Celtics (1959-1961), making him the only player ever to accomplish this feat. Sadly, Conley passed away July 4, 2017 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He was 86.

Gene Conley 1951 Hartford Chiefs
After the Boston Braves lured Conley from his studies at Washington State University at the end of the 1950 school year, Conley’s performance for Class A Hartford in 1951 showed why the Braves persistently recruited him. Conley posted an impressive 20-9 record with a 2.16 ERA, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern League and the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. After one dominant performance, his catcher and former Negro Leaguer player Stanley Glenn, compared Conley to arguably the greatest pitcher ever.

"You reminded me of Satch tonight," Conley recalled during a 2008 telephone interview from his home.

Conley thought that he would work his way through the minor league ranks, but the slumping Braves had plans otherwise. Looking to capture the magic he displayed in his lone minor league season, the Braves management felt that he could continue his meteoric ascent in the major leagues. To his surprise, the Braves kept Conley on the major league roster when they broke from spring training in 1952.

“They brought me up after one year in A-ball to Boston,” he said. “They sent me down as fast as they brought me up!”

Conley was thrown right into the fire, making his debut in the third game of the season against the eventual National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a step up Conley acknowledged over a half-century later that he wasn’t ready to make.

“I opened up against the Dodgers,” he said. “I remember the first time I was with Braves after I came up from Hartford, I wasn't ready to pitch in the big leagues. The [Dodgers] were just loaded. Oh all of them, the whole works. I remember I was sitting there in the dugout. Spahn opened the season. Someone asked, ‘Who is pitching tomorrow?’ I heard someone say at the end of the bench, ‘They're going to try that phenom from Hartford I believe.’ I was going to crawl under my seat. I think some old veteran said that. I gave up about four runs and he [Tommy Holmes] took me out in the middle of the game.”

Blitzed by the prospect of facing a lineup filled with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, there was no way for Conley to pitch around the mighty Brooklyn lineup. He recounted how the litany of talent they had didn’t allow him to focus on stopping one single batter.

“Their lineup was so loaded,” he said, “You didn't pay attention, there were so many stars. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Who gave you a lot of trouble?’ I said shoot, you go down the Dodger lineup. How about [Duke] Snider? [Jim] Gilliam? Pee Wee Reese? [Roy] Campanella? They were all good ballplayers, Gil Hodges too … You didn't worry about any one of them because the other guy was just as good. [Jackie] Robinson was a little over the hill, but he could play like he did. [He would] steal a base, work you for a walk, and drive you crazy on the bases.”

After just four appearances that left him with a 7.82 ERA, Conley was mercifully sent to Triple A where he helped to lead their Milwaukee team to the American Association pennant. He followed in 1953 with 23-win season at Toledo where he once again was bestowed with the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors.

He returned to the major leagues for good in 1954, pitching ten straight seasons with the Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Red Sox until persistent arm troubles sidelined him in 1963. He finished his career with a 91-96 record, along with three All-Star selections and the aforementioned World Series championship.

While Conley stood out in baseball for more than just his height, he was humbled by the sheer talent that surrounded him during his career. He enjoyed being able to say that he was able to compete for a long period of time against baseball’s most iconic names.

“When you have eight teams,” he said, “you can imagine how tough the lineups were back in those days. I looked in a book on Hall of Famers, I played with and against more Hall of Famers than I ever saw. What luck did I have? That had to be a good period … I caught all of those guys. I'm glad I pitched through the 50s and 60s. I caught Berra, Mantle, and all of those guys. That was fun.”

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bill Sharman was a prized prospect of Branch Rickey before he became a Hall of Fame NBA player

For further insight regarding Sharman's baseball career, read J.G. Preston's excellent article, "No, Bill Sharman was never ejected from a major league game as a member of the Dodgers."