Conley had twice as much fun

Email|Print| Text size + By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / January 13, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. - He struck out Teddy Ballgame in the All-Star Game, broke Billy Martin's jaw in a brawl, and, nursing a hangover, held Wilt Chamberlain to fewer than 20 points.

Forget Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and Michael Jordan. Gene Conley is the only athlete to win world championships in basketball and baseball, and nobody played two major professional sports longer. For six years, he played both sports continually - that's 12 seasons without a vacation.

"I didn't stop," he says with a boyish grin. "I had to wear a jockstrap year-round."

His athletic feats aside, Conley is also known for bolting from the Red Sox team bus with teammate Pumpsie Green in New York in an aborted attempt to fly to Israel in 1962. And he knows that's going to be in his obituary.

"I don't care, probably because I played with some of the best ballplayers in the history of the game," says Conley. "In baseball I was with [Warren] Spahn and [Henry] Aaron and [Eddie] Mathews. In basketball, I'd come over with [Bill] Russell, [Bob] Cousy, and [Tom] Heinsohn. [Red] Auerbach was the coach."

He's 77 now, and for the New Year he got a pacemaker. He drives a Lincoln Continental with the front seat extended on rails into the backseat so he can stretch out his 6-foot-8-inch body. He can't wear his championship rings because his fingers are bent and arthritic from hoops and hardball. But he still has some spring in his size 16 shoes, plenty of heart, and a smile that never seems to fade.

Conley lives in Clermont, Fla., with his wife of 56 years, Kathryn. Recently she wrote a biography about him titled, "One of A Kind," which is how statistician Bill James categorized Conley's career.

Conley played center and forward on three consecutive Celtic world championship teams (1958-61) and he pitched for the 1957 world champion Milwaukee Braves. He also was the winning pitcher in the 1955 All-Star Game. And he is the only man to play for three professional teams in the same city: Boston Braves, Red Sox, and Celtics.

Danny Ainge, who played second base for the Toronto Blue Jays before becoming a Celtics guard, says Conley's feat won't be duplicated.

"It's a different era now, so it's hard to put it in perspective in today's day and age, when the seasons overlap so much more than they did in his day and age," says the Celtics executive director of basketball operations. "He was a complete player and a great player. He had to be a great athlete."

Just how great is difficult to fathom.

NBA his spring training

Conley won an NBA title with the Celtics, beating the St. Louis Hawks in Game 5 April 11, 1961, and two weeks later threw eight scoreless innings to beat the Washington Senators, 6-1, at Fenway Park.

He even knocked in a run. But there were only 2,748 fans in attendance.

"It was ice cold," Conley remembers. "I looked up in the stands and do you know who was sitting there? K.C. [Jones] and Bill Russell. They were sitting there freezing to death. Now when I hear these guys say I have to train for 3-4 months to get my arm in shape, I laugh."

He doesn't begrudge today's players the money - he made just $55,000 a year for playing both sports - but he wishes the players were tougher.

"Josh Beckett - I don't buy the blisters," Conley says. "Get out there and suck it up. Earn your money."

He also would gladly trade Red Sox rookie phenom Jacoby Ellsbury to obtain pitcher Johan Santana from Minnesota.

"You get 3-4 good pitchers, you can win," he says. "You can put Joe Blow in the field and still win."

He also follows the Celtics closely, and when they play Orlando, Boston management leaves him tickets.

"The Celtics are very interesting, but they better not count themselves as champs yet," says Conley. "I think they still have to get by San Antonio, that's the team they've got to beat."

Could the old Russell Celtics beat the Garnett-led Celtics?

"Oh, I don't know how we'd match up," Conley says. "But there were seven Hall of Famers on our team. Tommy would always say we had the smaaaahts."

Heinsohn was Conley's roommate, and he remembers the two-sport star fondly.

"He was a gifted pitcher and a gifted basketball player," Heinsohn says. "To play two sports, it not only wore you down physically but emotionally. It'd be a grind for everybody.

"Had he concentrated on basketball earlier, he would have been a really big-time, great player. He was a significant backup player who was strong and would rebound and could run, which is what we wanted to do."

Conley ended his NBA career in 1964 as a New York Knick, for whom he was the starting center. During an offday in San Francisco before meeting Chamberlain's Warriors, he asked Knicks coach Eddie Donovan for permission to return to his hometown of Richland, Wash., to see his family. Donovan agreed.

Conley saw his family but also saw his old drinking buddies. He bet them all $5 that the Knicks would hold the Big Dipper, who averaged 44.8 points in 1962-63, to fewer than 20.

"Wilt was the strongest man in the world," says Conley. "I got home so sick, but we just pounded him and pushed and shoved. We won and he only got 19 points."

But none of his friends ever paid up.

"They were probably as tied on as I was," he says. "They didn't know what they'd done."

Great company

Conley was a rookie with the 1954 Braves, as was a skinny outfielder named Henry Aaron. They remain friends.

"I was talking to Aaron about how he was keeping his health up," says Conley. "He said, 'You know what I do? I take [apple cider], vinegar, garlic, and honey. I make it in a big jar. I take a big spoonful every morning.'

"Who's the real home run champ? Henry Aaron."

No opponent was too big or too small for Conley. While pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1960, he decked the hot-headed Martin - then a Cincinnati Red - and broke his jaw.

"I was pitching a game in Cincinnati," Conley says. "This pitcher on the other team threw a couple of pitches inside to me and then he hit me. We had a fiery manager, Gene Mauch. I started down first base. All of a sudden, I saw Mauch running by me as fast as he could. He was going after the pitcher for hitting me. I run out there and here comes Billy Martin racing in there."

Conley didn't like Martin.

"Boy, I let him have it," he says. "I smacked him a good one. He did a full gainer, everything got real quiet. He turned around and said, 'Conley, I'm going to get a stepladder and get you next time.' "

Conley pitched for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, Phillies, and Red Sox in 11 seasons. He compiled a 91-96 record with an ERA of 3.82. He was chosen to three All-Star teams.

In his first, in 1954, he was routed after just a third of an inning and took the loss. He wept in the locker room.

In 1955 at Milwaukee's County Stadium, Conley struck out Hall of Famer Al Kaline, two-time batting champion Mickey Vernon, and two-time RBI champ Al Rosen in the top of the 12th inning. In the bottom half, Stan Musial hit the first pitch into the right-field bleachers and Conley got the win.

"I was thrilled," he says.

In the 1959 game in Los Angeles, he struck out Ted Williams on an overhand curveball.

"He missed it by this wide," says the righthander, holding his arms 2 feet apart. "I saw him 25 years later at a Jimmy Fund tournament. And I said to him, 'I'm Gene Conley.' He said, 'I know who you are, for crying out loud, Conley. And I also remember that dinky curveball you threw to strike me out with.' I said, 'Dinky curveball?' You missed it by that far."

After retirement, Conley started the Foxboro Paper Company, which he ran for 36 years before moving to Florida. He has enough sports memories to last a lifetime.

"We won championships in both sports and I was part of it," he says before pausing to show a kid how to throw a curveball and flashing that overgrown kid smile.

"I had too much fun. I really had fun."

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at

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