The baseball (and basketball) worlds were saddened by the recent passing of Gene Conley. He’s been described as the only person to have a “substantial” career in both major league baseball and professional basketball. He was Bill Russell’s back-up center on some of the great Boston Celtics teams of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I saw him a number of times in that role at Madison Square Garden.
Conley was a pitcher who originally came up with the Boston Braves. In fact he is the answer to the trivia question,
“Who was the last Boston Braves player who subsequently played for the Boston Red Sox?
This is not to be confused with its companion question of
“Who was the last Boston Red Sox player who previously had played for the Boston Braves?” (Different answer)
Conley was a fixture in the Braves starting rotation of the mid and late 1950s, generally regarded as their number four starter behind Spahn, Burdette, and Buhl. After an off year he was traded to the Phillies. Two years later the Phillies traded him to the Red Sox for 6 ft. 7 in. tall Frank Sullivan. Since Conley was 6 ft. 8 in. tall, the papers reported that the Sox got the better of the trade “by one inch.”
I saw Gene Conley pitch just once for the Sox. Shortly after my high school graduation, I celebrated by seeing an entire four game Red Sox-Yankee series at Yankee Stadium. Gene Conley was the Sox starting pitcher Friday night. He completely lost it in the second inning and by the time a relief pitcher could be summoned the Yanks had a 6-0 lead.
Conley appears to have been a fun guy to have around. In his autobiography, Carl Yastrzemski noted that he never saw a funnier guy than Gene Conley. In 1962, Gene and Pumpsie Green made their famous escapade as they left the Red Sox team bus and spent two days bar hopping in New York City. Conley eventually made it to one of the airports and tried to buy a ticket to Israel but was unable to do so because he didn’t have his passport. Needless to say, the Red Sox were not pleased. Arm trouble in 1963 ended his career.
Gene Conley was a unique individual who added richness and texture to the sports scene of his period. His passing is indeed a sad moment.