It’s May 2002. Teacher friend Bud Pollack and I are at the old Stadium in the Bronx for a Sox-Yankees game that evening. It begins to rain, so Bud picks up his cell and calls one of his former students who was a producer at MSG at the time. He invited us up to visit him, and we ended up conversing with former major league stars turned baseball announcers, Jim Kaat and Bobby Murcer, in the spacious MSG broadcast booth as the rain continued to pour down onto the emerald field below us.
Just as we were departing, Bobby Murcer said, “You know, fellas, Bob Sheppard loves to meet teachers who visit the press box. You know, he’s been one himself for decades.”
Jim Kaat then explained that Bob Sheppard had taught at Columbia since the 1960’s. “Willie Mays might come into the booth, and Bob will be accommodating as always, but he feels most at home with his fellow teachers. I know that he would love to greet you both.”
For those of you who might not know about him, Bob Sheppard was the legendary public address announcer for the New York Yankees from 1951 to 2007. For 56 seasons, Mr. Sheppard ended up announcing more than 4,500 Yankees baseball games 22 pennant-winning seasons and 13 World Series championships. “He was the voice of God,” Mickey Mantle once explained. Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski stated famously, “You’re not in the big leagues until Bob Sheppard announces your name.”
As Bud and I entered his cramped booth at the old Stadium, we knew that Bob Sheppard had announced the revered names of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, and Yogi Berra with such fluency and precision that Columbia had asked him to teach courses on elocution. “I found my true calling when I entered the classroom,” he stated matter-of-factly to us. “It changed my life.”
The quintessential gentleman, Mr. Sheppard couldn’t have been more gracious or accommodating, especially to two passionate Red Sox fans. We conversed about our classes, our passions, and why teaching continued to remain at the epicenter of our lives. The legendary PA announcer then asked me who my favorite Sox player was. When I informed him that it was the late Tony Conigliaro, he flipped on a switch in his booth, which was an interior sound check only, and bellowed: “Batting for Boston, Number 25, Tony Conigliaro, right field, Conigliaro.”
I thanked Mr. Sheppard profusely. “That does the old heart good,” I remarked. He threw me an appreciative smile.
Just as Bud Pollack and I were leaving the booth, he asked me what my number was I was a player in my younger days. “Number 14, Mr. Sheppard,” I answered. “Well, Shaun, I am going to do this for you because you are a fellow teacher!” He then switched on a speaker in his booth and clamored in his best Mount Olympus voice: “Now pitching for Boston, number 14, Shaun Kelly, pitcher, Boston.”
I told Mr. Sheppard that he had just given me my all-time favorite baseball highlight. He smiled and said to Bud and me, “Now go back to the classroom and continue to make a difference!”
While Bob Sheppard’s Zeus-like voice continued to echo the names of hundreds of baseball players at Yankee Stadium over the next five seasons, it was the humble words he imparted to us that have stayed with me ever since. Eight years later, three months short of his hundredth birthday, Bob Sheppard died. When I think back on the time we met in his cramped announcer’s booth seventeen years ago this month, I realize now as a Sox fan that I wasn’t in enemy territory then. No, I was on hallowed ground.
On January 30, 1969, the Beatles took the concept of “Up on the Roof” to an entirely new level.
“Like, I Love You” Edd Byrnes and Connie Stevens, 1959. On so many levels, this cultural fossil is not to be believed. When I played it to my students one time, they thought that it was some kind of an unearthly outtake from Grease. Needless to say, Ed “Kookie” Byrnes was the epitome of swagger on 77 Sunset Strip while Connie Stevens was the flavor of the month for many American male teenagers at the time. If you have never listened to this hit, which entered the airwaves 60 years ago this summer, you are in for an experience. In the end, the “cool, baby” vernacular is worth the ride. Strap on tight.
“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), Sly and the Family Stone, 1969. Funk on top of funk with inch-thick icing. That’s Sly, and that’s why this tune is still regularly played on the radio 50 years to the week after it was first released. In this live not-to-be-believed Soul Train version, you can see and hear why both fans and musicians so revered sly and his decidedly integrated band at the time. (Thank you, Don Cornelius, for keeping the masters of such recordings in a bank vault for more than three decades until he released them on YouTube.) You can also see why Sly and the Family Stone so galvanized Prince as a boy growing up in Minneapolis. A vocal and visual tour de force.
“Dream Lover,” Bobby Darin, 1959. The number two song in the US and Canada 60 years ago this June, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” would remain in the Billboard Top 20 until early August. This was the second-to-last “teen single” that Bobby would have – “Splish Splash” would be the last – before he ventured into adult waters with such classic numbers as “Behind the Sea” and “Mack the Knife.” As versatile and talented a performer as any who came out of the early rock era, Darin’s genius was that he couldn’t be framed into one particular genre. He could do it all.
“Sacrifice,” Elton John, 1969. Not many American fans would know that this was Sir Elton’s first number one single in the UK a year before he struck gold with “Your Song.” Interestingly, Elton and Bernie Taupin have long described “Sacrifice” as the ‘bookend’ to ‘Your Song.’ Taupin, who has also called it, “the best song we ever wrote together,” a ballad that described a breakup of marriage where the loss of the relationship was “no sacrifice.” The video of “Sacrifice” was filmed 20 years after the song was first released, and featured both Yasmeen Ghauri and Chris Isaak!
“There Goes My Baby,” The Drifters, 1959. One of the incongruent and yet most breathtaking productions in rock and roll history, this number was a profound soul milestone, although it was more urbane and filled with Latin inflections and off-tune tympani than the standard fare back then. This caused Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler to threaten to throw the master single out the window and onto Broadway itself, because he didn’t like the unsyncopated sound. Thank God he didn’t. There’s no denying the dizzying romantic swell of the Drifters’ orchestration, which drove Wexler crazy, might be a distraction – but a lovely one. Of course, such over-the-top instrumental orchestration would then guide singer Ben E. King through his solo career when he left the Drifters later on that year.
“Grazing in the Grass,” The Friends of Distinction, 1969. The number two song in the US top 40 fifty years ago this June, the Friends of Distinction’s version of Hugh Masekela’s instrumental classic added inspired words, including the colorful refrain, “The sun beaming down between the leaves.” Has any single so brilliantly captured the end of spring and the beginning of summer like this one? As some of you might know, the Friends of Distinction were discovered by pro football immortal, Jimmy Brown, when they were playing at a local nightclub in LA. He connected them to some friends in the music business, and the band signed a record contract as a result. While the group had two other notable hits, “Going in Circles,” and “Check it Out,” this candied cover turned out the be the Friends of Distinction most popular single. My college friends might remember that this single used to be a staple in my Oldies Shows at the legendary Rathskeller!
Refugee,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1979. Released 40 years ago this week, “Refugee” is the Heartbreakers at their finest, with Mike Campbell’s economic phrasing, Benmont Tench’s soulful organ playing, the lockstep rhythm section of Stan Lynch and original bassist Ron Blair and Tom Petty’s gritty, passionate vocals. As with many of the defiant lyrics on hisgroundbreaking album, Damn the Torpedoes, “Refugee” was inspired in part by a feud Petty was having with his label and cloaked his anger in relationship metaphors. Today, of course, “Refugee” is known for being one of the most revered rockers from the late 1970s. Thanks to the daily replays of his old Sirius Show which has lived on after his death, Tom Petty’s Buried Treasures, I still check in with Tom many times each week. It’s a way you can think of him delightfully in the present tense.
“Something’s Coming On,” Joe Cocker, Live at Woodstock, 1969. Like a hurricane suddenly appearing on a listless summer’s day, n impossibly young Joe Cocker stuns 500,000 spectators at the legendary Woodstock Music Festival fifty years ago this summer and absolutely slays them in a four-minute musical extravaganza of both passion and pluck. “Something’s coming on….” indeed, for the madman from England who then enchanted audiences over the next 40 years plus.
“This I Swear,” The Skyliners, 1959. While this barely made it on the Billboard Top 20 sixty years ago this week, nevertheless, it is now considered one of the most superlative singles that the Skyliners, the wildly popular doo-wop group from Pittsburgh, ever produced. It’s unfettered romantic tones – sung by one of the most underrated vocalists of the 50’s, Jimmy Beaumont, makes “This I Swear” one of those singles that you listen to over and over again. As Karen Carpenter once sang, “Every sha-la-la-la/Every wo-o-wo-o, still shines/Every shing-a-ling-a-ling/that they’re startin’ to sing’s, so fine.”
“Last Soldier,” Pearl Jam, 2001. Memorial Day is the day we remember our fallen soldiers—the ones who bravely and selflessly lost their lives in service to their country. Here is a phenomenal Pearl Jam number, which honors such heroes reverently. We can never thank them enough.
“Veronica,” Elvis Costello, 1989. The best song on dementia that’s ever been produced in the rock era, Elvis and his lustrous band, The Attractions, reverently pays dutiful homage to all of those who are still here but have left us to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Sadly, while we have made enormous progress on a host of fronts medically since 1989, dementia is still on ongoing heartbreak. “Well, she used to have a carefree mind of her own/And a delicate look in her eye/These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure/If her name is Veronica.”
“I Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night, Doris Day, Vocals – with Les Brown and his Band of Renown, 1946. While people are rightfully recalling Doris Day’s luminous work in the 1950s and ’60s as a result of her passing, her underrated work in the ’40s as a fledgling singer for Les Brown and his orchestra was simply outstanding. In this Greatest Generation classic, twenty-three-year-old Doris Day sings the most effervescent version possible from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. This is is like early summer sunshine – it will chase any dark cloud away. RIP, Doris – and thank you.
“Baby, I’m for Real,” The Originals, 1969. We took soul music like this for granted 50 years ago when gems like this were released, but these days, we know better. We now realize that such magic is not commonplace but absolutely unique. The Originals, often called “Motown’s best-kept secret,” recorded two albums and several singles but only this and “The Bells” made to the Billboard Top 10. Of course, the group was produced by the legendary Marvin Gaye and featured original songs by Smokey Robinson and the iconic Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland, including, “Baby, I’m for Real.” While it was largely ignored when it was released, it has become a staple on Sirius Radio’s Soul Town station.
“Pistachio,” Lisa Hannigan, 2009. The vastly underrated Irish singer, songwriter, and performer came out with her first solo album ten years ago this May, and “Pistachio” was one of the feature numbers and was later included in the Fargo TV series. Lilting, searing, and ethereal, Lisa’s songs are the kind that still lingers well into the night. This is a ballad from a world filled with both magic and wonder. Not a bad place to be.
“Cruisin’,” Smokey Robinson, 1979. One of Smokey’s later hits that turned out to be as smooth as a baby blanket, this was a later significant hit for the great singer-songwriter extraordinaire. Bob Dylan once pronounced him, “America’s greatest living poet.” When Smokey wrote the song, his guitarist, Marv Tarplin, had already written the music years previously. As Robinson said years later: “Marv put it on cassette and gave it to me to write the lyric. As it turned out, it took me five years to write. I had the music, and that music is so intimate and sensual, but I couldn’t get the words. Then one day I got: ‘You’re gonna fly away and I’m glad you’re coming my way.’ And then I was driving my car down Sunset Boulevard and I heard that song by the Rascals, ‘Groovin,’ and I thought, ‘That’s it! Grooving.’ But then, no, it wasn’t intimate enough, it wasn’t sensual enough for the music, and that’s when I thought of ‘cruisin.’ You’d be surprised by how many people speculate on what Cruisin’ means, ‘Cruisin” is a word that I leave up to the listener. When you’re with the person you’re with, and you feel you’re cruisin’, it’s whatever you want it to be.” As a singer, Smokey Robinson could evoke joy, sadness and their bittersweet combination with his velvety high tenor. In the end, you can’t beat this sound or that voice.
“Love Can Make You Happy,” Mercy, 1969. 50 years ago this May, Mercy’s “Love Can Make You Happy” entered the Billboards Top 10 where it remained through the rest of the spring. This anthem to love has long been cherished by those who remember hearing it as children and teenagers for obvious reasons. Like “Get Together” and “Precious and Few”, “Love Can Make You Happy” was all about peace and understanding. However, because of problems related to copyright laws and conflicting lawsuits, the ballad has never been a major staple on oldies’ stations. In an uncertain and precarious time, this pop classic reminded us that love was always, always the answer.
“Reunited,” Peaches and Herb, 1979. While soul music has a back shelf life by 1979, ballads such as this paved the way for a revival by such newcomers as Anita Baker and Luther Vandross. That the rock and soul veterans, Peaches and Herb (as in “Love is Strange”), would have a number one hit with this song 40 years ago this week after having not been in the Top 40 for a decade proved to be the proverbial icing on the cake. Musicians on this song included Bob “Boogie” Bowles and Melvin “Wah Wah” Ragin on guitar, Scott Edwards on bass, and James Gadson on drums. These were some of the top studio musicians of the era, and as Edwards said later on: “Most of the hits were stuff that we came up with ourselves. We’d have a basic chord chart, because at the time the people who were arranging had good ideas for the strings and horns. But as far as the rhythm section, most people, if they were smart, they left the rhythm section alone. That’s what happened with ‘Reunited’.”
“See Me, Feel Me,” The Who, 1969. In retrospect, this culminating closing track from the musical, Tommy, released five decades ago this year, might very well sum up the magic and feeling of the 1960s better than any other song out there. The ultimate adrenaline rush, the Who’s performance of this at Woodstock turned out to be a revelation. When I once played it for my class, one of the students blurted out, “Is this for real?” She could not believe that the bookends of passion and innocence could be so profound. A time it was…and what a time it was.
“(A Fool) Such As I,” Elvis Presley, 1959. 60 years ago this spring, “The King” returned from Germany on leave from the Army for two weeks and hardly skipped a beat, singing this Leiber and Stoller classic at RCA’s famed Studio B in Nashville in just four takes. Initially released as the B-side to “I Need Your Love Tonight,” “A Fool Such as I” turned out to be an even bigger hit, reaching number one in the UK and number two in the United States, where it went platinum. “(A Fool) Such as I” featured the luminous guitar work of Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins, and Presley, percussionist D. J. Fontana rum-tum-drum work, brilliant keyboarding by the great Floyd Cramer, and the ever-loyal Jordanaires singing the backup musical accompaniment. When Elvis was on top of his game, there was no one better.
“I Won’t Back Down,” Tom Petty, 1989. Recorded 30 years ago this week, “I Won’t Back Down,” turned out to be the first of three top ten singles released from Petty’s biggest-selling album, Full Moon Fever, a brilliant solo album that the Heartbreakers provided the musical backdrop (except for longtime drummer Stan Lynch). Apart from this densely layered Jeff Lynne production, it all felt like a Heartbreakers record, especially on the first single, which finds Petty in a particularly defiant mood. The backstory is especially disturbing: Before recording Full Moon Fever, an arsonist burned down Tom Petty’s house while he was in it with his family and their housekeeper. They escaped and spent much of the next few months driving between hotel rooms and a rented house, but Petty was severely shaken. It was on these drives that he came up with many of the songs for the album, and the fire was a huge influence, especially on this song. Petty felt grateful to be alive but also traumatized – understandable since someone had tried to kill him. Like all great music, it still rings true after all of these years.
“King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” The Band, 1969. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” The Band, 1969. The Band faced a lot of pressure to top 1968’s Music From Big Pink, but just a year later, they released another seamless disc, unambiguously named The Band. This masterwork, which is now a half-century old, concludes with “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” the poignant lament of a farmer facing a nightmare of a year. “It was the harvest time of year when Woodstock was very impressive,” said Robbie Robertson in a Rolling Stone interview years later. “Everything turned red and orange, and it just made you realize that this was the culmination of the year for so many people. That’s when it all came down, whether the year worked or not. Ultimately, when The Band goes timeless, they turn into accomplished novelists.
“That’s Why I Love You So,” Jackie Wilson, 1959. Released 60 years ago this week, this rock-soul classic, written by a then unknown Berry Gordy and performed by the great Jackie Wilson, eventually went to number 2 on the Billboard charts later on that spring. Like so many of Jackie’s soul-rock numbers, it’s impossible not to dance when a song such as “That’s Why I Love You So” is played (preferably on a jukebox).
“It’s Your Thing,” The Isley Brothers, 1969. After nine years of recording for Berry Gordy at Motown Records, the Isleys fled the record label in early 1969 and revived their own T-Neck Records, where they unleashed the free-will funk of “It’s Your Thing.” Their biggest hit, it earned a lawsuit from Gordy, who claimed he owned the song. It came out in court that it was all about hurt feelings. Ronald Isley, who wrote most of the song, liked the double-meaning of these lines, which made the song risqué and radio-friendly at the same time. In a year of great soul music, this single, which topped the charts 50 years ago this month, might very well be at the top.
“Tragedy,” Thomas Wayne and the Delons, 1959. Written by Elvis’s lead guitarist, Scotty Moore, “Tragedy” was a hit for Thomas Wayne and the Delons, when it reached number 9 in the Billboard Top 40 sixty years ago this week. Two years later, the more popular Fleetwoods would take the tune to number one on the charts. In the end, one of the many reasons that I still love “the old songs” is that they were framed in soulful innocence. Scotty Moore later claimed that the residuals from the song enabled him to pay for his kids’ college educations. “Working for Elvis built our house. Writing ‘Tragedy’ provided my kids with a future.” We should all be that lucky – and that talented.
“Body and Soul,” Coleman Hawkins, 1939. The number one song in the US 80 years ago this spring, no one ever recorded a better version of this revered standard than the venerable jazz legend. After one listen of this, it’s evident where the Bird got his style, tone, and phrasing from – the indomitable Mr. Hawkins. My music professor in college, Dr. Bill Davis, once claimed that Hawkins’ version of “Body and Soul marked the first time jazz players actually played the scales in the chord changes. While the public adored him, Coleman Hawkins is even more revered by jazz musicians around the globe as a Founding Father.
“Little Queenie,” Chuck Berry and Keith Richards Live in London, 1979. With a guitar intro that amplifies, “Johnny B. Goode”,” Chuck’s “Little Queenie” – released 60 years ago this April as single by the legendary Leonard Chess of Chess Records – shows how deftly Berry could make a variation on the theme, since he sings the second verse (“Meanwhile, I was thinkin’/If she’s in the mood no need to break it”) with a brand-new swagger. In his autobiography, Chuck wrote that the song was a fair depiction of how he was as a teenager. “That was typical of me in high school, to stand around thinking instead of acting during occasions when I’d have the opportunity to get next to a girl by dancing,” he wrote. “It’s just like me even today to wait around until it’s too late to latch on to the chance to meet a person I favor.” It went on to become one of the Chuckster’s most covered songs – everyone from the Beatles and Stones to Bruce Springsteen and the Velvet Underground – took a stab at it. In this incredible live version, Berry is backed by Keith Richards of the Stones, who play reverently behind him. I am incredibly thankful that I saw the Chuck perform this twice in person – at the old Boston Garden and the Cape Cod Coliseum. Hail, hail rock ‘n roll!
“More Today Than Yesterday,” The Spiral Starecase, 1969. The proverbial one-hit wonders, Sacramento, California’s Spiral Staircase released one album and a couple more singles before poor management and squabbles over finances caused the group to splinter by 1969. Still, 50 years ago this week, this classic single made it to number 12 on the Billboard Top 40. A few years later, it became a “go-to” single that I played regularly at my Saturday night oldies’ dances in college. Featuring singer/guitarist Pat Upton on vocals and a Buckinghams-like horn section lead by saxophonist Dick Lopes, “More Today Than Yesterday” is still a staple on the Sirius 60’s station a half-century later.
“Rollin’ Rock,” The Tielman Brothers, 1960. Imagine how quickly American rock ‘n roll shaped the sound to young people around the world. Here, the Tielman Brothers, the first Dutch East Indies band to successfully venture into the international music scene in the 1950s, performs their classic on live television – and those who have seen it have never been the same. Obviously, they were one of the pioneers of rock in The Netherlands, later becoming famous in Europe for playing a kind of rock and roll later called Indorock, a fusion of Indonesian and Western music. If this jaw-dropping live performance could be properly placed in the Rock Bible, then it would be firmly ensconced in the Book of Genesis. Not surprisingly, when I showed it to one of my English classes recently, their collective jaws literally dropped to the floor.
“The Hammond Song,” The Roches, 1979. Produced by Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame, this impeccable single, which was released 40 years ago today, sounds like a ballad sung at a campfire in New Hampshire back in the early ‘60’s and sung by a group of talented counselors to a cabin full of girls. In my mind, “The Hammond Song” is perhaps the most inimitable ballad recorded over the past four decades. Even the Roches didn’t dare do a follow-up to it. To add to the luster, Robert Fripp’s electric fillers fit both the time and the style of this decidedly unique recording. How truly sad that Maggie Roche, who composed the tune, died much too young of cancer two years ago. In every way, this is a must-listen.
“Peel Me a Grape,” Diana Krall, 1999. Canada’s First Lady of Jazz takes on Anita O’Day’s veritable standard and breathes such rarefied air into it that it ends up taking us all into the outer atmosphere. Sultry, steamy, and oh so sublime. The Berklee School of Music graduate is the only jazz singer to have eight albums debuting at the top of the Billboard Jazz Albums in history. That Diana Krall is also happily married with twin boys to the great Elvis Costello only seals the deal for me.
“London Calling,” The Clash, 1979. Named after the call signal of the BBC’s World Service broadcasts, the title alarm of The Clash’s third album was an SOS from the heart of darkness. When they recorded the song, The Clash — British punk’s most political and uncompromising band — were without management and sinking in debt. Their plight mirrored their country at the time, especially among a generation, which seemed to feel as they had little future. What the band ended up producing was the equivalent of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses became an anthem to a generation both in England and across the globe. Released 40 years ago this month, the single, “London Calling,” still sounds as desperate, kinetic, and fresh as it did in ‘79.
“Heat Wave,” Ella Fitzgerald, 1959. From her legendary Verve Record release, The Irving Berlin Songbook, Lady Ella adds a sense of class and pizzazz to this old Berlin standard first recorded by Bing Crosby while claiming it as her own. Conducted and arranged by Paul Weston (who wrote “Day By Day”), the disc ended up being nominated as the Album of the Years at the 1959 Grammy’s. This is another example of Ella working as hard as she could to make a song sound effortless to sing. You can listen to it in the dead of winter and think that its a hot August day. As Frank Sinatra once said, “Ella never made a cover song. She literally reinvented it and breathed new life into whatever she was recording at the time.” As usual, Old Blue Eyes has bingo.
“Atlantis,” Donovan, 1969. Released 50 years ago this April, any comment to this Donovan single would not do it any justice. It is meant to be taken in like a tidal wave or a sudden ray of sun hidden long hidden behind a cloud. Indeed, when one of my friends called Donovan, “downright weird,” I responded by saying, “Yes, and that’s his point!” After all, any songwriter who gives birth to a song entitled, “First There is a Mountain, Then There is No Mountain, Then There Is,” is going to be decidedly peculiar. In terms of “Atlantis,” the rumor has long been that Paul McCartney sang one of the backups here, and he’s never denied it (which Sir Paul tends to do when you get the facts wrong). Ultimately, “Atlantis”is so beyond parody that it creeps into the terrain of magnificence.
“Here Comes the Moon,” George Harrison, 1979. The most delicious nugget from George Harrison’s vastly underrated self-titled album released 40 years ago this spring, “Here Comes the Moon” evokes an elongated Hawaiian night during “waipuna manawa.” A photo from the tune’s bedroom writing session sums it all up: George, shirtless with his acoustic guitar firmly in his long-fingered hands, and friend Stevie Nicks, pigtailed and pensive, composing lyrics to George’s lullaby-like melody. According to Harrison, they stayed up all night to compose a “little prayer for a God-given little brother to the Sun.” A decade previously, he composed, “Here Comes the Sun.” after an all-nighter with buddy Eric Clapton in England, and now here he was exactly ten years later, doing the same thing with Stevie Nicks in far-off Hawaii. In both cases, the art and the moment sparked like a thousand suns.
“Mannish Boy,” Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter Live, 1979. There are a myriad of versions of Muddy playing his iconic ballad on his own, or supported by such alpha-stars as Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, B. B. King, The Band, Keith Richards, Son House, and Jeff Beck, but there is nothing comparable to this live recording with the great Johnny Winter and his band recorded 40 years ago this month. It encapsulates the blues, Americana, and life itself in six glorious minutes. On a personal note, I played this opening number and the entire live album incessantly during a ten-week summer teaching experience in Lugano, Switzerland in 1983. Amidst the glory of the foothills to the Alps, it reminded this expatriate at the time of the best of the country I was born and raised in. Don’t let any political party or individual tell you that this country is homogeneous. We are a mosaic, and each part has the potential to bringing out the best in others if we just tuned in.
“When I Die,” Motherlode, 1969. Motherlode was a Canadian pop-rock group formed in 1969 in London, Ontario. The group scored tangible success in the US with their single, “When I Die.” While it is somewhat of a Lost 45 in the States these days, it is still a revered standard in Canada, thank goodness. You could easily place it on a songlist of infectious, harmonic love songs that framed the 1960s musical world. One of my old friends once thought that it was a song that came from the musical, Hair. Not a bad bit of speculation. “When I Die” would have fit in neatly near the end of the second act.
“Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Bruce Cockburn, 1979. 40 years ago this month, when I first heard this single from Bruce Cockburn played on WBCN/Boston by Mark Parenteau, I nearly drove off of Route 9. I still can’t figure out why, but it touched me to my core. Like James Taylor’s “Copperline,” there was something here as outlined by the Ottawa native that touched the hemline of both childhood and eternity. Its innocence cannot be underestimated. Ultimately, we are all children hiding in adult bodies.
“Both Sides Now,” Joni Mitchell, 1969. When musicologists look back on 1969, it will be this surreal ballad that might find its way on top of the musical pyramid in the end. While her lyrics here have been called the soundtrack of an entire generation, let’s go behind the usual and go to the more unexpected pleasures – Joni’s unusual phrasing. Anyway you look at it, “Both Sides Now” is a devilishly hard song to cover because her vocal so often seems as if it’s ‘out of time’ with the guitar; with words coming late on the beat, or hanging on too long, But then she lands on the sweet spot, and it all makes beautiful sense, exactly how Joni intends you to understand the subtlety of the lyric. It’s not just about the words, sublime as they are, it’s about how she SINGS the words here. In an entirely different genre, Sinatra had the same rare gift. If and when Joni Mitchell wins a Nobel Prize for Literature, “Both Sides Now” will be one of her siren songs that will be played in celebration that day in Oslo.
“Venus,” Frankie Avalon, 1959. I don’t care if you call this ballad a schleppy, bobbysoxing, Eisenhower-era bag of smaltz, I will defend it to the day I die. The number one tune in the US 60 years ago this week, “Venus” is still considered a prototypical early rock song. “I still remember it so vividly,” Frankie Avalon told The Toronto Star in 2013. “I’ll never forget it. The minute I heard ‘Venus,’ I fell in love with it, and we decided to go to New York right away to record it. I sat in the back seat of the car with Bob, rehearsing the arrangement he had done on the guitar. We walked into Bell Sound in New York. We had a 7 PM recording date. It was all one track then, the band was there with you, and they played, and you sang, and that was it, buddy. No mixing and fixing like today. Back then, they pressed the acetate recording right away. I waited for it to be done until 4:00 AM. I took it back to Philly with me like it was gold. I had a little victrola, and I played it over and over again. I just knew it was going to be a smash.”It was.
“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone, 1969. Goodness, what a song, and while Sly has been somewhat marginalized lately, he will always be an authentic American Master to me. This late ‘60’s anthem takes some inspiration from, of all things, Mother Goose, adding a twist to the traditional nursery rhyme “Rub-a-dub-dub.” The familiar three men in a tub – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker – become the butcher, the banker, the drummer, and, in the spirit of the song’s message of solidarity among all people, Stone adds: “makes no difference what group I’m in.” In a modern world where exceptionalism is rampant, I always loved that Sly viewed himself as just one of us- a regular person with real-life struggles. Given his multi-ethnic band, Sly didn’t just talk it, he lived it and really did try to bring all of us together through the most universal of venues – music.
“Kathy’s Song,” Eva Cassidy, 1993. On St. Patrick’s Day, why not post a rare recording of one of the great Irish-American voices in the past 100 years, the incomparable Eva Cassidy. It is easy to tell that she just loved to sing. I love that Cassidy performed as if she had nothing to prove, no statement to make, and never an attempt to show you “what I can do.” On this version of “Kathy’s Song,” Eva’s impeccable prowess on the acoustic guitar serves as a backdrop for her soaring vocals of this melancholic Paul Simon tune, an ode to his old girlfriend, Kathy Chitty, whom he had left behind in England.
“The Sultans of Swing,” Dire Straits, 1979. There are a few occasions when I hear a song for the first time and say, “Oh, my God!” “The Sultans of Swing” was one such ballad. At the time, I thought that Lou Reed and Bob Dylan had somehow morphed into one human being in the form of Mark Knopfler. In reality, I was not too far off there – at least for a spell. Interestingly, Knopfler got the idea for the single from watching a wretched club band perform one dreary evening in Ipswich, England. According to legend, he ducked into a bar where the local bar band was closing out the night to an audience that was maybe four or five drunks unaware of their surroundings. The hapless group ended their set with the lead singer announcing, with no apparent irony, “Goodnight and thank you. We are the sultans of swing!” Said Knopfler: “When the guys said that there was something really funny about it to me because Sultans – they absolutely weren’t. You know they were rather tired little blokes in pullovers.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Time of the Season,” The Zombies, 1969. This is quintessential Zombies – haunting vocals; impeccable musicianship; melodic hooks; and surprising lyrical twists. Built around the bassline heard in the intro, this song has some very effective and unusual structural components that helped it endure. The bass riff is punctuated with a hand clap and the breathy “ahhhh” vocal. These elements add sonic texture during the verses, and also show up in the two interludes. And while most hit tunes beat you into submission with a prevailing chorus, this one doesn’t. The full chorus – “It’s the time of the season for loving…” takes just eight seconds and is repeated three times. The number 3 song in the US fifty years ago this week, I wish I could somehow venture back in a time machine and personally convince the Zombies not to break up after this single was released. After all, they were just getting started.
“Come Softly to Me,” The Fleetwoods, 1959. Fleetwood members Gary Troxel and Gretchen Christopher were waiting for a lift home from high school in Olympia, Washington by her mother one day in the spring of 1958. Impulsively, Troxel started humming, “Dom dom, dom domby doo wha…” and Gretchen noticed that it was the same chord progression that she used in a song that she had just finished writing, “Come Softly.” She asked him to slow his tempo, then sang her song atop Troxel’s humming. Its nursery-rhyme-like veneer was downright hypnotic, and the melodies oh, so soothing. It took the fledgling group six months to ultimately record it, but it was well worth it. By the winter of 1959, it was the number one song in the US and Canada. “Come Softly to Me” still works its magical charm on most listeners all these years later.
“Lotta Love,” Nicolette Larson, 1979. Cancer is a bitch, and Nicolette Larson should still be here manufacturing great singles such as this gem, which was released 40 years ago this March. That she has been dead for over 21 years now is simply unacceptable. This live version of the Neil Young classic from Comes a Time is superb in every way. Yes, Young and Larson were a couple briefly while this song was both composed and then recorded. Her stellar work on Neil’s Comes a Time garnered her a recording contract with Warner Brothers, and while she never had another significant solo hit after “Lotta Love,” she was still a revered artist in the genre because of her prodigious pipes.
“Try a Little Tenderness,” Three Dog Night, Live, 1969. Most bands realized that they wouldn’t dare do a cover of the great Otis Redding’s 1965 signature song. Four years later, however, Cory Wells, the lead singer of Three Dog Night, finally mustered the gumption to take one of soul music’s most iconic ballads straight-on. The band also had the gall to sound like the Funk Brothers on speed and support Wells’ singing as if their lives depended upon it. This electric cover not only became a staple for Three Dog Night in their concerts over the next decade, but they then released it as a single 50 years ago, where it entered the Billboard Top 40. As the great Sam Moore – of Sam and Dave fame – commented at the time, “Otis would not only have approved their interpretation, he would have dug it.”
“Blue in Green,” Miles Davis, 1959. From his masterpiece, Kind of Blue, “Blue in Green” was recorded on March 2nd, 1959, in New York City at The Church, the legendary CBS Recording Studio on 30th Street. Wild Bill Evans, who starts the tune on the piano and ends it, and with Miles and John Coltrane and the bass up under it, played this circular movement inside of arrangement. Miles’ tone throughout is both classical and rhapsodic through the mute he has on his horn. Miles said later that the aching loneliness throughout the song tries to capture the back road of his childhood in the rural South, a dusty, dusky place in Arkansas when Miles and his cousins walked in the darkness of a woody area. All of those memories that he had inside of him surfaced like a spring bulb in “Blue in Green.”
“Hello, It’s Me,” Nazz, 1969. This heartfelt single, released in mid-December 1968, had become a popular single by February of ’69, where it had grooved itself into the consciousness of the American youth psyche. Todd Rundgren’s vocals and guitar work were impeccable; his supporting cast also rose to the occasion. Of course, Todd also composed the song, which takes us through a phone call where the singer breaks up with a girl. It’s a remarkably realistic account, devoid of sweeping metaphors typically found in “breakup songs.” In this instance, we hear the one side of the phone call, which starts with the familiar greeting, indicating they’ve been together a while. Then they have “the talk,” where he hashes out why they can’t be together and lets her know that she should have her freedom. As what has happened to us all in real life, all he can ask in the end is that she thinks of him every now and then. Like many at the time, I thought that “Hello, It’s Me” was a single by the Association. When Rundgren was apprised of this by fans, later on, he took it as the ultimate compliment.
“Scar Tissue,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1999. Released 20 years ago this February, “Scar Tissue” was the first single released by the then newly formed Red Hot Chili Peppers. From its impeccable guitar work to its infectious rhythm section to the hypnotic lyrics, this number proved to be an exemplary introduction by a most important band of the present millennium. The video of the single shows the band driving through a desert and was directed by French director Stephane Sednaoui. As you will see, the band’s members are all battered and bruised and the neck of John Frusciante’s guitar is broken, a metaphor for the song itself.
“What a Fool Believes,” The Doobie Brothers, 1979. Kenny Loggins co-wrote this with the Doobies’ lead singer Michael McDonald in the winter of 1978. Loggins eventually put his version on his album, Nightwatch, which was released in July 1978, five months before they included it on their Minute by Minute disk. Loggins’ version was never released as a single; the Doobies’ version went to number one. By the way, Michael Jackson added some background vocals on this song. Ultimately, this was the 500th number one song of the rock era, which began in 1955 when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” soared to the top of the charts 24 years previously. From the first day I heard these lyrics – “He came from somewhere back in her long ago; the sentimental fool don’t see tryin’ hard to recreate; what had yet to be created once in her life; she musters a smile for his nostalgic tale; never comin’ near what he wanted to say; only to realize it never really was” – I nearly plotzed.
“Reflections of My Life,” The Marmalade, 1969. A top-five song 50 years ago this month, this Beatlesque number with John Lennon-like lyrics (“the changing of sunlight to moonlight; reflections of my life…”); a McCartney-like melody from his Revolver period; and a Harrison guitar riff, which sounded right out of Abbey Road. Even the drums sound like Ringo! All in all, “Reflections of My Life” proved to be the highpoint for the group from Glasgow who never had another substantial hit thereafter. Given how good this single was, maybe that was enough. One thing’s for sure – you hardly ever hear a song like this nowadays – and that’s a bloody shame. (RIP to lead singer, Dean Ford, who died on January 2, 2019, in Los Angeles at the age of 72).
“Hold the Line,” Toto, 1979. Raise your hand if you thought that this song was written and recorded by ELO? I thought so for weeks when it was released until I heard that Toto recorded it. Given their prowess in songs such as “Africa,” and “Rosanna,” this great single was also top ten hit for the band from Southern California 40 years ago this February. From this lens, Toto was made up of six enormously talented musicians who had backed up such legends as Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Jackson Browne in the 1970s, but it was their vocal work that came to define them as a band in the subsequent decade.
“Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin, 1969. American balladeer Jake Holmes may not have gotten credit for inspiring Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” until 2012 when it all spilled out, but without his original trippy folk song, this Zeppelin mega-hit would not have existed. Holmes wrote a very different version of this song for his 1967 solo record, The Above Ground Sound. Jimmy Page heard it while Holmes opened for The Yardbirds and then later took his psychedelic interpretation to Led Zeppelin, which featured his iconic guitar bowing and wild instrumental breakdowns. In doing so, Page and his band refitted it and made it brand new. These days, of course, “Dazed and Confused” is a deserved rock staple.
“Take Me To The River,” Talking Heads, 1979. Apart from this being a brilliant piece of music, “Take Me to the River” is one of the most wonderfully inventive interpretations of an original song, up there with Devo’s version of The Stone’s “Satisfaction” and Nazareth’s cover of “This Flight Tonight” by Joni Mitchell. Like many Talking Head songs, it is the rhythm section that makes this song a much-deserved classic. In every way, this version is both timely and timeless.
Occasionally, there is a documentary that is released that is so powerful and compelling, that it needs to be shouted out to the musical market square in the “must-see” category. This is the case here. The great Sam Cooke was already in the highest reaches of rock and soul stardom when he was tragically shot 55 years ago this December. In 1964 – and to this day -Cooke’s senseless murder at the height of his career was both haunting and inexplicable. This film captures the pathos magnificently. Sam was getting too powerful; he was friends with Dr. King, Ali, and Malcolm X; he had started his own record company, which had been formed to exclusively record young black artists; he was starting to write and record “songs that mattered,” most especially, “A Change is Going to Come.” When he died, Elvis, who idolized Cooke as a gospel singer and who subsequently mourned his death, said that the powers that be thought that Sam was getting too big and powerful, and, as a black man, he had to be somehow stopped. Of course, Sam Cooke is still deservedly known as “The Father of Soul Music,” and was also the best male gospel singer of all time. As you will see if you take the time to view this astonishing film, his influence was moving way behind hit records all the way to the mantle of black power. For more than 50 years, I have loved Sam Cooke’s music. How rare that the brilliance of his artistry matched the magnificence of his soul. in the end, this incredibly evocative documentary attempts to connect all of the dots and brings up surprising new evidence. If you have Netflix, then you can search for “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.”
“Nothing But a Heartache,” The Flirtations, 1969. Even though “Nothing But a Heartache” made it to only number 34 in the Billboard Top 40 fifty years ago this February, its popularity as an oldie has made it one of the more popular singles from the 1960’s era. Formerly known as the Gypsies, a girl-group from South Carolina, they reformed in London and became known as the Flirtations after that. Impeccably produced by British musical mogul, Wayne Bickerton, this earth-shattering single later became a staple at dance clubs in both Europe and the US. Hearing it these days, most assume the Supremes performed it. Sorry, folks, it’s the Flirtations!
“She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” The Diamonds, 1959. Ultimately, I have never outgrown doo-wop music; it is as enchanting to me now as it was when I first heard this exquisite single as a four-year-old back in the winter of ‘59. This number turned out to be Barry Mann’s first top ten single for the Brill Building musical phenom. According to the singer-songwriter himself, an even younger Carole King – then known as Carol Klein – helped Mann compose the bridge. Thankfully, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” was then given to one of the greatest doo-wop groups in history, the Diamonds, who made it into a Top 20 hit sixty years ago this winter.
“A Tribute to Buddy Holly,” Mike Berry and the Outlaws, 1961. When 22-year-old Buddy Holly perished in the crash of a private plane outside of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959, more than 40 tribute songs to him were recorded over the years, including Don Mclean’s “American Pie.” Two years after Holly died, Mike Berry, a fledgling skiffle player from Northampton, England, wrote and recorded this poignant tribute, which remains the best song to Holly’s memory. According to Berry, the bridge refrain he croons… “was channeled right from Buddy. It almost sounds corny, but it came to me in a dream.” (Kudos to drummer Carl Betz for mirroring Jerry Allison by duplicating the “Peggy Sue” tat-at-tat-tat percussion). I agree with the late George Harrison: “A Tribute to Buddy Holly” captures the essence of his music, his death, and his legacy. Of course, Buddy Holly lives on in his music as this singe emphatically implies.
“Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell, 1969. An absolutely seamless production from composer Jimmy Webb, vocalist and guitarist Glen Campbell, and LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew, who provided the brilliant orchestration – especially the string section – which were arranged by the incomparable Quincy Jones. Because of the neo-mystic quality of the number, it was not a surprise that it ended up being the best-selling single released during the winter of 1969. Given the somewhat quirky subject, the backstory of “Wichita Lineman” is just as absorbing. According to Jimmy Webb, he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma border during the summer of 1968 when he saw a lonesome telephone lineman working atop a telephone pole. This incident gave him the idea for the ballad. That evening, he composed it in a hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then called his buddy, Glen Campbell, “Glen,” exclaimed Webb, “I’ve got your next number one song!” Finally, “Wichita Lineman” contains one of my favorite lines in the entire rock and roll canon – “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time…” As a lyricist, you dream or writing a line so prescient.
“Moonlight Serenade,” Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, 1939. This dreamy ballad was Glenn Miller’s breakout hit, but it was actually years in the making. Miller wrote the melody in 1935 when he was a trombone player in Ray Noble’s band. When he finally assembled his band, Glenn and his orchestra famously recorded it. “Moonlight Serenade” made it to number 1 on the US Billboard charts 80 years ago this January, and it stayed there until mid-spring. (This, of course, comes on the heels on the news that Glenn Miller’s long-lost plane might well have been discovered off the English coast.) In late November 2005, as my mother lay dying, I played “some of the old songs” for her in her hospital room. When this familiar tune came on, she said, almost by association, “Before the war…the Outer Beach in Chatham….visits to the Totem Pole at Norumbega Park in Auburndale with your Dad…when life seemed both simple and good.” Yup, you’re right, Mum.
“Yeah, Man,” Sam Cooke, 1964. In the last year of his life, the King of Soul fearlessly experimented with soulful R&B and rock, a heady mix that wouldn’t clearly emerge until a decade later with the Tower of Power. Here is one of the last records he recorded, “Yeah, Man,” which Arthur Conley later used in 1967 as the template for “Sweet Soul Music.” All of Cooke’s “regulars” backed him here, including his soundman, Sonny Bono, and producer Lou Adler, along with the incomparable Wrecking Crew. Sam Cooke was not only a brilliant singer and songwriter but an authentic visionary as well. On what would be his 89th birthday, Sam is still The Man.
“You Should Have Been There,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1989. One of my favorite Marshall Crenshaw singles ever, sadly, “You Should Have Been There” turned out to be a little blip on the musical screen when it was released 30 years ago this winter. I always believed that if Crenshaw had released his singles in the 1960s, he would have been a gigantic star, but timing in life is everything, isn’t it? With his Beatlesque sensibility and his passion for coy lyrics and deft musicianship, ala Buddy Holly, no wonder he is a revered musician among pop veterans. I do think that Crenshaw, who played Holly in the movie, La Bamba, and who played John Lennon on Broadway in Beatlemania, produced the kind of music that Holly might well have generated if he had not died so young.
“Love is Strange,” Buddy Holly, 1959. Originally recorded on Holly’s brand-new Ampex tape recorder in his Greenwich Village apartment 60 years ago on January 19, 1959, Buddy’s longtime producer, Norman Petty, later added the orchestration supporting his acoustic guitar after he died in a tragic plane crash on February 3, 1959. Of course, “Love is Strange” was a crossover hit by American rhythm and blues duet Mickey & Sylvia, which was released in late November 1956 by the Groove record label. The tune was based on a guitar riff by the legendary Bo Diddley, which Holly duplicated here. Sadly, it was the last song that Buddy ever recorded, which is why Norman Petty reverently included the eerie organ background, performed by his musician wife, Vi. Holly’s mother, Ella, later said that it sounded as if her son was singing to her from heaven. If you haven’t ever heard this incredible record, you will notice that Buddy plays the song at 2/4 time, a radical departure from the original rockabilly tune that Diddley had originally written it in a few years previously. When Paul McCartney hosted a Sirius show on Holly’s memory a few years ago, he played “Love is Strange,” and remarked, “It’s almost as if Buddy knew something was going to happen.”
“Someday,” Sugar Ray, 1999. When I first heard “Someday,” it sounded like a 1960s AM single; melodic; wistful lyrics, crisp phrasing; and sound musicianship. I later learned that the band, Sugar Ray, who hailed from Newport Beach, California, intentionally copied the ethos the 1960s Californian Pop Sound, so it all made sense then. Released 20 years ago this year, “Someday” is one of those songs” that instantaneously brings a smile to my face. Perhaps it’s because that my two sons asked me to turn up the radio when it came on one morning when we were driving off to another hockey game that they would then play at the outdoor Greenwich, Connecticut Skating Rink! In retrospect. I would give anything to go back to those fleeting times. Ultimately, of course, music is the enduring window to the past.
“Touch Me,” The Doors, 1969. From their underrated album, The Soft Parade, this unique single was composed by Robby Krieger, and its riff, according to Krieger, was influenced by, of all things, The Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne!” The tune became notable for its extensive usage of brass and string instruments to accent Jim Morrison’s vocals, including three measures of the lead singer’s crooning like Sinatra, and a powerful solo by saxophonist Curtis Amy, who put a bow on the entire proceedings. Ultimately, “Touch Me” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 in the Cashbox Top 100 in January 1969 (the band’s third American number-one release). Here in this incredible live TV performance in 1969, Jim Morrison starts with the proceedings with a visionary poem, and then plays it straight, much to the relief of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, who backed up the Doors on this Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour appearance. For real.
“Lonely Teardrops,” Jackie Wilson, 1959. After listening to this mesmerizing original recording, Elvis Presley supposedly said to Wilson: “I have no idea why they call me, ‘The King.’ You are.” (Years later, this anecdote became the basis of Van Morrison’s iconic rocker, “Jackie Wilson Said.”). Sixty years ago today, this early soul classic was the number 1 song in America. “Lonely Teardrops,” which was written and produced by a young Berry Gordy, was used as the proceeds to launch Motown Records as a corporate entity in 1960. In September 1975, when Jackie Wilson was performing at the Latin Casino in New Jersey, he collapsed from a combined heart attack and stroke smack dab in the middle of a rendition of “Lonely Teardrops.” Wilson never recovered and remained in a coma for eight more years until his death on January 21, 1984. What tragic irony that the last words Jackie sang before collapsing were, “My heart is crying, crying!” The audience at first thought that his fall on stage was part of the act and they started to wildly cheer him. Soon, however, It became evident that something was terribly wrong. Upon his death, Stevie Wonder said famously, “Before there was Marvin Gaye, there was Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.”
30 years after Jackie came out with “Lonely Teardrops,” actor/musician Howard Huntsberry paid homage to the essence of Jackie Wilson in his brilliant portrayal of him in the Ritchie Valens’ biopic, La Bamba. This is simply mesmerizing!
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,” Pink Floyd, 1979. A few years ago, the song’s lyricist, Roger Waters, admitted in an interview in The London Times, “You couldn’t find anybody on the planet more pro-education than me. It is the air I breathe. But the education I experienced in an English boys’ grammar school in the 1950s was exceedingly controlling – and, in my mind, that demanded rebellion. The song is meant to be a rebellion against an errant government, against people who have power over you, who are wrong. Ten it absolutely demands that you rebel against it.” As an educator for nearly four decades, I have never thought that “The Wall” was never about education or bad teachers. It was always about authority and mind control in a world dominated by an explosion of jingoistic language, thoughtlessness, and collective sociopathy. If “The Wall” were to be updated in 2019, its laser beam might well be on Fox News.
“Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake, 1969. The archetypal musical cult figure, Nick Drake produced just three solo albums in his tragically compressed life, and yet he is revered in his native UK and behind for producing music that is continually stripped bare, honest, soul-to-soul. As we all have discovered over time, life is a heavy emotional burden for many of us. Those who feel deeply, see deeply, need deeply. Nick was one of the burdened. This single, which was released 50 years ago on January 4, 1969, reminds us that life is fleeting.”Time has told me/You’re a rare, rare find/A troubled cure/For a troubled mind/And time has told me/Not to ask for more/For someday our ocean/Will find its shore…” While he died much too young in 1974, Nick Drake’s music has been rediscovered and is played regularly, especially in Europe, where he is now an iconic musical figure.
“Giving You the Best That I Got,” Anita Baker, 1989. The Queen of Smooth Soul retired a few years ago, but the great Anita Baker ended up leaving an impeccable legacy. Three decades ago, the joy that wrapped around each of her ballads was like an unexpected warm sunny day in the midst of a wintery cold front. Ultimately, “Giving You the Best That I’ve Got” turned out to be Anita’s biggest-selling hit, scoring #1 on both the Adult Contemporary and R&B charts, and number 2 on the American Top 40. Composed by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dizier, and Holland, Baker took it and added some detail at the beginning and had the tempo sped up, producing a peppier version. A quintessential crossover song, this tune ended up becoming a staple of jazz, pop, and light rock stations thereafter.
On Patriots Day, 1972, the Red Sox played the Cleveland Indians with veteran Ray Culp on the mound for the hometown team. When Boston made the final out in a losing, 1-0 effort, I dashed from my seat in the center-field bleachers and made a beeline to nearby Kenmore Square in order to witness the end of the Boston Marathon.
As I was standing on Boylston Street – a few blocks from the finish line – a strapping young man with dripping-wet, white-wheat hair, suddenly joined me. When he then informed me that it was his first time seeing the famed BAA Marathon, I asked him was he a player on the Indians (figuring that his hair looked cleanly washed from a very recenter shower). He tossed a smile and said, Yes, my name’s Buddy Bell.”
Earlier that day, the young man had just made his major league debut and here he was now watching the 76th running of the Boston Marathon with me. On his first day as a big league player, the Cleveland Indians’ rookie stood next to me watching thousands of gifted men and women run for glory. We chatted amicably throughout the entire experience. Ultimately, Bell ended up with more than 2,500 hits in the majors in a career that would span the next seventeen years. But on one of the two or three most memorable days in his baseball career, Buddy Bell and I were just spectators in a teeming crowd of spectators, supporting hundreds of runners completing the ultimate race.
“Nice to meet you, Shaun,” the Cleveland Indians player said as he left. “This was quite extraordinary.”
From the time that Mr. Gerry Murphy began teaching at Wellesley (MA) High School in 1962, he was a rebel with a cause. An advocate for human decency, Gerry’s inherent humanity was so palpable that the students in his charge instantly trusted him. As the 1960’s unfolded, his unfettered liberalism got him into a heap of trouble at times during his early years in Wellesley. An avowed Democrat teaching in a then conservative Republican community, Murph was looked on skeptically at best by a school administration who never knew what to do about him. Quite simply, he was an outstanding teacher who seemed to get the very best out of his students.
A man of multiple passions, one of Gerry Murphy’s most sustaining ones was his love for both baseball and his beloved Boston Red Sox. That he shared such a widespread interest in the local professional baseball team with the legendary principal of Wellesley High School at the time, Mr. Sam Graves, was fortunate. As the longtime head of the senior high throughout the tumultuous 1960’s, Sam Graves viewed Mr. Murphy, despite his Red Sox passion, as a dangerous insurgent, an instructor who encouraged his students to support civil and human rights, protest war unless it was justified, and seek equality for those without a voice.
As Gerry later told me, “During those first few years at Wellesley High, I was always walking on eggshells. I knew that the administration respected me as a teacher, but I was viewed as their domestic version of Ho Chi Minh.”
Thus, when the booming voice of Sam Graves himself came onto the Wellesley High School sound system one September morning in 1969, bellowing, “MR. MURPHY – PLEASE REPORT TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE IMMEDIATELY!” Gerry, who was teaching a history class, died a thousand deaths. The kids, who would have normally kidded him, turned dead-quiet in his classroom. Understandably, Murph turned ghostly white – as did his students.
Amidst the stunned silence in his room, Gerry got up from his chair, and sighed to his students, “Hopefully, I will see you later. If not, one of you can identify my body.”
He then sprinted down three flights to Graves’ office, reviewing, in his Rolodex-like memory, “What the hell could I have said that would have gotten the old man so riled up?”
When he reached the first floor and arrived at the principal’s office, there stood the mythical Sam Graves himself, guarding his door like a goalie in a Stanley Cup final. “GET IN HERE!” barked the principal as he pointed to his office.
By now covered with sweat, Gerry Murphy meekly walked into the office and then slumped into the chair in front of Graves’ Resolute-sized desk. The Wellesley principal measured Gerry’s face, paused, and said sternly, “GERRY……” – Murph later said it was the longest pause in human history – “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SAY THIS, BUT THE RED SOX JUST FIRED DICK WILLIAMS!”
In the next three seconds, Gerry processed that he was NOT in trouble; he was not going to be fired – and thus he was understandably relieved beyond measure. After the surge of relief had calmed his heart, however, Murph then processed that his beloved baseball team had just inexplicably sacked the best manager the franchise had had in his then nearly thirty-four years on the planet.
“How the hell could they do that?” Gerry Murphy roared back at Graves.
“I was thinking the same thing,” remarked his irate boss and fellow Sox devotee.
For anyone privileged to have Gerry Murphy as a teacher, you soon learned that even the most trivial of information fascinated Gerry. He loved the absurdity of facts that framed much of history and relished sharing such knowledge with his troops. Over time, we grasped that Hannibal Hamlin from Maine was Lincoln’s first vice-president. We learned that “Walpole’s own” Edward F. “Butch” Songin was the Patriots’ first quarterback back in 1960. Predictability, Pete Best, the Beatles’ initial drummer, was forever in Gerry’s personal Hall of Fame.
An innately curious person, Gerry Murphy was especially fascinated with the mundane for two fundamental reasons. As he said to me one time, “First, it adds color to the black-and-white world of history, and, secondly, you never know when you might find a remote fact useful in some way.” That he had a prodigious memory whose bank of knowledge was seemingly limitless only added to the luster. Given his passion for life, his varied interests enabled him to launch into a series of facts that were almost mind-numbing. For instance, Gerry remembered that Zellio Toppazzini played with his older brother, Jerry, on the Boston Bruins. He could rattle off every T stop on both the Green and Red Lines of the famed Boston Subway System. He could easily name every Secretary of State, beginning with Jefferson. (Cordell Hull was the Secretary on December 20, 1935, Murph’s birthdate). Gerry could also list the deejays on the old 1510 WMEX Boston – regardless of the year. (While Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg was always a favorite, he inevitably thought that Melvin X Melvin had the best moniker. As Murph remarked, “You heard his name and assumed that he was associated with Elijah Muhammad until you realized he was some white guy from Nahant.”)
Consequently, when Wellesley High School began to institute a Seminar Day, an annual May focus on “alternative learning” in which students could take “a participatory class” and learn something different from one or more of its teachers, Gerry logically proposed a Trivia Panel as one of the offerings. Ultimately, Mr. Murphy and a small circle of teacher friends, including veteran history teacher Charlie Burgess, would annually meet 50-70 students in a very crowded classroom in order to stump their teachers with individual trivia questions from the audience. Over time, the Trivia Panel Seminar became a staple for two generations of Wellesley High School students. Naturally, his charges began to ask Gerry, “Can a student ever be on the Trivia Panel?”
“Ah,” Murph would reply, “sometime this year in one of my classes, I am going to ask a certain question. If anyone actually answers it – that student will be on the panel that year. I guarantee it. But don’t worry – it will never happen.”
Therefore on one dreary March morning in 1973 in Humanities class, Gerry began to wax poetic about one of his favorite subjects, Jack Kennedy. We had no idea then that he was setting us up for the question that no student could ever possibly answer. “You know,” Gerry recalled, “future President Kennedy upset a very distinguished Massachusetts Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, in the 1952 senatorial campaign, and we all know that JFK defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 for the presidency. However, John F. Kennedy also ran for reelection to the United States Senate from Massachusetts in 1958. What obscure GOP candidate did John Fitzgerald Kennedy defeat that year for his reelection to the Senate?”
When Mr. Murphy completed his question, he smiled, pleased with himself, knowing that no pupil in that classroom would be able to answer it correctly. I instantly raised my hand. “Yes, Shaun,” Gerry smirked.
“The Honorable Vincent Celeste of East Boston,” I replied.
For once in his life, Gerry Murphy was speechless. As he searched for something to say, I continued, “And the interesting thing about Celeste was that he also ran against Jack Kennedy in 1950 for Congress – and got trounced that time as well!”
“My God!” Murph finally responded after the shock had worn off. “A student, Shaun Kelly, is on this year’s Trivia Panel!”
I then received the only standing ovation as a student. My peers then had the audacity to shout at their beloved teacher: “The oligarchy is over! Democracy reigns!” (Gerry characteristically LOVED the class’s response).
A decade later, when Mr. Murphy and I spent a year together in England teaching at the American School while he was on sabbatical, he asked, “How the hell did you know the answer to that question?”
“Remember, Murph,” I responded, “I have been as obsessed with Jack Kennedy as you have been over the years. I mean how many people do you know who can recite the entire Vaughn Meader-JFK album from beginning to end? Thus, the question you asked your students I had already asked myself previously. One winter’s day, I ventured to the Wellesley Free Library, dug up the information from some old copies of The Globe, and voila!”
“I should have known,” Gerry sighed. “A man after my own heart.”
Later that May, when more than 400 students and faculty attended the 1973 Trivia Panel Seminar in a teeming Science Lecture Hall, Mr. Murphy, of course, dominated the proceedings, faultlessly answering questions connected to history, geography, science, current events, and the background to the street names in Wellesley. However, when I successfully named the four original Crickets by name (Gerry only knew Buddy Holly and was duly impressed when I came up with Niki Sullivan, Jerry Allison, and Joe B. Mauldin), and then followed up by accurately answering the name of the inventor of the modern toilet – Thomas “I Kid You Not” Crapper, Murph called me, “The Proverbial Ringer.” Of course, to add to the hilarity, when no one on the panel could come up with an especially challenging student inquiry, Gerry would shout back, “THAT isn’t trivia!”
Reflecting on that experience – the first time his little trivia exercise “had gone viral,” Gerry referred to it as the panel’s Beatles-Shea Stadium moment. Ten years later, when I showed Gerry a picture of the panel and the packed Science Lecture Hall that day, I kidded him about his legendary plaid pants and his luxuriant mustache. “What was the idea behind the Reginald Van Gleason fashion statement, Murph?” I asked.
“Pure intimidation, Shaun. It was my ‘Rollie Fingers run-amuck look.”
For those of you who didn’t know Gerry, the kind of intimacy he had with one of his students, in this case, me, might surprise you. But to those who had the privilege of having him as either a history, economics, political science, English, or Humanities teacher at Wellesley High, you are probably nodding your head in agreement right now. In a profoundly shitty time in our lives, adolescence, Murph turned out to be our own Catcher in the Rye. Ultimately, he was an adult Holden who cared and was always there for me and all of his charges.
Indeed, his reach was so expansive that I eventually became a teacher because of Gerry Murphy. Like all great instructors, he believed in the old Cherokee adage – “To give dignity to another is above all things.” As a teacher, Gerry was a pocket Merlin; his magic inspired others to think beyond their own boundaries and reach to the heavens if need be. From the time I really got to know him as a senior in his storied vaunted Humanities class, he was a difference-maker. His empathy was telepathic; he just knew when he needed to reach out to you. For those who knew him in his eighty-three years on the planet, Murph camped out in one’s soul and never left.
During my senior year in Humanities class, we read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. We studied Larry Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. We analyzed Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. We even took on William Manchester’s inspired, dictionary-sized historical tract, The Glory and the Dream. We wrote many papers – the most important being Gerry’s celebrated assignment, “The Personal Essay,” (AKA “The Self Paper”), in which each student wrote from the heart about where they were in life at that moment – and where they wanted to go in the future. Mr. Murphy’s notes decorated each paper like Hazel’s Bakery icing. In each pupil’s essay, he applauded; questioned, coaxed, probed, and gave advice that would often encapsulate who you are and what you should be.
At the end of my essay, Gerry wrote, “While you might not make the big leagues – your current dream – I have a strong hunch that you could make an even more deep-seated difference as a teacher down the road. It fits you, Shaun.” Forty-six years after he wrote this to me, I am about to conclude my thirty-ninth year as a teacher. In many ways, Murph knew me better than I knew myself. As the late, great Red Sox announcer, Ned Martin, might say, “Mercy.”
Once under the spell of such a potent influence, you never say goodbye. Consequently, ten years after I graduated from Wellesley High School, I was in my third year of teaching when I learned that that Head of our Middle School had decided to go on sabbatical the following academic year. Because I was now employed at The American School in England, I contacted Gerry immediately.
During the previous Christmas break, I had flown back home and had spent some time with Murph at his 1 Standish Road, Wellesley abode. He stated to me at the time, “If anything opens up there that you think might be interesting for me, give me a shout. I’ve always wanted to live in Great Britain for a spell, and I have a year’s sabbatical coming up.”
After I alerted him to the job opening, Gerry flew over to London and then made his way to our seventy-acre campus, which was situated just eighteen miles southwest of London in Thorpe, Surrey. He ended up charming the pants off the TASIS administration and was offered the year’s position as Middle School Director on the spot. For the 1983-84 academic year, Gerry Murphy would be a colleague, and we would spend hundreds of hours together socializing and venturing around the environs of London proper.
Previously, his career had been in the classroom as a teacher. At TASIS England, Murph ended as an administrator without any instructional responsibilities. Nor surprisingly, he ended up being an extraordinary boss – beloved by his teachers, the students, and the parent body for his sagacity, wit, and abiding charm. When Gerry applied for the History Department Chairpersonship at Wellesley High a few years later, I addressed the Wellesley School Committee at a special session, reminding them that I was the only one in the room who had observed Mr. Murphy as an educational leader. I spoke to them about his prodigious insight as an educator; his visionary sensibility; his ability to walk in the shoes of others; his ability to inspire teachers and pupils alike. When Wellesley High School officials decided not to appoint Gerry as the head of his department, it turned out to be their loss. Individuals in positions of power sometimes can be such little people. My associates at TASIS England were chagrined that Wellesley High School marginalized such an educational giant.
Still, we had an absolute ball across the pond. Murph and I met for lunch and dinner virtually every day, and frequented the local pub, The Red Lion, regularly, where a local Brit, providentially named Gerald, used to refer to us as “his colonial friends.” (Yes, Gerry LOVED that). We made a handful of treks to London, taking in all of the history of that remarkable city together. “God, this is great!” Gerry remarked one Saturday afternoon as we skirted over Waterloo Bridge together. Dale Pfiffner, one of our teaching colleagues, used to accompany us in our travels. When Gerry died earlier this month, Dale posted this remembrance:
“I got to know Gerry Murphy in his sabbatical year (1983-84) as colleagues at TASIS School near London. How fortunate I was indeed to know and spend time with him. Whenever I was with him, it was as if I had this fabulous teacher as a personal tutor and mentor. I very vividly recall one instance while at Eton College in Windsor, he recited the oft-heard phrase, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” (At the time, I never really understood what it meant.) He proceeded to regale me with a fascinating explanation of the significance of the site on which we stood. What a storyteller! I came to realize why Shaun always spoke so highly of him as an educator and mentor. We truly stood on the shoulders of a giant.”
When Murph and I visited Churchill’s secret bunker in World War II a block from 10 Downing Street, the normally gregarious Gerry was hushed by visiting such hallowed ground. As we left, he reverently quoted Sir Winston’s words about the RAF and the Battle of Britain, which had been said right from the communications’ room in the cachet we had just visited: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” He brushed away a tear and then said fiercely, “I almost forgot that Churchill was a colonialist of the worst kind!” I then quoted Claude Rains from Casablanca and accused him of being a “rank sentimentalist.”
“It takes one to know one,” Gerry replied.
Over drinks at a London pub later that afternoon, he proposed that we write a travelogue of our experiences in England and call it, Mind the Gap. In my list of many regrets in life, that Gerry and I never followed up on that suggestion will remain high on my list until the day I die.
Even in Merry Old England, baseball remained an enduring passion for us both. One memorable evening, we stayed up together to listen to a Red Sox game on Armed Forces radio. “I never thought I’d listen to Ken Coleman in Europe!” he joked between innings. Gerry was delighted when I announced to him that I was asked to pitch for the local Cobham Yankees of the British Baseball League. “It’s a long way from Hunnewell Field and hurling against the Natick Redmen!” he joked to me.
Consequently, each Saturday that spring, Gerry would loyally sit in our mostly empty stands and watch me throw against other squads, made up of expats, Canadians, and Brits. He LOVED the fact that I asked the opposing manager what nationality each player in their batting order was. Because Americans and Canadians habitually have trouble with low pitches, I threw everything low to them. However, when a British national approached home plate, I purposely aimed high because of the English players’ prowess for hitting balls low in cricket. “American ingenuity, personified,” Murph called it when I explained it to him.
When I also informed Gerry that the BBL had decided to go from the DH to National League rules for the 1984 season, he said, “Then it is nothing less than the rebirth of Hank Aguirre!”
For the uninformed – as Murph would say, Hank Aguirre was perhaps the worst hitting pitcher ever. A longtime Detroit Tigers ace, there were years in which he never he had one base hit in 70 plate appearances. When I reminded him that I hadn’t hit since my Wellesley High School days because of the DH rule in both college and during my time with the Brighton Braves of the Boston Park League, Gerry countered, “Ah, hell, forget all of that Teddy Ballgame, The Science of Hitting crap. Just close your eyes and swing!”
During one memorable contest in May, after I had commenced with my third inning of work, I noticed a middle-aged man and his wife approach the field timidly as I began my windup. After the pitch, it appeared that they seemed stunned that they had stumbled onto a baseball game in an archetypal English town eighteen miles west of London. Slowly, they sat down in the stands behind our dugout and watched the game silently.
As I sauntered off the mound to end the inning, my face broke into a broad smile. I recognized the gentleman, the Commissioner of Baseball at the time, Bowie Kuhn, who was then on vacation in the UK! Accompanying him was his longtime spouse, Luisa.
“Mr. Commissioner and Mrs. Kuhn, welcome to the British Baseball League!” I screeched to them as I approached our bench.
Bowie Kuhn cackled audibly and replied, “Luisa and I are on vacation, and we stumbled upon your game here as we were visiting St. Mary’s Church over there behind the field! And what do we see? Baseball! Right here in the heart of Merry Olde England!”
Mr. Kuhn then asked me where I was from. I replied, “Wellesley, Massachusetts, Sir.”
The Kuhns collectively lit up like a scoreboard. “That’s where our daughter went to college!” they shouted simultaneously. Mrs. Kuhn then added, “Isn’t Hathaway Bookshop the greatest anywhere, Shaun?”
When I nodded in the affirmative, I then introduced the Commissioner and his wife to a nonplussed Gerry, who immediately charmed the pants off of the Kuhns as play continued.
“Hey, Shaun,” our catcher called out a few minutes. “You’re up.”
I politely excused myself, went up to hit. As I got into the batter’s box, Gerry called out, “Just close your eyes and swing!”
What the hell,” I thought to myself. “Murph usually knows what he’s talking about.” The opposing pitcher then would up and fired the ball toward home. I instantly shut my eyes and promptly launched a home run that hit the top of a European ash tree 75 feet beyond the rickety left field fence, well over 400 feet in left center – the farthest ball I ever hit in my life. Gerry later said, “It was like Hank Aguirre hitting a Tony C. shot onto the Mass Pike.”
As I rounded the bases, Murph, never at a loss of words, nudged Bowie Kuhn’s shoulder and barked,“Mr. Commissioner, you’ve now seen two historic home runs: Henry Aaron’s 715th – and Shaun Kelly’s first.”
Indeed, he had.
Of course, baseball framed many of our times together when Gerry and I returned to Massachusetts in June 1984. I began teaching at The Fessenden School in West Newton and later attended Harvard, where I secured a Masters in Education. In 1986, after what Gerry referred to as “A Crime Against Humanity, Perpetrated by John McNamara,” Gerry and I decided to attend an early Sox game at Fenway the following April in order to show support to our star-crossed team. In the end, Roger Clemens pitched a complete three-hitter, striking out six and walking no one in an impressive victory by the Boston nine over Kansas City.
What I most remember about that contest, however, occurred in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Sox were already up, 8-0, and the Royals had gone hitless to that moment. With two out in the inning, future Red Sox first base coach, Frank White, hit a little dribbler up the third base line for a hit. Given the fact that Boston was up by a touchdown and a two-point conversion with the best hurler on the planet at that time in total control, you would think that there would be little if no reaction in the old ballpark. But, no, this was Boston, pre-2004, with the wounds of 1986 still infecting us all. Thus, when a fan then yelled out, “Here they go again!” Gerry laughed heartily, turned around to the people sitting behind us, and shouted, “Buy that man a beer!”
Fifteen years later, when I was asked by HBO to be one of the eight Red Sox fan interviewees for what would be an Emmy-Award-winning series, The Curse of the Bambino and its follow up, The Reverse of the Curse of the Bambino, Gerry couldn’t be prouder. “One of our own!” Gerry proclaimed as he cheered for me when I appeared on his television screen back at 1 Standish Road. When I mentioned in the film, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” as an allegory representing all Red Sox fans, Murph later quipped to me, “You learned well from Humanities, Shaun. I told you that story could be useful sometime!”
“Thanks, Gerry,” I responded, “but they cut out my best line that I used throughout the entire ninety-minute interview, and dammit, I intentionally said it in Gerry Murphy-like fashion!”
“What the hell did you say that they then cut out of the documentary?” Murph asked.
“I would root for the North Koreans before I would root for the Yankees,” I replied.
Gerry’s laughter echoed through my telephone. “Proud to know, ya, Shaun!”
Invariably, like many of his former students, I would periodically check in with Gerry by phone or in person every few months. When we would catch up, our musings were decidedly focused on either baseball or politics. In the last years of his life, even when he was battling cancer, Gerry remained Gerry.
“Bobby Valentine! Bobby Valentine! We had Tito Francona, and we replace him with Bobby Valentine? It’s reverse American history. We just replaced Abraham Lincoln with James Buchanan!”
“Trump thinks that every one of those damn buildings he names after himself will somehow conjure up an image of Versailles. What he doesn’t know is that when people like me see one of his structures, it smacks of Route 1, Schaeffer Stadium, and Billy Sullivan.”
“Craig Kimbrel is the gasoline that can amplify any fire.”
“How can they actually support that clown? Forty percent of the country has amnesia while the rest of us are suffering from PTSD!”
“I love Jackie’s glove for sure. He plays the best centerfield I’ve ever seen a Red Sock outfielder play, and that includes Jimmy Piersall. However, if Jackie Bradley, Jr., were a 1960s rock and roll artist, we would refer to him as a one-hit wonder.”
“Everyone Trump appoints is corrupt. Everyone! They oughta open a new Smithsonian on the Mall and lock all of the bastards up!”
“Can Gronk just play one season, one season, and not get hurt? He is a walking advertisement for Workers’ Compensation.”
“Who would have ever thought that I would be looking back on the presidency of George W. Bush and say, “Ah, the good old days!”
A few weeks before he died, I phoned Gerry for the last time. He was having a good day; Murph was charming, funny as hell, and as irreverent as always. For forty-five minutes we laughed continuously, probably because the alternative was too painful to explore. When I reminded him that the celebrated question he always asked to myriad students during the height of the Cold War, “If only the Russians knew!” might need some revision in 2019, he laughed and responded,“Apparently, the Russians now know everything!”
Gerry then went to his memory-bank bullpen and drew on one of the thousands of quotes he had stored away for the right occasion. In this case, he used the words of Fitzgerald from The Great Gatsby to crystallize Donald Trump and his ilk: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
As we said goodbye, both of us purposely kept it light. The day was too bright, and the alternative was too bleak to spoil the mood. I reminded him that he was present in every one of my lessons at school. Consequently, his magic was still being passed around each day in my classroom. “Well then that gives me some hope then, Shaun – thank you,” he sighed. When Murph ended the call with his longtime refrain, “Don’t let the bastards get you down!” I reflexively chuckled – and so did he.
That was the last laugh we shared.
When he died, I thought back on that conversation and then recalled a passage from one of Gerry’s favorite books, Edwin O’Conner’s iconic novel, The Last Hurrah. As the narrative concludes, the protagonist of the tale, Mayor Frank Skeffington lays dying, surrounded by loved ones and his loyal aides. One of his many acolytes, Ditto Boland, then comes into his bedroom to pay his respects to the great man. Throughout the story, Ditto had done his best to mimic Mayor Skeffington’s manner of speaking, dress, and personality. Predictably, Boland has expressed so few views of his own over the years that he has secured the nickname “Ditto” from Skeffington, an epithet that Boland accepts with unbounded pride because his hero, the Mayor, has bestowed it to him. (Murph would no doubt remind you that Ditto Boland was based on John “Up-Up” Kelly – no relation – a longtime lackey to Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. As Murph recalled in class one time, “Anytime Mayor Curley entered a room, Kelly’s primary job was to bellow, ‘UP, UP, UP for the Mayor’!”)
Accordingly, when Ditto Boland begins to proclaim that the Mayor will surely rise from his bed and run again for mayor as soon as he feels better, the waning Mayor murmurs, “Oh, Ditto, Ditto – how can you thank a man for a million laughs?”
There are thousands of friends and students of Gerry Murphy who are now asking the same thing. For me, it was the bookends of laughter and joy, which framed thousands of conversations we shared together over five decades. While Gerry’s compassion, honesty, and enlightenment defined him, it was his enduring humor and his hearty laugh that still resounds. Ultimately, he made my days brighter and more meaningful because his scintillating presence inevitably cut through the darkest of storm clouds. It is no coincidence that one of Mr. Murphy’s favorite JFK quotes turned out to be his epitaph: “Only three things in life are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since we can do nothing with the first two, we must do what we can with the third.”
At Gerry’s service last Saturday in Wellesley, we all learned that his last words on earth were a humble benediction to a life that turned out to be both purposeful and consequential.
“Thank you,” Murph whispered to his minister and family, “thank you.”
“The future, the present, and the past walked into a bar,” exclaimed the Bard of Puns. “Things got a little tense,” he sighed.
Ah, you’re one of “that kind of people,” Shaun Kelly. You’re a punster.
Yep, always have been; forever will be. I dream of leaving this world, to paraphrase Graham Nash, by making just one last pun before I go.
As early as the 1960’s, I commenced spewing forth puns like lava in my classes at school. My English teachers at Wellesley High, especially Mr. Brooks Goddard, encouraged me, saying, “Shakespeare made a second career of it.” As a fledgling teacher, when I was put in charge of the evening announcements at the boarding school where I toiled, I found my calling and used it to a punny advantage. By the third week as communicator extraordinaire, I had a burgeoning fan club.
So what might my announcements (or pronouncements, as my boss called it), might sound like? Here’s a Whitman Sampler from just one evening’s riffs:
“Folks, we will have a dormitory soccer tournament this coming weekend. I want you all to participate. After all, seven days without playing soccer can make oneweak.”
“Tonight, after study hall, we will be showing Howard the Duck. Many critics already believe that this film should get top billing.”
“Nice of the basketball players to clean up their table just now. After all, they are such good dribblers.”
“The Math Club will be meeting after dinner this evening. To the mathematicians who thought of the idea of zero, thanks for nothing!”
“The net result of this announcement is that our tennis courts will be open for free this Sunday. If pressed, I’d say that’s quite a racket. Don’t you just love tennis? (After groaning from the attendees) I guess that one was out of bounds.”
“Our Science Department wants you to know that they yearn to be included in our school’s reading challenge this fall. I’m currently reading a book about anti-gravity. It’s impossible to put down.”
“Our food focus next week will be centered on the cuisine of Switzerland. As someone who taught and lived there in the early ‘80s, I can tell you that there are many great things about the country. For instance, the Swiss flag is a big plus!”
I could go on and on, but you get the point.
You can only imagine how many puns I have generated a teacher for nearly four decades. If each pun were a sun, you’d need a Hubble Telescope to account for them all. My heavens would dwarf all others. Sadly, my poor students have been subjected to this universe for thirty-nine years. As you might imagine, they are usually star-crossed by the end of the year. Every once in a while, one curious student will ask me in class, “Mr. Kelly, what is the best pun you’ve ever made?”
For most punsters, that is an impossible question to answer. After all, punsters aren’t born; they’re made. While many puns are the product of writers, the vast majority of my puns have been situational. I hear; I think; I react almost instantaneously. As a lifelong punster, I have both experience and quantity, which form my pun-chant for jests. You might find that is repun-g-nant, but, after all, my quips are very much homes-pun.
But, yes, there was one pun that I made that was so over-the-top, so great, that it remains my Starry Night, my To Kill a Mockingbird, my Casablanca.
It happened, in all places, in a biology class during my sophomore year at Wellesley High School. I was taught by a veteran biology teacher named Mr. Howard. Because he was around sixty, sober by nature, and decidedly curt with everyone he came across, he was nicknamed, “Happy Howard” by his legion of students. To his everlasting credit, however, Mr. Howard attempted to make a joke each day during his biology lectures (this was in the day when class participation was considered a virulent form of socialism). They almost always failed, but, in retrospect, it was sweet of him to try to “break on through to the other side.” We speculated that Mr. Howard methodically wrote the joke into his scripted text and read it aloud. When he did so in class, a slight smirk on his face would give it away. We would inevitably roll our eyes as sixteen-year-old students do, no matter the time period.
One afternoon, Mr. Howard was pontificating about dissecting a rabbit, when he began to smile ever-so-slowly.
Nancy, one of my peers and a dear friend, whispered next to me, “Oh, God, Shaun, here it comes.”
Happy Howard took a deep breath and then took the plunge: “Earlier, today, I opened the refrigerator door in our lab, and who should be sitting there looking at me but a rabbit. I asked, ‘Mr. Rabbit, what are you doing there in that cold refrigerator’?”
“‘I’m westing,” the rabbit replied. “Didn’t you know that this is a Westinghouse’?”
I thought for a moment, raised my hand, and remarked, “Well, that must have been a Frigid-hare.”
As I was walking on my regular morning jaunt yesterday, I heard Chubby Checker’s seminal hit, “The Twist,” on the Sirius 50’s channel. I had a sudden flashback. It’s early March 1961, and my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Marshall, wanted us “to move and release some built-up energy” after we had been “prisoners” all day in our classroom during typical late winter New England sleet-and-rainstorm in our classroom. A wonderfully supportive and innovative teacher, Mrs. Marshall ambled over to the classroom’s record player and put on Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”
Instantaneously, 25 kindergartners began swiveling vigorously. When the song ended, Mrs. Marshall decided to play the number again because we seemed to have so much fun and were certainly releasing an abundance of energy!
Before she put the needle back on the record, I raised my hand. As the youngest in a family who knew contemporary music well, I bellowed, “That was GREAT, Mrs. Marshall, but can you play the song, ‘Tiger,’ by Fabian? It’s a better tune.”
My kindergarten teacher promptly excused herself to her office where she laughed for about five minutes.
As Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darndest things.”
On an frigid March afternoon in 1964, as I sat intently on my bed in my bedroom in Wellesley, Massachusetts, at precisely 3:00 pm, I switched on my cream-colored plastic clock-radio set at 850 on the AM dial. Despite the snow showers that had begun trickling intermittently in greater Boston, when I heard the baseball-themed jingle on WHDH Radio Boston then, it might as well have been a scorching summer day.
“You’re just in time/For the ballgame/You’re just in time for excitement and fun/WHDH has reserved your place/We’re glad you could make it/We know you’ll have fun/Here’s Curt Gowdy standing by/The ‘Voice of the Red Sox’/A real nice guy….”
“From Scottsdale, Arizona,” announcer, Curt Gowdy, roared, “it’s the Boston Red Sox versus the Chicago Cubs in an interleague spring training game live from America’s magnificent Southwest!”
Notwithstanding the precarious nature of Boston’s American League franchise at the time, I was a nine-year-old true believer who had begun following my local baseball team on a pitch-by-pitch basis the previous season. In 1964, though, the Boston Red Sox were an updated version of the old St. Louis Browns – perennial, lovable losers who were forever blowing games by 11-10 scores. After suffering more than a decade of consecutive losing records, Boston’s big league team had ultimately accumulated enough 90-plus losing seasons to have been routinely referenced as “The Red Flops” by the head of the team’s own fan club.
Thus, when I flipped on the spring training game in my house in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Johnny Pesky was once again the franchise’s manager, shepherding a squad who exuded extremo mediocritatem, even though the Bosox did have the reigning American League Batting Champion, Carl Yastrzemski, and baseball’s most feared reliever, Dick “The Monster” Radatz.
As I listened intently on that wintry afternoon, there was a new name that was repeatedly mentioned by Red Sox announcers Curt Gowdy, Ned Martin, and Art Gleason – Anthony Richard “Tony” Conigliaro. He was just nineteen at the time, a right-handed hitter and outfielder who possessed a transcendent swing that seemed to be designed for Fenway Park itself. A Bostonian by birth, Conigliaro had graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Lynn in ’63 and had then hit 24 home runs in 83 games as an eighteen-year-older for the Wellsville Red Sox of the New York Penn League. The word had already spread to the hinterlands: Boston might have itself an emerging diamond luminary on the horizon.
Consequently, I was a little more than curious to hear about the exploits of young Conigliaro that blustery March day. When the contest ended two hours later, I was an unmitigated believer. Tony ended up finishing the game going 3 for 4, including a double off the centerfield wall. Before he signed off, the Sox’s lyrical broadcaster, Ned Martin, remarked, “This kid, a New England thoroughbred in every way, just might possess the right mix to paint permanent smiles on the faces of Red Sox fans in 1964 – and beyond.”
At that time, baseball oozed through my pores like maple syrup. Over the previous two years, it had become my solitary obsession. I commenced watching Red Sox games with my grandfather in his cottage on Cape Cod during the summer of ’63. When he encouraged me to go to the library to read more about the game, a local librarian recommended that I read the baseball-based novels of John R. Tunis, a popular children’s author whose prose was written for specifically for boys between the age of 9 and 12. Ultimately, I ended up reading everything from The Kid from Tomkinsville to The Kid Comes Back. Because so many of Tunis’s fictional characters were hometown players who eventually made good, I felt that Tony Conigliaro was somehow a come-to-life figure from one of John R. Tunis’s narratives. Of course, I was magically caught in the midst of the breezy nonchalance of boyhood at that time; thus, every day seemed like summer to me. For perhaps the last time of my life, the days and weeks were each framed by their own unexpected pleasures. In 1964, Tony Conigliaro embodied all that the promise of life had to offer someone so young.
Thus, when Tony C. continued to mash the ball in the Cactus League over the next three weeks, we who listened to Sox spring training games that March increasingly heard about the escapades of the kid from East Boston. Even though he was still a teenager and had played less than a hundred games in the minor leagues, Conig ended up making the big league team at the end of Spring Training and was inserted in right field in the Bronx on Opening Day, April 16, 1964. On that afternoon, a rare win against the vaunted New York Yankees, Boston won, 4-3. Just as significantly, Tony Conigliaro garnered his first major league hit, a single to left-center against future Hall of Fame hurler, Whitey Ford.
The next afternoon, Friday, April 17, Boston opened up at home against the Chicago White Sox. On that day, the Red Sox honored its most famous fan by calling it, “John F. Kennedy Day.” Five months after JFK’s gruesome death, we New Englanders could never seem to let go of “one of our own.”
I rushed home from school early that afternoon to witness the festivities firsthand on the Red Sox television station throughout the 1960s, WHDH TV, Channel 5. By that time, the field was sheathed in a brilliant golden hue, a “scrubbed up” afternoon, the kind of day that Jack Kennedy loved to sail his beloved boat, The Victura, along the azure waters of Nantucket Sound.
As every Sox player was introduced to join his teammates along the first base line, a conciliatory smattering of applause echoed off the far-reaches of Fenway. It was as if their precursory sins had been pardoned by collective decree. However, when announcer Curt Gowdy introduced Tony Conigliaro, the local phenom received a tumultuous response from the hometown faithful as he sprinted out to the first base line t join his teammates. A few minutes later, when the Red Sox starters dashed out onto the grass for the top of the first inning, Conig hustled towards right field, his newly assigned patch of turf at the old park on Jersey Street.
In his first home contest as a big-leaguer, Tony Conigliaro, the team’s new right fielder, was inserted in the seventh hole in the batting order. After Boston went quietly in the first, the Sox scored a run and had two outs in the bottom of the second when Conig approached home plate for the first time at Fenway Park as a member of the Boston Red Sox. Through the glare of spring sun and cigarette smoke, public address announcer Sherm Feller’s Delphonic voice clipped through the haze: “And now batting seventh for the Red Sox…. number 25….. Tony Conigliaro…..right field…..Conigliaro.”
As soon as his name was announced, Tony dropped an array of weighted bats he had been swinging on the on-deck circle and started to finger his own particular Excalibur, a thirty-four-inch-long Louisville Slugger. As I watched the proceedings on TV, I smiled when I heard and saw a sustained wave of appreciation envelop him – a warm cocoon for the native son as he approached the batter’s box at home for the first time.
After he had settled into the batter’s box, Conig took a practice swing and then got into his stance – his feet wide apart, his arms forming a circle as his hands cupped the bat close to his head. He then pointed his bat at the pitcher and waited for the pitch, rearming again when the hurler took too long. His stance encompassed the plate; his head hung over home plate itself. The opposing pitcher, Chicago ace Joe Horlen, delivered the white sphere toward home plate, belt high.
Conigliaro’s swing was deliberate, a savage punch through the air as the ball met the barrel of his 33-ounce bat. The ball seemed to leap off his bat as he extended his arms and followed through, his head already looking toward the thirty-seven-foot green wall in left. The eyes of New England watched from either their seats at Fenway or home on television as the projectile began to sprout into an elegant arch and ended up sailing high over the screen for a home run on the first pitch to Tony C. at Fenway Park.
John R. Tunis couldn’t have come up with a better plotline.
I literally jumped up and down in my living room as Conig sprightly circled the bases. I was hooked for life. The next day, I eagerly joined his local fan club and subsequently asked my baseball coach that spring to issue me Conigliaro’s number, 25, as my own badge of fidelity to the Boston boy wonder.
As his rookie season unfolded, Tony C. was leading all American League rookies in both hitting and home runs until he fractured his arm that August. Within four months, he was already the most popular player on his team, a star of hope amidst a squad largely consisting of black holes. After he was injured and was done for the season, Conig, who had fronted a rock band as a high schooler, subsequently recorded four songs in a studio in nearby Revere. One of them, “Playing the Field,” a Freddie Cannon-like rocker, received considerable air time on WMEX and WBZ, the two most renowned rock stations in Boston at the time.
Because of his exploits both on and off the field, Tony soon appeared on both The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and disc jockey Murray the K’s national radio show in New York. Conig turned out to be a most lucid interviewee – an absolute favorite of Boston sportscaster, Don Gillis. As we all soon discovered, Conigliaro spoke in a supple baritone shaded by a distinct New England-accented tone. His aptitude as a speaker was such that he would eventually make a remarkably breezy transition from player to broadcaster once his playing days were over.
By April 1965, the girls in my fourth-grade class began to wax poetic over Tony’s “chocolate-brown eyes.” The boys in my class – most especially me – started imitating Conig’s inimitable signature stance. One could attend any Little League game that year in most New England towns and observe a dozen trying to out emulate one another with their original interpretation of the iconic Conigliaro stance and swing.
Tony C. ended his second season in the majors with aplomb. He became the youngest player to ever lead his league in home runs when he hit 32 round-trippers that year. Conig also began to foster an emerging reputation as a superb outfielder. At the 1965 All-Star Game, Mickey Mantle was quoted as saying, “That kid out there is very close to approaching Al Kaline – he’s that good in right field.” Longtime Red Sox fans liked the fact that Conigliaro seemed to play the game hard no matter what the score was at the time. “Tony was one of the most competitive players I ever played with,” his former teammate, Jack Lamabe, told me years later. “There was just no quit in him. Tony cared. He was relentless – just like Roberto Clemente. Remember, I played with both men.”
Beginning in the summer of 1964, I embarked on a five-season stint as a bat boy for the Orleans Cardinals of the Cape Cod Baseball League. Because my grandfather resided in Eastham, just north of Orleans, I ended up spending the months of June, July, and August at the picturesque ball field adjacent to what was then the Nauset Regional High School. Consequently, I followed much of Tony Conigliaro’s early career through the reassuring voices of Ned Martin, Curt, Gowdy, and later on, Ken Coleman. Like many Cape families at the time, the Red Sox radio broadcasts became the soundtrack to our summers. Everyone seemed to pause whenever Tony Conigliaro made a plate appearance. A home run or a glorious play in right field was invariably received by a succession of hosannas throughout all four corners of my grandfather’s weathered Cape house.
Nevertheless, I did manage to see his exploits, firsthand, on approximately twenty occasions at Fenway between 1964 and 1967. During one sun-splashed afternoon, my father and I watched transfixed as Conig took batting practice before a game with the old Washington Senators. Until I witnessed Mark McGuire smack thirteen moonshots in the 1999 Homerun Hitting Contest, Tony’s prowess that afternoon remained the Gold Standard. In the end, he hit eight blasts over the screen – with two projectiles hitting the left-centerfield light tower. My father, who had seen Babe Ruth play at Fenway in 1932, whispered to me after Tony had left the batting cage, “Only Jimmy Foxx could have hit missiles to left like Tony C. just did. This kid is a future Hall-of-Famer.”
In May 1965, I was invited by my childhood friend, Trevor Gowdy, to sit in the broadcast booth as his father and Ned Martin described the action. For a fervent Red Sox fan, this was nothing less than viewing a game from Mount Olympus. I ended up sitting next to engineer Al Walker, who even gave me an extra headset to wear. Mr. Gowdy, always the most cordial of men, chatted with us between innings, as did the gracious Ned Martin. In the end, I witnessed Tony C. hit two rocket launches into the screen that afternoon. At the close of the recap, Mr. Martin turned to me and asked, “So Shaun, who is your favorite Soc player?”
“Tony C., of course,” I replied.
“Me too,” Martin winked.
In the summer of 1966, as Tony Conigliaro continued to develop into a heralded major league player, I rejoined the Orleans Cardinals in June, as the third summer of my batboy experience commenced. On the team that season were two brothers from Charlestown, New Hampshire, Calvin and Carlton Fisk. Calvin played first base while Pudge served as our catcher. Since I spent so much time with the squad that summer, the Cardinal players were generous enough to let a certain eleven-year-old southpaw have some fun as well during their practices. After tossing the ball back-and-forth to him during warmups, Pudge encouraged me to throw to him off the Cardinal’s mound. Because I had only tossed baseballs from various Little League diamonds previously, the first time I ever flung a ball from sixty-feet, six-inches was to future Hall of Famer, Carlton Fisk. Because I was lefthanded, he and his brother soon began calling me, “Koufax.” Once, at the old ballpark in Chatham, they even let me take a few swipes in the batting cage. “Hey look, fellas,” shouted Calvin Fisk, “Koufax bats like Tony C.!”
As the 1967 Sprint Training began in Winter Haven, Florida, Tony Conigliaro was a three-year veteran, a first-team All-Star with a boundless future. Still, the team he played on continued to be an unmitigated disaster. “Forever losers,” my older brother quipped as another disappointing season concluded with another ninth-place finish. When the Bosox then replaced manager Mike Higgins with Conig’s first Red Sox roommate, the blistering Dick Williams in December 1966, the Sox’ new skipper brashly proclaimed, “We will win more than we lose.” The vast majority of fans were rightly skeptical as the ‘67 season commenced.
Accordingly, only 8,234 fans greeted the Red Sox on Opening Day at the Fens. Ultimately, the Boston nine were victorious, winning 5-4 behind the starting pitching of Jim Lonborg, the timely hitting of Rico Petrocelli, and the clutch fielding of Tony Conigliaro who made a sensational stab in right field on a ball smoked by Ron Hansen with one out in the ninth.
As usual, I made it home from school in time to see the proceedings. The losing pitcher that afternoon was a journeyman right-hander for the Chicago White Sox, Jack Lamabe, who had played for the Red Sox from 1963–65. Later that year, “The Old Tomato” would be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. In August, he would be named the National League Player for the month for his stellar work out of the Cards’ bullpen. In the ‘67 World Series, Lamabe would be the losing pitcher for St. Louis in the sixth game of the Series. Hence, Jack Lamabe would be the losing pitcher for the Red Sox’ first and last wins of that historic season.
“Even after I was traded from the Sox in ’65, I still closely followed Tony’s career,” Lamabe told me years later at Jacksonville University, where he served as the head baseball coach for the Dolphins. Nearly ten years after he had last played with Conigliaro, Lamabe’s eyes still lit up whenever I brought up his name. “What a hitter,” Coach admitted to me when we went out to dinner in 1973. “Tony had that classic stroke. As a pitcher, he always put the fear of God into you. And yet, he was also an exceptional base runner and a great fielder who had a cannon of an arm. When I was on the mound for the Sox, I always knew that Tony would get to that ball in the corner. He willed his way to it. He was the best teammate one could have, supportive, enthusiastic, selfless. He just loved the game.”
As both Tony C. and the Red Sox began to get off to an encouraging start in 1967, we Boston fans began to enter the Twilight Zone; the perpetual losers were now playing like confident winners. My father, still embittered that his beloved Boston Braves had departed for Milwaukee fifteen seasons previously, finally began to follow the Red Sox on a day-by-day basis because, as he admitted, “The Sox are finally playing a National League style of baseball these days.”
Unlike previous years when the eventual pennant winner had usually sprinted to the lead by mid-spring, the American League quickly turned into a veritable quagmire. As the season progressed, no team emerged from a pack whose leader changed virtually every day. While the defending World Champion Baltimore Orioles eventually fell out of contention thanks to an unyielding series of injuries, the dangerous Minnesota Twins emerged as the most balanced squad in the league. Many baseball experts believed that the White Sox had the best pitching staff, while the Tigers possessed the league’s most prodigious offense. One last squad lingered near the top of the AL standings that spring like unhurried fog – the one-hundred-to-one-shot Boston Red Sox.
Indeed, as the Sox kept above .500 and within a handful of games of the lead during the first ten weeks of the season, it was apparent that the franchise had finally begun to discard its longstanding country club reputation. Under the direction of Manager Dick Williams, the Sox had now become a hustling, capable bunch who began to develop the habit of coming from behind in the most unanticipated of ways.
After a particularly satisfying win in late May, I began to look closely at the 1967 schedule that adorned my bedroom wall, next to a picture of my latest Boston sports hero, a crew cut-haired teenager named Robert Gordon Orr. When I discovered that the Sox had a home game against the best team in the league, the feared Minnesota Twins on the last day of the season; I scurried down to my father’s study.
“Daddy!” I shouted, “Do you think that Mr. O’Connell can get us tickets to the game on October 1? I have a feeling it might be an important one!” My father and Dick O’Connell, Boston’s general manager at the time, were longtime friends who had served in the Naval Reserve together.
“I’ll call Dick tomorrow,” Dad replied. “He will surely like your optimism, Shaunie!”
Ten days later, I received a bulky envelope in the mail with a Red Sox logo adorning the front. When I tore it open, four tickets tumbled out onto the floor. Inside the envelope, there was an accompanying note. “Dear Shaun,” it read, “I wish all Red Sox fans had your faith. May these tickets bring you great joy.
Sincerely, Dick O’Connell.”
Two weeks later, on the evening of June 15th, nearly 17,000 fans turned out at Fenway to see them battle the first-place White Sox. At the time, Boston was in third place, five games behind the Chisox. Earlier that day, I had graduated from sixth grade and was now officially on vacation. Dad wanted to “break out the summer” by having the two of us take in some nighttime baseball at the Fens.
When we sat in our appointed seats in Section 27, we noticed that the crowd was more boisterous than previous games that we had attended in the past. In centerfield, a homemade sign had been draped on the back wall in bright red letters, which read, “The Little Engine That Could!”
For nine innings, we watched from our seats along the third base line as two improbable hurlers, Red Sox rookie pitcher Gary Waslewski and veteran Bruce Howard battled each other to a scoreless duel. Hard-throwing reliever Johnny Wyatt came out of the Boston bullpen in the tenth and shut the Chisox down. Hoyt Wilhelm and John Buzhardt did the same for Chicago. As the two squads walked off the field to conclude the tenth frame, Dad turned to me and beamed, “Now this is a National League kind of game!”
In the top of the eleventh inning, Walt “No Neck” Williams led off the inning with a scorching double into the leftfield corner. After monitoring the flight of the ball, my father quickly surmised, “The White Sox’s manager, Eddie Stanky, will have Don Buford bunt. Remember, Eddie once played for the Braves!”
As George Scott and Joe Foy crept in to cover the anticipated tapper, the Chicago batter suddenly left his squared-off position in the batter’s box and lashed at a John Wyatt fastball toward right field. First baseman Scott desperately lunged for the ball, caught it on a wicked hop, and beat a stunned Williams to the bag. My father fiercely applauded as he shouted through the din: “Gil Hodges himself could not have gotten to that ball!”
After the second out, however, light-hitting Ken Berry dribbled a single to right with Williams hustling in from third. I slumped into my seat as Tony C. lobbed the ball back to Mike Andrews at second. Dad tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, my boy – the big boys are coming up for us.”
However, when Yaz popped to first baseman Tommy McCraw and George Scott broke his bat on a soft liner to third baseman Dick Kenworthy, all hope seemed lost. “We’re staying for the final out,” Dad barked as I remained seated, watching Joe Foy tiptoe towards home plate. The Red Sox third baseman took a deep breath, fingered his bat, and promptly grounded a single between short and third.
As Tony Conigliaro slowly walked up to the plate, I instinctively rose as virtually everyone else did who remained in the ballpark. At the time, the Red Sox right fielder was mired in a profound batting slump after getting off to a prodigious start earlier that spring. It was apparent that Tony C.’s recent, two-week stint at Camp Drum as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard had left him in a hitting stupor. Aware of Conig’s recent funk, pitcher John Buzhardt promptly threw a pair of unforgiving curves; the kid from East Boston grunted each time as he missed by a foot. An unsettling stillness began to descend over Fenway like an airless shroud.
With the count 0-2, Tony settled into his familiar stance, his bat cocked, his eyes staring out assertively at the White Sox hurler. Buzhardt tossed another curveball, but the sphere seemed to deflate by the time it approached home plate. In less than a second, the streaking ball disappeared into the left field net above the scoreboard as the Red Sox team swirled around Conig who gleefully circled the bases and promptly jumped on home plate.
“Never, ever count this team out!” Dad shouted as we joined in the ecstasy that swelled around us.
A week later, when we packed for another summer on Cape Cod, Dad placed our October 1 tickets “in his special drawer” in his desk in Wellesley. “Let’s hope these tickets mean something,” he exclaimed to me when he put them into the enclosure.
A few days later on the Cape, it was soon apparent that the 1967 Orleans Cardinals had another talented team after watching their first team practice at Eldredge Park. To the surprise of no one, they battled their arch-rivals, the then-named Chatham Red Sox, for first place throughout the nine-week baseball season. With Carlton Fisk gone from Orleans, the best catcher in the Cape League that season was Thurman Munson of Chatham. He played with a ferocious style that made us all sit up and take notice. I detested his perpetual sneer and rejoiced every time the Cardinals defeated their Cape rivals that year.
As was our custom each summer, we listened to every Red Sox game on the radio – and watched whatever games were televised on Channel 5. Because of the unfolding pennant American League race that year, I can still replay in my mind scores and scores of highlights from nearly every game that magical summer, which found the 100 to 1 Red Sox battling four other teams for the AL pennant in a race that began to resemble a Paragon Park-like roller coaster ride.
In late June, a massive brawl in the Bronx ensued after Jim Lonborg plunked Yankees pitcher Thad Tillotson square in the back in retaliation for Tillotson’s beaning of Joe Foy. Injuries to pitchers Dave Morehead and Bill Rohr were offset by the unanticipated emergence of hurlers Jose Santiago and Sparky Lyle. Veteran second baseman Jerry Adair, utility player Norm Siebern, and pitcher Gary Bell were added to the team in significant mid-season trades. Later on, veteran catcher Elston Howard would be picked up on waivers from the Yankees. In time, Ellie’s intrepid leadership behind the plate would prove imperative to the young squad for the remainder of the season.
The Red Sox joyride, however, seemed to end with a brutality that galvanized the entire New England region when the California Angels’ veteran reliever, Jack Hamilton, hit Tony in the face with a pitched ball on August 18 at Fenway Park, nearly killing him in the process. Eventually, I heard an eye-witness account of the tragedy after I had befriended a longtime usher who had frequented the bleachers since the ‘40s. The attendant, a portly curmudgeon we always called, “The Whale,” gave me the particulars as I watched a game with him from centerfield in July 1969.
“Just as Tony was about to hit, some asshole let off a smoke bomb, which encircled the field in no time,” the Whale informed me. “It took about five minutes for that damn smoke to settle. During that time, Hamilton never even warmed up. When the smoke finally cleared, Jack threw a high fastball to Conig. The kid never had a chance. The sickening thing about it was the fact that when the ball struck Tony’s cheek, it sounded like a loud clap. I knew he was badly injured, and it sickened me to both see it and hear it.”
Fifty years after Conigliaro’s catastrophic injury, Carl Yastrzemski recalled watching from the on-deck circle. “We were all afraid for him,” Yaz told baseball scribe, Peter Gammons. “It’s like he almost lost the ball. He never moved. It hit him flush, and we didn’t have the ear flaps then. When Tony went down, I thought it was the end of our chance for the pennant.”
Of course, I was absolutely horrified by Conig’s horrific injury but was also swept up into the pennant fever that was sweeping like a warm breeze across New England that year. The initial word from the Red Sox was that Tony C. would miss the rest of the season but would be back in fine form in ’68. Still, The Boston Herald published a photograph of Conigliaro a few days after he was struck, his left eye socket closed, his face bloated and black. My father, who opened the paper first that morning gasped from the kitchen, “Jesus.” He silently handed me the paper.
Despite the calamity, I was more upset for Tony that he couldn’t be a part of what had become the Red Sox version of a Magical Mystery Tour. In my mind, Conig would return to the club as good as new in 1968. Ten days after Tony’s injury, Dick O’Connell astutely signed Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson from the Kansas City Athletics. Even though Tony Conigliaro’s season was over, the Sox had not given up. In the end, Carl Michael Yastrzemski would not let the Boston Red Sox fail.
Throughout the last month of the season, four American League teams played musical chairs with one another; no squad had more than a three-game-lead on the others during this time. In 1967, of course, there could be only one winner and three losers in the last season before playoff baseball began in 1968. Accordingly, in the last weekend of the season, the same four teams that had battled one another all year found themselves within one-half game of one another for the American League crown.
Thus, my farfetched epiphany in May had actually been realized! On Friday, September 29, the Chicago White Sox were swept in a doubleheader by a rejuvenated Kansas City Athletics team, which featured such future superstars Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Joe Rudi. The next afternoon, the Sox defeated an injured Jim Kaat and the Minnesota Twins at Fenway. In Detroit, the Tigers held serve against the California Angels and remained half-a-game back with a doubleheader scheduled for the next day at Tiger Stadium.
Sunday, October 1st, 1967. My father, brother, and I arrived at Fenway Park 90 minutes before game time. As we took our seats, we all began to grin like little children on Christmas morning. Dick O’Connell had indeed been generous – we were sitting in the ninth row of the box seats directly adjacent to the Red Sox batting circle!
Instinctively, I noticed that a large group of youngsters had formed a semi-circle around the backstop. I scuttled down there, pencil and program in hand, and soon saw what the commotion was about. Wearing an NBC blazer and signing autographs for a few lucky kids was none other than the great Sandy Koufax himself. Recently retired, the former Dodgers’ ace was serving as the colorman for Curt Gowdy’s national broadcast that afternoon. Just as I arrived at the back of the circle, the future Hall of Fame hurler looked up and bellowed to us, “Sorry, boys, but I’ve gotta go. I need to conduct an interview.”
“But Sandy!” I called out in panic. “I read your book with Ed Linn!”
“Who said that?” Koufax shouted out to the group.
“I did,” I retorted.
“Well, Kid, then I’ll sign for you.”
As Koufax rolled my program through the backstop screen, I checked to make sure that he had signed it. In a steady hand, he had scrawled his name, “Sandy Koufax,” with the pencil I had given him on the back of the scorecard. The former Dodger lefty slowly walked out to a spot near the batting circle, a microphone in his hand.
It was evident that Koufax was about to tape an interview. The entire group of boys around the batting cage soon noticed his appointed subject who slowly made his way from the Red Sox dugout. We all exploded as we recognized him. “Tony! Tony!” How are you, Tony?”we all shouted.
“Hi, boys,” Conig turned to us. “We’re gonna win this one today. Right?”
“Right you are, Tony!” we replied in unison.
Tony gave us a little wave and then began a short interview with Sandy Koufax as the autumn sun began to drip in splotches over the infield.
Three hours later, as I gripped the program with Sandy Koufax’s autograph on the back cover, my father and I instinctively hugged one another as shortstop Rico Petrocelli enclosed a dying quail from Rich Rollins to end the game. Our Red Sox had won a most improbable pennant! Instantaneously, every Red Sox player rushed out onto the green diamond to smother pitcher Jim Lonborg. Only one player remained behind, Tony Conigliaro, who reportedly had tears in his eyes, watching in silence as his teammates made their way out to join the emerging pandemonium that was forming around the pitcher’s mound.
Four months later, as the 1968 Spring Training season approached, reports began to surface from Winter Haven, Florida that Tony C. was experiencing enormous difficulty picking up the ball. We soon learned that a hole had formed in his retina; the word out on the street was that Conig was partially blind in his left eye. He stayed behind in Florida as the team headed north. When I eventually read in The Globe that he was attempting to make the team as a pitcher, a pit began to form in my stomach.
When I told him the news, my father sighed, “Oh, Tony, poor Tony.”
Later that spring, as I began my first season playing in the Babe Ruth League in Wellesley, my father attended an important Saturday afternoon contest at Hunnewell Field. I ended up tossing a complete game, a seven-inning shutout. Nevertheless, Dad still looked concerned as he put his arm around me at the end of the contest. “Why did you seem to flinch every time you batted? You were always so aggressive at the plate.”
I gulped and looked at Dad for a long time. “I guess because of Tony. I’m kind of scared of the ball right now, Dad,” I admitted. In retrospect, there must have been several thousand boys like me from New England who recoiled in the batter’s box that spring, the memory of Tony Conigliaro’s shattered face etched permanently in our minds.
By the middle of the summer of ‘68, Conig’s future in baseball seemed uncertain at best. We heard that he was undergoing a series of treatments to improve his eyesight after his pitching experiment had failed. Conigliaro, and, by extension, his many fans, were learning that life might just be a long preparation for something that never quite happens that way you thought it would. “Perhaps Tony is the outfielder’s version of Indians’ pitcher Herb Score,” my father stated to me one August afternoon that summer. “The promise of brilliance gone in an instant. I learned in war that life is inherently unfair,” sighed Dad, a survivor of three major invasions including Okinawa.
I took Dad’s words in and stirred them around for a while – and ended up saying nothing in return.
Spring Training 1969. Tony Conigliaro announced that he was attempting another comeback, this time as an outfielder. The word out of Winter Haven was that Tony’s eyesight had “slowly returned.” By late March, Manager Dick Williams announced that Conig would be returning to right field. Making the Red Sox that spring as well was Conigliaro’s younger brother, Billy. I waited impatiently for the Opening Day of the season to commence – a day affair in Baltimore.
To her everlasting credit, Mom let me come home early from
school. A lifelong baseball fan herself, she knew how much this particular game
meant to me. My heart was in my throat as Tony was introduced as the starting
right fielder during the pre-game warm-ups. As he approached home plate for the
first time in nearly a year-and-a-half in the big leagues, Conig received a
tumultuous ovation from thousands of Oriole fans. In the tenth inning of that
first game, Conigliaro came up to the plate for the fifth time in the contest.
On a 1-1 pitch, he launched a towering homer to left off of Baltimore reliever, Dave Leonard. The Red Sock slugger sailed around the bases and was mugged in the dugout by his teammates. Manager Dick Williams even gave him a peck on the cheek. Ned Martin said later that he almost felt like crying as he watched Tony sprint around the base paths.
The Great Conigliaro was back.
Still, it was evident that Tony was struggling at times to pick up the ball. Little did we know that Tony’s vision hadn’t healed completely – there was still a blind spot in his left eye – a perilous situation for someone who tried to make a living as a baseball slugger. During the first few games that were played at the Fens that year, the Red Sox administration began to comprehend that their young right fielder could barely pick up the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand – especially with so many Red Sox fans wearing light tee-shirts in the background. In retrospect, Tony’s left eye hadn’t really healed. He was just tilting his head more directly toward the pitcher’s mound in order to pick the ball.
Back then, the centerfield seats behind the television camera were open to the public – $1.25 a ticket. In May, the Red Sox announced that from then on, patrons would be expected to wear black or Navy blue attire in that part of the bleachers. For agreeing to such a proposal, each participant would receive an engraved card, stating that he or she was a member in good standing of “Conig’s Corner.”
I soon became a regular member, sitting out in center field at least 40 times in both 1969 and 1970. Manning that unique section both years was the legendary usher, “The Whale,” who made sure that Tony C. had the proper backdrop as he approached home plate to bat.
Scores of New Englanders, resourceful if not inventive, began to tote two shirts with them to the game if they planned on sitting in “Conig’s Corner.” When the Red Sox came out to bat, a large flock of customers would adorn their dark-blue shirts or sweaters, depending on the weather. However, when the opposing team came to bat, many of us whipped out white tee-shirts and put them on over our dark ones, hoping that it would somehow help the run-of-the-mill Sox pitching staff.
Tony was always gracious to us in “Conig’s Corner,” waving to us regularly as he took his familiar spot in right field. A young woman, who proudly wore a Red Sox jersey adorned with the number 25, habitually began to serenade Tony C. as he made his way to the outfield. She used the melody from the famed fan club song from Bye Bye Birdie and inserted Conigliaro’s name instead: “We lo-ov-ve you, Tony….oh yes, we doo-ooo-ooo….”
Once after Conig jacked a gargantuan home run to left, he sprinted out to his regular spot in right field, turned around to face us, and made an elegant bow with a twist of his arm.
We loved him for that.
For two years, Tony Conigliaro continued to defy science, hitting a career-high 36 home runs in 1970. Our little world was therefore jarred beyond measure when the Red Sox announced on October 11, 1970 that they had traded Tony C. to the California Angels for – among others – Jarvis and Ken Tatum.
“We just cornered the market on Tatums,” my despondent father muttered as he threw down The Globe the day after the trade was announced. I could barely talk as I walked to school that morning. My hero was now an Angel. “Conig’s Corner” was soon quietly disbanded.
The following summer, Tony Conigliaro and the California Angels came to town to play the Red Sox. With a mixture of loyalty, reverence, and sadness, I lined up to purchase one bleacher ticket two hours before game time. As I made my way toward the old “Conig’s Corner,” I noticed “The Whale” checking people’s clothing. He was making damn sure that Tony still had the right background to hit from – even though he was now wearing an enemy uniform.
While patrons in the old “Conig’s Corner” had been wearing white while the Angels were batting, they quickly changed to black or Navy blue as Tony approached home plate for the first time as an opposing player. Ultimately, he received a frenzied, two-minute standing ovation from the Fenway faithful.
A few minutes later, when Conig sprinted out to his familiar spot in right field for the first time that afternoon, we rose as one and began calling out to him. He turned around and blew us a kiss. Eventually, the crowd quieted down, and the game commenced.
Slowly, sadly, a familiar refrain could be heard coming from his old corner: “We lo-ov-ove you, Tony, oh yes we doo-ooo-ooo.”
Even “The Whale” brushed away a few tears.
Conig turned around and waved to us all. “We will ALWAYS love you, Tony!” a leather-lung called out. A lump in his throat, Conigliaro nodded and waved to us once again.
At the end of that season, he retired from baseball, saying that his eyesight had deteriorated. The word on the street, however, was that he was lonely out in California. He needed us as much as we needed him.
Two years after Tony C. retired from the Angels, I enrolled at Jacksonville University and secured a spot as a pitcher on the varsity baseball team. When I met former Red Sox pitcher Jack Lamabe for the first time, I impulsively barked, “Coach, you pitched a hell of a game for the Sox on Opening Day back in ’64!”
He looked stunned. “Shaun, I haven’t heard anyone tell me that in a long, long time.”
Throughout the next four years, I would spend hundreds of hours with the former Red Sox hurler. Because of his palpable baseball connections, Coach Jack Lamabe would eventually bring in several baseball luminaries to talk to us including Robin Roberts, Ted Simmons, and most memorably, Theodore Samuel “Ted” Williams.
When the Splendid Splinter showed up during a practice session one year, he informed me that I was erroneously throwing my slider. After repairing the flaw, Teddy Ballgame looked me in the eyes and roared, “Now, Son, when you go back to Boston, I want you to tell your friends that Ted Fucking Williams taught you how to throw a fucking slider!”
I couldn’t wait to get to the telephone to tell my dad the story.
In the winter of 1975, I sprinted into Coach Jack Lamabe’s office one morning after I heard on the radio the astonishing news that Tony Conigliaro was attempting another comeback with the Red Sox after a nearly four-year absence from professional baseball. Lamabe’s eyes blinked a few times as Conig’s former teammate took in the fact that number 25 was going to give it another shot.
“Oh, I hope Tony can make it,” Coach Lamabe sighed. “He deserves all the success in the world.”
I cheered Tony from afar that spring as it was announced that he had beaten out the talented rookie, Jim Rice, as the team’s designated hitter. My heart nearly burst when I heard the accounts of the spirited reception Tony C. received at Fenway on Opening Day 1975 from my emotional father on the phone. I barged into Coach Lamabe’s office to tell him the news. “Conig’s Corner is back in business!” I bellowed. “The Old Tomato’s” tobacco-lined smile spoke worlds.
A few days later, Tony and the Red Sox played a day game in Baltimore. In his second at-bat that afternoon, Conig launched his first home run in the big leagues in four years.
In mid-May, I returned home to Wellesley from Jacksonville determined to see Tony C. hit once again at the Fens. The old centerfield section where Conig’s Corner had once held forth was now permanently closed by the Red Sox in hopes that a dark green background would provide a safe backdrop for both teams. Still, I wore a black jersey the first game back in the bleachers upon my return to the old ballpark. I then glanced up-and-down the centerfield stands and realized that a gaggle of “Conig’s Corner” veterans were all there, still rooting with fervor for the kid from Eastie.
As the game began, I adjusted my transistor radio to my ear, listening to the affirming voices of Ned Martin and his new radio partner, Jim “The Possum” Woods. As my ear was pressed against my tiny transistor in the bleachers, it was seemed surreal when Tony Conigliaro sauntered up to home plate at Fenway that warm May night. Within seconds, Conig immediately crouched in his distinctive stance, waiting for the pitch, his bat held upright.
The luminous left-handed flame-thrower, Vida Blue, was pitching for the Athletics that night when Tony connected on a monstrous home run that went over the screen and landed onto Lansdowne Street. I can report here that the last home run of Conigliaro’s career – the 166th of his career – paralleled his first. The crowd in the bleachers reacted as if Bobby Orr had just scored another Stanley Cup-winning goal. After several moments, my “Conig’s Corner” friends high-fived each other as number 25 took his seat on the bench.
A few days later, Tony Conigliaro was sent down to Pawtucket, never to return to the Big Leagues. The youngest player to reach one-hundred career home runs in baseball history had just cashed in his chips.
He was just 30 years old.
Even though he was no longer playing organized ball, I still cheered for Tony Conigliaro as he began his new career as a sportscaster – first in Providence – and then out in San Francisco. By 1982, I was teaching at TASIS England, an American School situated eighteen miles west of London and was visiting my folks in Wellesley for Christmas, when I read in The Globe that Hawk Harrelson, the Red Sox TV commentator at the time, had just signed on with the White Sox as their lead telecaster. Incredibly, Tony C. was flying back to Boston for an audition with Channel 38. “Ned Martin and Tony Conigliaro together again,” the article said. Mercy.
However, the day before I was to leave for the UK, we learned that Tony had suffered a catastrophic heart attack on the way to Logan Airport. Ironically, his tryout as the second Red Sox announcer had so impressed the WSBK officials that he had unofficially been offered the job on the spot. His brother, Billy, had heroically saved Tony’s life by reconnoitering his car in the tunnel the wrong way to get Conig to Mass General as quickly as possible.
It was a long flight for me back to England that evening.
Ultimately, it would take seven years for Anthony Richard Conigliaro’s heart to stop beating. His parents, and his younger brothers, Billy and Ritchie, were continually at Tony’s side during his extended convalescence. The massive stroke that he had suffered as a result of his heart attack had left him a shell of a man.
Fifteen years after Conig’s death, I conversed with famed sports journalist Mike Lupica, who visited Tony up in the North Shore and wrote a memorable piece on Conigliaro in Esquire. “What I most remember about the visit was Tony’s violent coughing,” Lupica told me. “It shook me to the core. You just wanted it to stop. It broke your heart to see him in that condition. After he died, I remembered thinking, ‘At least he doesn’t have to cough anymore.'”
On February 24th, 1990, Tony Conigliaro died from the ravages of a stroke and a subsequent heart attack. He was 45-years old. By that time, I had moved on to Greenwich, Connecticut, where I began teaching at a local independent school. After I heard that Tony had drawn his last breath, I put on my old “Conig’s Corner” shirt, drove to the local high school baseball field that was then shrouded in a nighttime snow squall, and cried my eyes out on the pitcher’s mound.
A decade later, when it was revealed that Tony Conigliaro had fathered a child out of wedlock and that his daughter was now an elegant young woman, I stared in wonder at the copy of The Boston Herald that had published her picture. She had her father’s eyes. Tony’s legacy had been passed on.
In May 2001, I had the privilege of chatting with both Jim Kaat and Bobby Murcer in their cramped MSG broadcasting booth at Yankee Stadium. As we all began to reminisce, I took out a 1966 Topps Baseball Card of Conigliaro that I had kept in my wallet for more than 30 years. “Ah, Tony,” said Kaat as he fingered the card delicately. “He would have hit 500 home runs. He always put the fear of God in me when he came up to the plate. I tried to pitch him low and away. When I made a mistake to him – watch out.”
Bobby Murcer glanced down at my card as well and held it reverently in his right hand. “What a talent,” he sighed. ” As a player, I always looked up to Tony. And what courage.”
Later that evening, when the Yankee’s venerable public address announcer, Bob Sheppard, asked me who my favorite Red Sox player was in 40 years of following the team, I proudly informed him.
“A fine, fine choice,” Mr. Sheppard replied.
In March 2003, I was interviewed by Black Canyon Productions for an HBO original movie that eventually became the Emmy-award winning documentary, The Curse of the Bambino. Throughout the two-hour exchange, I touched on a number of subjects pertinent to the film, from Luis Aparicio’s stumble around third in 1972 to Rich Gedman’s passed ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. As the interview concluded, I admitted to producer John Stone, “There is a lot of pathos involved with the franchise, for sure, John. But can I share with you my thoughts about one special player?Can I tell you about Tony Conigliaro?”
When I finally attended the premiere of the HBO film in Boston that fall, the only time that a well of emotion swept over me occurred early on in the documentary when director George Roy showed a young Tony Conigliaro, effervescent and impenetrable, signing an autograph for a young fan. I brushed away a few tears in the darkened movie theater.
That August, I took my youngest son, Max, to Fenway Park for the first time in his young life. After we settled into our seats, I pointed out to the green expanse and whispered, “Son, a giant once played out there in right field.”
When I peeked up at the retired numbers near the Jimmy Fund sign, I was not at all upset when I failed to see the number 25 hanging up next to all the other honored numbers. I had retired Tony C’s number in my mind years before.
Hours later, when my youngest son and I walked back to take the Riverside subway line back home, Max, a nine-year-old at the time, asked, “Dad, was Tony C. your all-time favorite Red Sox player?”
“Yes, Max,” I replied. “No other player quite captured my heart as much as Conig did.” As we climbed aboard the trolley, I thought a lot about fathers, sons, and baseball heroes as we headed to the Woodland T Stop.
The ensuing week, I read John R. Tunis’s baseball novel, The Kid from Tomkinsville to Max in the same bedroom in my grandfather’s Cape house where I had first read it when Tony Conigliaro was a rookie. When I completed the narrative, Max asked if we could go outside for a catch. I realized right there that my life had come full circle.
Little did Max and I know at the time that the Red Sox would, throughout the next fifteen seasons, not only secure the franchise’s first World Series Championship in 86 years but then garner three more world titles in the process. While Tony Conigliaro’s name would occasionally be bandied about by Bosox fans in the bleachers or on sports talk shows during this time, an entirely new generation of fans began singing the praises of the likes of Pedro, Schill, Big Papi, Manny, Petey, Jon, Koji San, Mookie, J. D., Bennie, Jackie, and a wellspring of others.
However, when the greatest living Red Sock, Carl Yastrzemski, was asked in 2017 who was the best player who played with him during his storied 23-year-career, Yaz said without hesitation, “Tony Conigliaro.” When “Number 8” was then queried whether Conig would have been enshrined in Cooperstown, Yastrzemski replied, “Without a doubt. He was an extremely talented hitter, and in ’67, Tony became a great defensive player. There’s no doubt that if he didn’t get hit in the eye, he could have been in the Hall of Fame.”
If you live long enough, wisdom does come to you through the grace of experience, sorrow, and divinity. When I listened to Tony Conigliaro’s first spring training contest as a major leaguer in March 1964, I was a youngster who had not even lived a decade. As I write this now, I am on the cusp of an infiltrating age that will eventually reduce to me to dust. When I think back to that moment when I was nine, I recognize that the optimism I felt then on the shores of my youth – where time hadn’t yet chipped away my faith – resulted in me uncovering a living, breathing embodiment of life’s transcendence in the personage of nineteen-year-old Tony Conigliaro. It was as if the most inconsequential trickle of water ended up filling a mighty reservoir. Despite all that has happened since 1964, my reverence for Tony Conigliaro has never wavered.
Of course, for four decades after that 1964 spring training game, I wanted nothing more in life than to experience at least one Red Sock championship season before I died. Now, in my 56th year of following the team, I celebrated my team’s fourth such title this past October, when the Boston Red Sox enjoyed their most hallowed season in the 117-year history of the franchise. Each time the Sox have won it all, I have felt like a nine-year-old boy once more.
Still, I do know that my middle school students now view me as being older than God. As the years slip by like shuffling cards, the past to me is now nothing more than a series of postcards that encapsulate millions of snapshots of life. In the final analysis, the people who supported, nurtured, and loved me are the ones who have made all those frames so meaningful. As always, love matters – and nothing else really counts.
And so, if I could vibrantly relive something in my life right before the moment of my own death, I would venture back to the magical summer of 1967 – right before the smoke bomb and the pitch that divided Tony Conigliaro’s life into a “before and after.” I would be 12 once more, sitting next to my father in Section 15, Row 5, Seat 10 at Fenway Park. I would be smiling broadly watching Dad, alive again, keeping score as he always did at every ballgame.
“Who’s coming up to bat, Dad?” I ask.
“Your favorite, Shaunie. Tony C.!”
I immediately glance up at the scoreboard in left; it’s the bottom of the first inning, and a young Tony Conigliaro is beginning to swing a few weighted bats in the on-deck circle near where Daddy and I are sitting.
Seconds later, as Conig approaches home plate – healthy, brisk, and eager – public address announcer, Sherm Feller, bleats out, “Now batting fourth, number 25, Tony Conigliaro, right field, Conigliaro.” The Fenway crowd begins to clap around us rhythmically, and my father and I reflexively join in the refrain as well.
Tony then settles into his familiar stance, his bat cocked, his coffee eyes staring assertively out at the pitcher. Within seconds, a fastball is tossed at the catcher’s padded glove. As soon as the pitch is delivered, Conig’s vigorous eyes become wide ovals as the ball whistles towards the strike zone. He swings with the panache of a bullfighter; his tan bat strikes the red numbers on his back as he completes his savage stroke.
In less than a second, Dad and I quickly rise from our blue seats as the white ball make its way over the left field wall towards Lansdowne Street.
In the last moment of my life, all would be finally right with the world.
For the late Nick Carfardo of The Boston Globe – who loved my original piece on Tony and encouraged me to update it. Gracefulness and passion guided him always. I have a strong hunch that Nick would have loved my Dad.