Friday, March 18, 2011

All Over

At 6'8", Gene Conley was big enough to be that rare athlete to play two professional sports. From 1952-63, the three-time All Star took the mound for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Boston Red Sox. For good measure, he put in six years with the Knicks and Celtics of the NBA (spaced out between 1952 and 1964), where he was a capable rebounder off the bench.

By 1964, Conley's strong right arm had given out. As he stared bleakly at the end of his sports career, he determineded to give it one more shot. Conley called Cleveland Indians executive Gabe Paul, who agreed to let Conley pitch for an Indians minor league club in order to see if there was anything left.

There wasn't.

In this memorable passage from Donald Honig's Baseball Between the Lines, Conley recounts his final realization that he was through:
So I started a game. We were playing Greensboro, North Carolina. Those kids came up to the plate and started knocking line drives all over the place. I tried flooring a few of them but they weren't impressed; I didn't have enough on the ball to scare anybody. After four or five innings they had to take me out.
I called Gabe Paul the next day.
"Gabe," I said, "I tried but I can't do it."
"I thought that might be the case," he said. "I guess you just had to get it out of your system."
"Well," I said, "It's out."
When I walked away from that telephone I was really shocked. There was no more fooling myself. It was all over and I knew it. Not only that, I didn't have a job, nothing to go back to. The basketball was about over, too. So I was pretty depressed.
I wandered around for a while, a lost soul on the streets of this town in North Carolina. Then I walked into a church and sat down in the back, all by myself. There was a service going on. After the singing this Baptist minister started preaching. All of a sudden it hit me real hard and I caved in and started crying. I just sat there in that last row and cried and cried, trying to keep my head down so as not to upset anybody. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and I looked up. An elderly Southern gentleman was standing there gazing down at me.
"What's the matter, son?" he asked. "Did you lose your mother?"
I shook my head, the tears still running. "No sir," I said. "I lost my fastball."


John Hayes said...

What an amazing story! Thanks for pointing it out.

K. said...

One of my favorite baseball anecdotes. Conley relates it perfectly, too.

K. said...

BTW, I like "I tried flooring a few." The game has changed since then!

tnlib said...

Thanks for the tears.

TaraDharma said...

what a painful turning point in an athlete's life. I'm glad he gave it his last, best, shot though. He had to. So, What's the Rest of the Story?

K. said...


Gene is 80 and still with us. According to Wikipedia:

After his retirement from professional sports, Conley started working for a duct tape company in Boston, Massachusetts. After a year working there, the owner of the duct tape company died. Conley later founded his own paper company, Foxboro Paper Company, in which he owned for 36 years until he retired from the business.

Conley lived in Clermont, Florida until December 2009, where he played golf and watched the Orlando Magic play in his free time. He moved to his vacation home in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire in 2010. In 2004, his wife released a biography of him, called One of a Kind, which chronicled his life in both baseball and basketball and how his family dealt with him being gone for most of the year.[

K. said...

For my money, Conley's recounting is Hemingwayesque in its plainness of language and clipped and rhythmic sentences (although the punch line is more Faulkner!) There can't be more than a half dozen words of more than two syllables. You can tell that he's refined the story with repeated tellings, but so what? It's a great story!