Gene Conley, who launched and completed his historic professional sports career in Hartford, died on Tuesday at his home in Foxborough, Mass. He was 86.
Conley, remembered as a lanky, happy-go-lucky giant in his youth, remains the only man to play on both World Series and NBA championship teams, pitching for the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and playing on the 1959, '60 and '61 Celtics. He pitched to Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, guarded Wilt Chamberlain and was a teammate of Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.
After the Celtics won their third title in a row on April 11, 1961, Conley, who had four points and a rebound in five minutes in the clinching game against the Hawks, went to Florida for a week to warm up his pitching arm, then joined the Red Sox and pitched a complete-game victory on April 25. "Who needs spring training?" he said.
The Courant's headline on April 26, 1961:
Celtics Center Hurls 6-1 Victory over Senators at Fenway.
"Gene Conley was one of the greatest athletes of our generation," Red Auerbach once said. "There was no tougher or more competitive player than Gene."
Before all of that, Conley, who was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Richland, Wash., was a baby-faced, 6-foot-8 rookie righthander, suiting up at Bulkeley Stadium for the Hartford Chiefs. He had played football and basketball for Washington State University before the Boston Braves signed him, and Hartford was his first professional stop.
"He joined us in spring training," remembered Ray Crone, who pitched with Conley in Hartford, and later in the major leagues. "And he sent for his wife, Katie, to come and join him and they got married. He decided she was the girl he wanted to marry. He'd do things on a spur of the moment, never worried about the future. He always had a smile on his face when he walked into the clubhouse, and he always kind of stooped because he was conscious of his height."
In 1951, Conley was 20-9 with a 2.16 ERA for the Chiefs, pitching 263 innings and winning the Eastern League MVP and The Sporting News' minor league player of the year honors. The Courant's Harry Batz photographed Conley towering above much shorter teammates, ducking to get through a doorway at the ballpark and showing his ability to make a baseball completely disappear in his right hand. He threw nine shutouts, two of them one-hitters for the Chiefs, and by late summer his starts were billed as "Conley Nights" in The Courant.
"He'd pitch and there'd be about 7,000 people there," Crone remembers. "I'd pitch the next night and there'd be about a thousand, maybe."
Conley was in the majors with the Boston Braves in 1952, and had his best years after the franchise moved to Milwaukee, going 14-9 with a 2.96 ERA in 1954, and 11-7 with a 4.16 ERA the next season. He was an All-Star both years, and was credited with the NL's victory at County Stadium in Milwaukee on July 12, 1955, pitching a scoreless 12th inning despite a sore shoulder, striking out Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon and Al Rosen in order. "I don't know how I did it," Conley said many years later, in an interview with a Wisconsin radio station. "I guess they were looking for something faster. They were all out in front."
Stan Musial won the game with a walk-off home run.
"I could tell right away that he was going to be a great big-league pitcher," Hank Aaron told Katie Conley for her 2004 biography of her husband, 'One of a Kind: The Gene Conley Story.' "He was a natural athlete. He could pitch, run and had a good bat. I enjoyed him as a friend and teammate for several years."
In 1957, Conley pitched in Game 3 of the World Series, allowing a home run to Mickey Mantle, but the Braves beat the Yankees, which Conley later called his greatest thrill in sports.
After a tough season in 1958 — Conley had shoulder issues and pitched only 72 innings — he called Auerbach and asked for a tryout. Skeptical, Auerbach agreed only if Conley paid his own expenses to Boston. He made the team and played in 50 games. The Braves, furious, traded Conley to the Phillies and he bounced back with a 12-7 record and 3.00 ERA and made the 1959 All-Star Game, striking out Ted Williams and Yogi Berra during two perfect innings at the LA Coliseum.
"Gene was really something," Willie Mays once said. "I don't know of anyone else quite like him. To have a great success in two sports is rare. To me, Gene was a giant figure on the mound. He really scared me. You had to respect him."
Despite large contract offers from the Phillies to stick to baseball, Conley insisted on playing both sports and, in 1961, was traded to the Red Sox and established himself with a third franchise in the same city. He was 11-14 and 15-14 the next two seasons. After being hit hard in a loss to the Yankees in July 1962, Conley and teammate Pumpsie Green walked off the team bus, which was stuck in traffic, to find a bathroom. When they returned, the bus went on without them. Conley was missing several days before returning to the Red Sox. He paid a fine, and led the team in innings pitched that season with 241 2/3.
"[Conley] was a great pitcher, a tough basketball player, a winner, and dedicated athlete," former Celtics teammate Tom Heinsohn once said, "who had a unique way of looking at life."
Conley finished his major league career in 1964 with a 91-96 record. Duke Snider once told him it wasn't his arm that gave him trouble, it was that high leg kick.
"He wasn't a high-velocity guy," Crone said from Waxahatchee, Texas. "A lot of times you think of with someone that big. He had a good curveball, and a lot of deception. And he was a good competitor."
Conley returned to basketball, playing in the late 1960s in various leagues, including the Eastern Basketball League with the Hartford Capitals beginning in 1966. He coached them briefly before resigning in November, 1969. The Conleys settled in Foxborough and established the Foxboro Paper Company, living there more than 40 years. They had three children and seven grandchildren.
"Gene played with tremendous motivation and heart," K.C. Jones told Katie Conley for her book. "A bona fide double legend in two sports, Gene never lost his smile, his team spirit or his positive attitude."