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Accidental villain

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Back in Morning Sun, Iowa, they didn't teach baseball pitchers to aim for the corners of home plate. If you were born with the kind of arm that could put a dent in the barn, the kind that God loved to bestow on country boys, the ethos was simple.

"I just went out and threw hard," Jack Hamilton says. "That's all I knew enough to do."

Imagine Hamilton's amazement when, in 1967, he started to control his pitches. As a rookie with Philadelphia five years earlier, Hamilton led the National League in walks and wild pitches, a 95-mph fastball his wild horse. Of all the things to help Hamilton tame himself, learning the spitball – an illegal pitch in which he lubed up the horsehide with a sheen of phlegm, sending it tumbling like a dive bomber – somehow did the job.

"I was throwing excellent," Hamilton says. "I was finally starting to get the ball over the plate."

Hamilton sits in his office in Branson, Mo., kitsch capital of the United States. A vacation in 1986 convinced him to pack up all his stuff in Burlington, Iowa, and retire there with his wife to open a restaurant. Little did he know Branson would turn into a Midwest tourist trap and encourage visitors from so many places. New York, he says, and Los Angeles, and Dallas, and, yes, Boston.

When tour buses from the Northeast roll into Branson, Hamilton readies himself. The baseball memorabilia on the walls of the restaurant invites the first round of questions, and after a few, Hamilton's name comes up, and when it does, he hears what he has heard now for 40 years.

"Are you the Jack Hamilton?"

The Jack Hamilton who hit Tony Conigliaro, they mean, though they wouldn't dare take Tony C's name in vain like that. He was a deity in Boston, where they will never forget the day, 40 years ago Saturday, when Hamilton felled him with a fastball flush on the left side of his face. As Conigliaro writhed on the ground, blood spilling from his nose and mouth and ears, Hamilton walked toward the plate before his catcher, Buck Rodgers, shooed him away to spare him from the carnage.

So standing in the middle of the field at Fenway Park, a fallen star before him, a stunned crowd around him, Hamilton turned introspective, the only safe place he knew. He had hit just one batter that season. He wouldn't hit another after Conigliaro. And it all made him wonder the same thing that has haunted him for four decades.

How did it happen?

"No one," Hamilton says, "lets me forget it."

***

Every kid who grows up in Boston learns the story of Tony C, and for many it's their first taste of sadness and broken dreams. At first, it sounds like a fairy tale: the local boy, a product of St. Mary's High in Lynn, starts his first game with the Red Sox as a 19-year-old and hits the first pitch he sees for a home run. He leads the American League in home runs the next season, smacks 100 homers quicker than anyone in history, slays girls with his brown eyes the size of drink coasters, dates sexpot Mamie Van Doren, cruises the city in a Corvette, records a few songs and is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest baseball players anyone saw.

And then Jack Hamilton shows up.

In the retelling, Hamilton was the Big Bad Wolf. By the fourth inning, the California Angels right-hander had allowed just one hit, a single in Conigliaro's first at-bat. Hamilton lorded over the mound, ominous wisps of smoke curling in the outfield, remnants of the smoke bomb a fan lobbed onto the field two batters earlier. Conigliaro stepped in and leaned over the plate, the alpha dog marking his territory. Hamilton had a reputation for coming inside with his pitches. Tony C spat on reputations.

The first pitch was a fastball, the pre-'67 kind. Hamilton lost it high and tight. Tony C hesitated. A 95-mph fastball arrives at the plate in around four-tenths of a second. When Tony C moved, his helmet, without an earflap, rustled loose. The ball smashed into Conigliaro and thudded to the ground, its impact absorbed by his face.

"He didn't stagger at all," Hamilton says. "He went straight down."

The beaning fractured Conigliaro's cheekbone, dislocated his jaw and caused a cyst to form behind his left eye, which some teammates were afraid had fallen out of the socket. Conigliaro said he thought he was going to die. He was rushed to the hospital. The Red Sox seethed in their dugout, big George Scott pointing his bat at Hamilton, poised to avenge his friend.

Conigliaro lived. He sported a shiner that looked like an abstract painting, blacks and purples mingling sickeningly. Conigliaro missed the rest of the season and all of 1968 with blurred vision. He entertained the idea of pitching before his eyesight improved and allowed him to return April 8, 1969, the Red Sox's first game of the season.

In the 10th inning, Conigliaro hit a two-run home run, and he scored the winning run in the 12th. The next season, he hit a career-high 36 home runs, finished second in the AL with 116 RBIs and looked well on his way to a baseball resurrection.

His eyes wouldn't cooperate. The Red Sox traded Conigliaro to the Angels after the 1970 season. He flamed out and left baseball. A 1975 comeback with Boston was aborted after 57 at-bats. By 30, Tony C was retired.

Time chewed and Conigliaro passed it working as a sports broadcaster. Following an interview for a TV job calling Red Sox games Jan. 9, 1982, he suffered a massive heart attack on the way to the airport in his brother Billy's car. Conigliaro's heart stopped for more than five minutes. He lay comatose for seven weeks. When he awoke, his family tried everything to salvage his life. They brought shamans, holistic healers, acupuncturists. Nothing worked. Still struggling, Conigliaro died in 1990 of pneumonia and kidney failure. He was 45.

Major League Baseball honors a player every season with the Tony Conigliaro Award for overcoming adversity. The Red Sox will mark the 40th anniversary of the beaning Saturday with a ceremony that includes Conigliaro's family.

Boston's opponent: The Los Angeles Angels.

By now, Hamilton understands that for the rest of his life, he will be a villain to countless people he has never met. Billy Conigliaro still believes Hamilton played headhunter with his brother.

"I couldn't take a baseball and throw it at somebody's head on purpose," Hamilton says. "I don't have the guts.

"I really don't care what the public thinks about me. Accidents happen. If I thought about it all the time, it would bother me. I know in my heart, I didn't mean to throw it."

Sometimes, Hamilton wishes he could have said that to Conigliaro's face. The two never spoke. They faced each other April 11, 1969, Conigliaro's third game back, as well as April 20. He went 1 for 4 with a sacrifice bunt.

A little more than a year later, Conigliaro's autobiography "Seeing It Through" was published.

"I know it was an accident," Conigliaro wrote, "but I honestly don't know if I have ever really forgiven him for it."

***

Ever since Boxcar Willie died, Hamilton hasn't been to a baseball game. Hamilton befriended the country singer, one of the first to build his own theater in Branson, and the two would make the four-hour drive to St. Louis and take in a few Cardinals games a year.

"Just watching baseball is my hobby," Hamilton says. "Now I've got the Extra Innings package. I'll stay up for the West Coast games. I'll sit at home and watch until 12:30."

Hamilton's career ended two years after the pitch to Conigliaro. He blames it on injuries. Some say he was scared to pitch inside. Maybe it was both. Maybe it was neither.

Occasionally he'll go into his back yard and play catch with his son. Hamilton is 68 now. His wife, Janyce, runs the books at their restaurant. His son is a cook, his daughter a waiter. Hamilton schmoozes, chats baseball with interested customers and tells them to order prime rib, the house specialty.

At the front of the restaurant, Hamilton hands out baseball cards of himself that highlight his career. Each talks about the grand slam he hit off Al Jackson in 1967, or the one-hit shutout he threw against the Cardinals the year before, the only blemish a bunt single by pitcher Ray Sadecki. Nowhere does it mention Conigliaro.

Most people don't know any better. They're just glad to be in Branson, at Jack's Plaza View Restaurant, talking baseball with a former major leaguer. Hamilton has owned a few restaurants over the years in Branson. He called one Pzazz, a name he stole from another establishment in Burlington because he found it so unique.

"I'll tell you something," Hamilton says. "When people see something they haven't seen before, they don't forget the name."