These are the darkest days. Football is over. I haven’t watched a NBA game from start to finish since I lived in New York when Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier and Bill Bradley led the Knicks to the 1969-1970 championship. As for hockey, I blame my disinterest on growing up in Los Angeles where the only ice I ever saw was in my freezer. But soon the sun will shine again, if not here in Pittsburgh then in Florida and Arizona where spring training will begin in a few days.
As I mulled over the seasonal transition from football to basketball to baseball, I suddenly remembered the man who handled it better than anyone: Gene Conley, the 6’8” giant who excelled on the diamond and the hardwood.
No one else played against Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson and Oscar Robertson or played with Carl Yastrzemski during the summer, then teamed up Bob Cousy for the winter. Only Conley once had a locker next to Hank Aaron and Bill Russell during the same calendar year.
After playing baseball and basketball for Washington State University, Conley signed his first professional contract with the Boston Braves who called him up in 1952. Later that year, Boston Celtics’ guard Bill Sharman recommended Conley to Red Auerbach. During the 1952-53 NBA season, young Gene lived in the Lenox Hotel, one floor below Coach Auerbach.
The following year, the Braves paid Conley a $5,000 bonus to quit basketball. Conley rewarded the Braves with a 14 game winning season in 1954. During the July 1955 All Star Game, Conley struck out in order Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon and Al Rosen in the top of the 12th, then earned the win when Stan Musial homered in the bottom of the inning. In the second of two 1959 All Star Games, Conley fanned Ted Williams. In between Conley’s All Star appearances, he picked up NBA championship rings as Bill Russell’s backup with the 1958-1959 and 1959-60 Celtics.
But by 1958, Conley’s constant drinking and his inability to get along with Braves’ manager Fred Hanley led to his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies. Conley later referred to the swap “as the largest in baseball history” since 6’7” Frank Sullivan was the other part of the deal.
By 1960, the Phillies had grown tired of Conley’s dual career and offered him $20,000 to stop playing basketball. When the two parties couldn’t come to terms, the Phillies traded Conley to the Red Sox. At that point, Conley became the only man to play for three major professional teams in the same city.
In 1962, Conley recorded career highs in wins and innings, 15 and 242. But it was also the year of infamous Conley-Pumpsie Green incident. After a 13-3 shellacking on July 26 in Yankee Stadium when he gave up eight third inning runs, Conley began drinking heavily which started him down the road on the adventure for which he is most famous.
En route back to Boston, the team bus got stuck in traffic. Conley and Green got off the bus allegedly to find a restroom but really to find a bar. When the two players returned the bus was gone. Left to their own devices, the pair resumed drinking before Green came to his senses and left Gene to return to Boston. Conley, however, continued his binge for several days and eventually in a condition described by those on the scene at the airport as “extremely inebriated” bought a ticket to Israel. Because he had no passport, the airline refused to let him board.
By 1964, Conley was out of baseball and basketball; in 1966, he took his last drink. Now 81, Conley now lives with his wife of more than 60 years in New Hampshire.
Many consider Conley one of the greatest athletes in sports’ history. In all, Conley played 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, three of them with the Boston Red Sox (1961-63), one with the Boston Braves (1952), five with the Milwaukee Braves (1954-58) and two with the Philadelphia Phillies (1959).
Conley also played six NBA seasons, four of them with the Celtics (1953, 1959-61) and two more with the New York Knicks (1963-64).
Conley’s wife Katheryn detailed more wild stories in her husband’s biography of her husband published in 2004, One of a Kind.
Apparently, life with Gene was no picnic and was bearable only because of his long road trips which, because Conley played two sports, lasted parts of ten months each year.