Editors note: Gene Conley, a sports icon for Richland and the Tri-Cities, died this week at age 86 at his home in Foxborough, Mass. The following story ran in the Herald on Dec. 30, 1999, and was No. 2 in the Herald’s list of top 100 stories of the centuries.
Of all the great American athletes who competed during the 20th century, Gene Conley accomplished something no one else was able to do. Conley, story No. 2 on our list of the top 100 sports stories of the century in the Mid-Columbia, won championship rings in two different major professional sports.
In 1958, Conley was a pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves, who beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.
In 1959, 1960 and 1961, Conley was a member of the National Basketball Association champion Boston Celtics.
In all, the former Richland Bomber played 23 seasons of professional sports, at one point cramming 17 seasons of work into 11 years.
Conley competed only in his sophomore season at Washington State College before signing a professional baseball contract with the Braves, then in Boston.
During that year, he pitched Washington State into the College World Series, helping the Cougars finish second to Texas in 1950. He also led the Pac-8 in scoring in basketball and led the Cougs to the All Coast championship, where they lost to UCLA.
Before that, he led the Bombers to their first-ever state basketball tournament berth in 1947 and was selected All-State in 1948. He also went to the state meet in the high jump.
Born in 1930 in Muskogee, Okla., Conley moved to Richland when he was 12. He stood 6-foot-9, had a long stride toward the plate and was known for a hard fastball.
In basketball, Conley was tough, once described by former Celtics coach Red Auerbach as “the toughest guy I ever had in a fight.”
Conley is 69 now and lives in Foxboro, Mass. He doesn’t think anyone will ever play two professional sports again, at least not for as long as he did.
It was hard, both physically and mentally, because you never really get a rest. I did it because I needed the money. All professional athletes back then worked during the offseason to make ends meet.
Gene Conley, on playing profession baseball and basketball
“It was hard, “ Conley said, “both physically and mentally, because you never really get a rest. I did it because I needed the money. All professional athletes back then worked during the offseason to make ends meet.”
In the minor leagues, Conley was twice selected the minor league player of the year by The Sporting News - the only player ever to win the award twice - before breaking in with the Boston Braves in 1952.
“Making $500 a month in the minors, the money was gone pretty quick, “ Conley said. “I remember one year my wife (Katie) and I came back and stayed in a trailer in North Richland. I got a job as an iron worker making $1 an hour. One year, we had to stay with my wife’s folks in Spokane.”
Conley played with the Celtics briefly in 1952, but the Braves pressured him to give it up. In 1959, after Conley struggled to an 0-6 record with a sore arm, the Braves asked him to take a 20-percent pay cut.
Conley held out and called Auerbach to request another shot with the Celtics.
“I needed the money, “ Conley said. “I had three kids and just had a house built for $25,000 in Boston. That might not sound like much now, but in those days, it was a mansion.”
Auerbach tried to talk Conley out of the tryout.
“Red said he didn’t think I could make the team, “ Conley said. “He told me they had Bill Russell coming out of the Olympics and Tommy Heinsohn as their top draft pick. He finally said he’d pay my way to Boston, but I’d have to pay my own way home. I ended up playing for them for six seasons.”
Conley often was described as Russell’s backup by Auerbach, but Conley said that wasn’t the case.
“That’s something Auerbach made up, “ Conley said. “I played 18 to 20 minutes a game, and when I came in, I played defense against the center and Russell took a forward. I asked Red one time why he always said I was Russ’ backup and he said ‘Who cares? It makes for a better story that way.’ ”
One of Conley’s finest moments came in the seventh game of Eastern Conference Finals in 1959. Russell, who hadn’t fouled out all season, was disqualified with 1:53 left to go and the game still hanging in the balance. Conley replaced him and grabbed two key rebounds as the Celtics held on to win 130-125. The Celtics then swept the St. Louis Hawks to win another NBA title.
One of Conley’s most important jobs with the Celtics was checking Wilt Chamberlain, and one game he once held “The Stilt” to fewer than 20 points.
Wilt was a tremendously strong guy back then and could run, but in his first few years in the league, I didn’t think he was that good of a basketball player.
Conley on guarding Wilt Chamberlain
“Wilt was a tremendously strong guy back then and could run, but in his first few years in the league, I didn’t think he was that good of a basketball player, “ Conley said.
“He just didn’t have that many moves in the pivot.”
While basketball might have been his favorite sport, Conley’s greatest achievements came in baseball.
He had a career earned run average of 3.20 and completed 69 of the 276 games he started. He played for three teams in his 11-year career, compiling a record of 91-96.
Conley was chosen to pitch in three major league All-Star Games. He was the losing pitcher in 1954 and the winning pitcher in 1955.
The 1955 game was played in Milwaukee and Conley, who already had 11 wins at the break, wasn’t expected to get into the game because he had pitched a complete game for the Braves only two days earlier.
“It was the 12th inning, and Leo Durocher was down on pitchers so he asked if I could throw a few innings, “ Conley remembered. “I said ‘Sure.’ I struck out Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon and Al Rosen (all former batting champions) and got a standing ovation. It was so overwhelming, I almost didn’t know which dugout to go to. I loved it.
“After the inning, I was sitting next to Hank Aaron, and Stan Musial came over and patted Henry on the head and asked him if we got paid for overtime. He said, ‘Heck, no, ‘ and Musial went up there and hit a home run to win the game.”
I was sitting next to Hank Aaron, and Stan Musial came over and patted Henry on the head and asked him if we got paid for overtime. He said, ‘Heck, no, ‘ and Musial went up there and hit a home run to win the game.
Conley, on the 1955 MLB All-Star Game
Conley hurt his arm shortly after that. He uncorked a fastball and the pop from Conley’s right shoulder was loud enough for catcher Del Crandall to hear. Despite the pain, Conley continued to pitch and was plagued with arm problems for the rest of his career.
One of the secrets of his success late in his career, Conley said, was that he found a friendly doctor who would give him cortisone injections before every game he pitched.
“I was pitching for the Red Sox, and I had a doctor friend at Brown University who would give me the shots, “ Conley said. “He kept telling me the shots weren’t going to work for long, but he kept hitting the right spots and I was able to pitch.”
Conley won 15 games for the Red Sox in 1962, but he knew his doctor friend was right as the pain went up as the speed on his fastball went down.
“Even though my arm hurt, late in the 1963 season, the Red Sox wanted me to start a game to see what I had left, “ Conley said. “Dick Williams, the former manager, was in the bullpen with me up and I couldn’t throw at all. He finally took off his glove and warmed me up bare-handed. He still laughs about that. The rubber band was gone, and all that was left was a lot of pain.”
The Red Sox released him after the season, and Gabe Paul and the Cleveland Indians offered him one last chance in spring training of 1964.
Just before his final start, Conley ran into legendary softball pitcher Eddie Feigner in Florida. The two knew each other from pitching semi-pro for the Walla Walla Bears. Conley told Feigner about his last chance to make the team. Feigner had an idea.
“Eddie was down there pitching a softball exhibition, and he gave me a prescription for my arm that he said he’d gotten from Satchel Paige, “ Conley said. “I went to the drug store and got all the ingredients and I put it on my arm. It nearly burned my skin off.”
Between the soreness and the burning, Conley didn’t pitch well. The next day, he went to a church near the field to contemplate his future before he headed home. He was in the back pew, sobbing.
“I was getting ready to fly back to Boston and trying to figure out what to do, “ Conley said. “I had three kids at home. I didn’t have a college education. I couldn’t play basketball. I was really sad.”
The deacon at the church finally came over to comfort Conley.
“He said, ‘What’s the matter, son, did you lose your mother?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I lost my fastball.’ ”
Conley swears the story is true, and he even has a new ending. A few years ago, he got a letter from Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts with good news.
“He was at a card show in Carolina, “ Conley said, “and a fellow came up to him and told him he’d found Gene Conley’s fastball. I wrote back and said I’d love to have it back. I have to play catch with my grandkids underhanded.”
In his best year, Conley made $25,000 each from the Braves and the Celtics — a salary, he admits, was huge at the time.
Conley, who is known as “Gino” to his teammates and friends, still owns and works at the Foxboro Paper Company, which he founded after he retired from baseball. He has cut back on his work schedule to a couple of days a week and promises to retire once he hits 70.
He was in the inaugural induction class for Washington State University’s Hall of Fame. He’s also in the Richland Bomber Hall of Fame and was selected to be in the inaugural class of the Central Washington Hall of Fame last year.
Conley also serves on the NBA Legends committee, a job that earns him a trip to the NBA All-Star Game every year. The committee helps former NBA players who are down on their luck and don’t have pensions from the NBA.
He doesn’t wear any of his championship rings. They are all locked up, saved with scrapbooks for his seven grandchildren.
“I’ve got those rings hidden in a case,” Conley said. “I don’t wear rings, and back then, they weren’t that big of a deal. They only cost about $1,000 each. I remember I got $5,000 for being on the winning World Series team. I thought I was rich.”
He was, but not necessarily in dollars.
“I just feel fortunate that I was able to play with and against so many big names over the years, “ Conley said. “I got to play against Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson in baseball. And with players like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. I also got to elbow guys like Bob Pettit, Walt Bellamy and Jerry Lucas. I was in the right place at the right time. The 1950s was really a golden time for sports.”