Gene Conley: Now Pitching For Boston
Gene's throwing a larger ball in another league, at a new target. But how good is he?
Conley, a relaxed, cheerful young man of 28 to whom nearly all sports come naturally, is currently demonstrating his independence, confidence and ability by playing for the best team in professional basketball—the Boston Celtics. He is a good basketball player, who will get to be much better as he adjusts to the style of the Celtics and learns how to handle his opposite numbers around the league. But he is taking risks which would certainly frighten off many another athlete.
Immediately after the recent World Series, when Milwaukee General Manager John Quinn could hardly have been in the pleasantest frame of mind, Conley went to Quinn and asked to play basketball in the off season. Quinn pointed out the clause in the standard baseball major league contract which forbids such extracurricular activity, and said no. So Conley packed, left his wife and three children in the new house he's built in a Milwaukee suburb, and took off for Boston to try out for the Celtics. It is worth noting that he didn't bring along just a toothbrush and a change of shirts, even though he hadn't played basketball for five years and was trying to make the limited roster of a team like the Celtics. He stuffed two large bags with enough clothes for a long season. He was sure he would stick, and in a few preseason exhibition games he proved to Celtic Coach Red Auerbach that he was adhesive.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee brass threatened to take the matter to National League President Warren Giles and hinted at fines and other disciplinary measures. Conley knew this would happen; it took courage to face such inevitable publicity when there was a good chance that the Celtics would find his basketball talents inadequate and he'd be obliged to go back to Milwaukee with his tail between his legs. After he had won a place on the Celtics squad and had signed a contract, the Milwaukee management wired him reluctant consent to play, apparently bowing as gracefully as possible to the inevitable.
"I'm not trying to start anything for other baseball players to follow," says Conley. "After all, how many of them are 6 feet 8? I played basketball and baseball in college without any trouble. [He led his Washington State teams to regional championships.] I played pro basketball in 1953 and then went on to my best season as a pitcher. [He was 23-9 with Toledo in the American Association.] Maybe the same thing will happen this time. I don't want to sit around home all winter brooding about what happened to me last season. [Though he struck out 52 in 72 innings, his record was 0-6.] Don't believe what you hear about my arm being sore. It's not. And I'm definitely not quitting baseball. I'll say this—after running with the pros in this league all winter, I'll be weeks ahead of everyone else on conditioning when I report for spring training. Meanwhile, I think I can help the Celtics, and they must think so, too."
Says Coach Red Auerbach: " Conley made this team legitimately. We don't need him as a gate attraction; we've got the most attractive team in basketball without him. I just wish we'd had him regularly since '53. He'd be great now."
In the few games Conley has played for the Celtics thus far he has shown exactly how and why they can use him. His natural-athlete's timing, far more than mere height, makes him a strong rebounder. He will complement Bill Russell in this department, especially since all rival teams make it their business to try to force or lure Russell away from the boards. With Ben Swain, he will allow Auerbach to rest Russell occasionally. He has a good hook shot, that most potent of all scoring weapons, which Russell has yet to develop. After five years of disuse it is presently erratic, but seems bound to become a welcome addition to the Celtics' armament. Most important of all, Conley has an instinctive aggressiveness.
It is mistakenly assumed that playing with the slick, speedy Celtics constitutes the toughest reintroduction to pro basketball that Conley (or anyone else) could attempt. In reality, this is Conley's luckiest break. On some other clubs, less rich in player depth, he might well be thrown into games on a sink-or-swim basis. He might improve and he might not. But the Celtics are glutted with talent, and Auerbach can bring Conley along carefully, giving him time to learn the moves of rival big men without fear of repeated failures and using him at the precise times when his improving skills fit specific game requirements.
Without question, he will help the Celtics to another Eastern title.
Timeout with Gene Conley
By Jeff Twiss
He was a three-letter athlete in baseball, basketball and track in Richland, Washington growing up. He is was an All-American at Washington State in 1952 and is enshrined in the Washington State and the State of Washington Hall of Fame. And, that's before his remarkable professional career flourished!
It's apparent that Donald Eugene 'Gene' Conley loved sports at an early age, became comfortable and successful as an athlete, carried it with him through in his young adult years and still today is in tremendous shape. It may be safe to say that Gene could still throw a mean fastball, swish a 15' set shot or land an elbow underneath the basket with the best of them.
And about that professional career, Gene simply helped lead the Celtics to three consecutive NBA World Championships (1959-61); was the winning pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves in the 1957 World Series; was the victorious pitcher in the 1955 Major League Baseball All-Star game and, just for kicks, he once pitched the Red Sox to a victory just nine days after helping the Celtics capture their NBA title in 1961. Between two sports, baseball and basketball, Gene played 22 years of professional sports. And, he can claim to be the only professional athlete to play for three major league teams in one city (Boston Red Sox, Braves and Celtics).
Celtics.com's Jeff Twiss recently sat down with the brilliant two-sport star to see what he has been doing and what his future plans may be.
Where has Gene Conley been over the last few years?
Conley:"Actually, I live in Clermont, Florida, and now I'm here for about three months. My daughter and her husband have a condo up in Waterville Valley (New Hampshire) and my wife, Katie, and I come up and get out of the humidity and the warm weather in Florida, and I get a chance to see my daughters and my grandkids. And, every so often, I get the chance to play some golf."
For many years you played two sports. How active are you now?
Conley: "Well, I've been down in Florida now for several years and almost 74 years old now. And, people say, "What do you do now that you're not doing anything and you're retired? I say, by the time I get up, by the time I clean up, get dressed, go to my doctor or dentist's appointments, go to the drug stores and get all my prescriptions and everything... I say, honey, it's 4:00 - the day is gone! It's funny because people say you must have a lot of time on your hands... I don't have any time; I'm too darn busy!
Was it difficult to walk away from professional sports, in your case two sports, and move on with your life when it came time to hang up the sneakers (and cleats)?
Conley: "It was a shock! Yes, it was a shock, it really was. But, fortunately, in my last ball game that I played in I called a fellow named Paul Cohen who owned a company called Technical Tape Corporation (manufacturer's of duct tape). I had played basketball for him in an industrial league a few years back and he said, 'Gene, I have been following you and I was wondering when you were going to get it out of your system, now I want you to go and work for my company selling tape in the Boston and Providence (Rhode Island) area. So, it was just a miracle - just a phone and the day after...I got this job. I worked for him for about a year or so and then he passed away. Then I went into my own business (Foxboro Paper Company) and I ran that for 36 years."
Do you have any fond or extra-special memories from your Celtics playing days?
Conley: "Oh, I don't know...I was always a role player for the Celtics because, going back and what a privilege it was, I played with and was on a team that had seven guys, who are now, in the Hall of Fame. I always tell them, when I see them, that it was me that caused them to get there because they were fighting for a job and I was ready to go in there and get their job. So, talk about a privilege to play with seven guys in the Hall of Fame - that was really fun. And, of course, with Red being the coach he was like a father to all of us. He was a motivator and it was just a wonderful few years I had with him (four years all together). It was just exciting and I still walk around with Celtics on my shirt (Gene was proudly wearing a "Red Auerbach - 50 Years" fleece warm-up)."
Do you follow the NBA today?
Conley: "Yes, I follow it. I watch games down in Orlando. I watch the Magic games; they weren't too good last year. I see the guys moving just as fast but I don't see the man-on-man, one-on-one defense like they used to have. I see a lot of guys passing around the old triangle thing and then when 22 seconds is up, they throw it outside and someone takes a shot...and that kind of bothers me a little bit. I always thought the ball should go into the post, first thing, and then work from there. But, it doesn't always happen that way. But the game is great and I still enjoy it."
Is there anything that you learned by being a Celtic?
Conley: "I've learned that I have a lot of friends by being a Celtic. At my age, they all remember back in the '50's, in the hey-days, the '60's and all the championship years and they say, 'you were a Celtic?' In other words, I didn't say I was a Knick or a baseball player, but when you say 'you were a Boston Celtic', whether you are in the South, the East or West, people say, 'wow, isn't that amazing - you played with the famous Celtics!'"
Sports in still in your blood, as evident by your solid golf game, do you have any other hobbies or interests?
Conley: "Yes, I do play in some charity golf tournaments in Florida. There are a lot of retirees down there, mostly baseball players who played back in the '40's, '50's and '60's. In the old days, whenthe money wasn't quite there, that's where most of the ball players settled (in Florida) because it was a cheaper way of living. Today, some very big-name ball players have charity games and I enjoy going down and seeing a lot of the players."
Catching up with Gene Conley
CLERMONT, Florida -- He is the only person to win a world championship in both the NBA and Major League Baseball.
Gene Conley achieved such a feat winning the World Series with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 and was a three-time World Champion with the Boston Celtics (1958-1961).
“At the time I was very excited,” said Conley. “So many years have passed and I didn’t harp on it too much. Then all of a sudden someone told me I was the only one to win championships in two different sports and the only one to have rings in different sports. I feel honored.”
These days, Conley, 74, resides near Orlando, Florida in Clermont with his wife Kathryn. The two of them have been together 54 years and have two daughters, a son and seven grandchildren.
“We're in a community where everyone is 55 and over,” said Conley. “We are having a great time and get along just fine. It is a nice place with a nice clubhouse and all kinds of stuff. We do come up (to Boston) in the summertime because it gets a little sticky down here in July and August.”
Conley is officially retired, but prior to retiring Conley and his wife ran their own business for 35 years in Foxboro, Massachusetts called the Foxboro Paper Company.
“I was the CEO and she was the President,” said Conley. “We had a couple of people help out, but it was what you called a low overhead business. We made it work real well for 35 years.”
Also, he and his wife have recently put out a book entitled “One of a Kind”, which was written by his wife, Kathryn. The book tracks Conley’s unique career and personal life chronicling his adventures, mishaps and triumphs that take place on the diamond, on the court and off.
“She wrote this book and it took her eight to ten years,” said Conley. “I didn’t even look at it until after she was through. I thought it was very interesting but said to her there are a few things in there that might get me in trouble, but that’s all right.
“It has about forty pictures in the book. It has pictures of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Hank Aaron – all the guys I used to play with. Willie Mays gave me a blurb in there and a lot of the ballplayers around here said a couple of nice things. I appreciate it.”
Conley is considered one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. Conley played 11 seasons in the Major Leagues with three of them with the Boston Red Sox (1961-63). He also played one season with the Boston Braves (1952), five with the Milwaukee Braves (1954-58) and two with the Philadelphia Phillies (1959).
He played six seasons in the NBA with four of them with the Celtics (1953, 1959-61) and two more with the New York Knicks (1963-64).
What’s most impressive about Conley is how successful he was at both sports. Along with winning World Championships in both the NBA and MLB, he was also the winning pitcher in the 1954 MLB All Star game.
“What was fun about it was I was playing with World Championship teams,” said Conley. “I was playing with the best in the world year round. That was pretty good knocking heads with those kinds of people.”
Over forty years later, Conley has a distinction very few professional athletes have with Boston. He is an alumnus of three Boston sports teams – the Celtics, Red Sox and Braves.
“That was trivia they used to use,” joked Conley. “I have always loved Boston and it’s just wonderful. We stayed here for forty years and worked in this area afterwards. I made some good friends here and we really miss New England.”