Gene Conley, who passed away on July 4, 2017, was the proud owner of one World Series Championship ring, and three NBA World Championship rings. No one else can make this claim, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever duplicate his feat.
Conley earned his World Series Championship ring pitching for the Milwaukee Braves in 1957. He earned his NBA World Championship rings during consecutive seasons with the Boston Celtics spanning 1958-1961.
Over the years, there have been a number of athletes who have combined two professional sports. Not too long ago Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson were able to mix baseball and football careers for several seasons. The late Chuck Connors is better known as the “Rifleman” for his TV series of that name, but he also put together three seasons with the Boston Celtics and a season for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. Danny Ainge spent parts of three seasons as an infielder with the Toronto Blue Jays (1979-81), before deciding to concentrate on basketball with the Celtics.
Gene Conley was the only athlete in history to play two professional sports for twelve consecutive sports seasons during a six-year span.
OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE
Gene Conley was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1930, and lived there until his teenage years. “The Depression years were especially rough in Oklahoma. Folks had a tough time scratching out a living. But I was so busy playing every sort of ball game that came along to pay too much attention.
“In 1944 my dad headed out to Washington state to look for work, and the rest of us, my mother, brother and sister followed him by train. I don’t know if we appreciated how difficult that must have been for him. We ended up in Pullman, Washington, where I went to high school.”
Conley did a lot of pitching, but it was his prowess on the basketball court that earned him a scholarship to Washington State. He continued to play both basketball and baseball, and in 1948 he appeared in the Hearst All-Star Game in the old Polo Grounds In New York. His opposing pitcher in that game was Frank Torre, later Conley’s teammate on the Milwaukee Braves, and brother of former New York Yankees’ manager Joe Torre.
Conley’s outstanding pitching at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1951 really caught the major league scouts’ attention. This was long before the era of aggressive sports agents, but Gene was fortunate to have his father as an able advocate.
“The Boston Braves showed the most interest. And my father was pretty astute. The Braves offered me $5,000 to sign, and my dad said, ‘He’ll sign if you’ll agree to bring him to spring training with the big leaguers from the beginning, and then when the Braves get into the World Series, the Braves will agree to fly my wife and I to the Series.’ Bill Marshall (long-time Braves scout) got the approval from Boston and I signed on the dotted line.”
FAST-TRACK TO BOSTON
In 1951 he was a 20-game winner with the Hartford (Connecticut) Chiefs in Class A ball. He was named Minor League Player of the Year and promoted to the major league club in 1952. “I really wasn’t ready, but the Braves wanted to get a look at me at the highest level. The big leaguers hit me pretty good in the few games I pitched, and I got sent back down to the Triple A club in Milwaukee. But I did get to pitch at old Braves Field, and at 6’8”, I was the tallest player to appear in the big leagues up to that time.”
Following the 1952 season, Conley received a call from Boston Celtics coach and General Manager Red Auerbach asking if he was interested in playing for the team. “Bill Sharman [former Celtics great and Los Angeles Lakers coach and General Manager] had seen me play basketball in college, and recommended me to Red. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure who the Celtics were. I made the team, but I didn’t play a whole lot since I had limited college experience. I was pretty amazed by the high level of talent on that team and throughout the league.”
The Braves left Conley with their top farm club in Toledo, Ohio, for the 1953 season. When he earned the Minor League Player of the Year honors for the second time, he was ticketed for the big leagues to stay. Since his future was clearly in baseball, Conley declined the Celtics’ offer to return for the 1953-54 season.
His rookie season with the Braves, now relocated to Milwaukee, yielded a 14-9 record, and All-Star honors. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting in the National League, losing out to Wally Moon of the St. Louis Cardinals, but finishing one slot ahead of teammate Hank Aaron, who would go on to establish the all-time major league home run record.
He started even stronger in 1955, running his record to 11-3 before the All Star Game. “I was named to the National League All-Star team again, but I hurt my arm pitching in a game in early July. I felt something let go in my shoulder, and my catcher, Del Crandall, came running out because he could hear my shoulder pop from 60 feet away. I pitched eight more years in the big leagues but, to be honest, my arm was never the same again.”
Sore shoulder and all, Conley was called upon to pitch the twelfth inning of the All-Star Game, which was held in Milwaukee that year. “That was probably the highlight of my big league career. I struck out the side and Stan Musial hit a home run [off former Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan who was traded to the Phillies in exchange for Conley in 1961] in the bottom of the twelfth to win it, so I was the winning pitcher.”
Arm troubles limited his pitching for the balance of the 1955 season, and his win total fell to eight in 1956. “I had lost about a yard off my fastball, and I got by with my high leg
kick and pretty good control. I had to make the transition from a power pitcher to more of a finesse pitcher.”
The 1957 season was a personal disappointment for Conley (he went 9-9), but it was a high-water mark for the Braves in Milwaukee. “We beat the Yankees in a seven-game World Series, and the people in that city couldn’t do enough for us. Every time we turned around, they were doing something else to honor us. Those early years in Milwaukee, from the time we moved there in 1953, were really unique. People would drive up and leave a case of beer on your front porch because they were so happy you had come to their city.”
In 1958, Conley’s pitching career reached a new low. His arm had gotten worse instead of better, and he was only able to pitch 72 innings. At the end of the season, he called Red Auerbach and told him he wanted to come back to the Celtics. It is hard to comprehend in this era of multi-million dollar contracts, but Conley wanted to return to the hardwood courts because he needed to pay his mortgage.
“I had used my World Series share to start building a new house in Milwaukee. Before we finished it, I realized I was running out of money. I called Red and he said, ‘Gene, you’ve been away from the game for five years, and I don’t think you can make this team. But if you’ll pay your own way to training camp, I’ll give you a tryout.’ I told my wife that I had to figure out a way to make the team because we needed the money!
“I wasn’t that surprised that Red told me I had to pay my own way. He used to make us buy our own sneakers when the pair the Celtics gave us wore out! Red was pretty shrewd about money.”
Conley did make the 1958-59 Celtics and he averaged fifteen to twenty minutes of playing per game, mostly at forward. The Celtics reclaimed the World Championship that they had lost to the St. Louis Hawks the previous year, and Conley headed off to Florida for the first of several unique spring training sessions.
“By the time the basketball playoffs would end, my baseball teammates would be leaving spring training to start the regular season. Depending on the timing, I might overlap with them for a few days, but mostly I was on my own to get in baseball shape. I had to recruit players to practice with and against.
“I used to pitch to some of the old ballplayers like Hall of Famers Paul Waner and Edd Roush. It was a pretty unusual sight. They would wear their old-time uniforms–it was sort of like having my own ‘Field of Dreams.’ The ball club would call after a week or so and ask me if I was ready. I would always tell them ‘yes’ because I didn’t want to miss out on anything.”
While Conley was busy contributing to the Celtics’ NBA championship, the Braves traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies. The change in scenery seemed to agree with him as he posted a 12-7 record and was selected to his third National League All-Star team.
As soon as the 1959 baseball season ended, Conley rejoined the Celtics in a successful quest for their second straight championship. “I remember when we went in to Philadelphia to play the Warriors [who moved to San Francisco after the 1962 season], some of my teammates from the Phillies like Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn would sit behind our bench and give me the high sign. That was a lot of fun.”
BACK TO BOSTON
He had pitched well for the 1960 Phillies, but at the end of the season, the team traded him to the Boston Red Sox. In what baseball humorists have called “the biggest two-man trade in baseball history,” the Red Sox traded 6’7” pitcher Frank Sullivan to Philadelphia for the 6’8” Conley. When informed of the trade, Sullivan earned his place in Red Sox folklore by uttering the immortal words, “I am in the twilight of a mediocre career.”
By this time the Conley entourage consisted of Gene, his wife Katie, three young children, a station wagon, and a 60-foot trailer. As Boston’s first two-team professional athlete, the Conley family sited the trailer in Foxboro, MA, beginning a relationship with that town that lasted for about 40 years. Today it is hard to visualize a player who is a starting pitcher for the Red Sox and an important backup for the Celtics living in a mobile home, but Gene remembers that it worked well for his family.
The 1960-61 Boston Celtics produced their third-straight NBA title, and Conley contributed coming off the bench again. “Red Auerbach used to say ‘Gene Conley is a great back-up at center for Bill Russell.’ Of course, Russell played 47 out of 48 minutes, and I was going in mostly for Tommy Heinsohn, but I didn’t contradict Red very often.”
The Celtics won their championship in early April 1961 and two weeks later Conley defeated the Washington Senators 6-1 in his first appearance at Fenway Park. The two-week turnaround in sports seems amazing, but Conley puts it in perspective.
“You have to remember that I was in excellent shape. After all, I had been running up and down a basketball court for six months. I wasn’t a regular with the Celtics but Red ran a very strenuous practice. My challenge was simply to get my arm in shape.”
Conley won eleven games for the 1961 Red Sox, and he remembers that team fondly. “We didn’t do that well in the standings (sixth place), but we had some very good players. Frank Malzone was an outstanding third baseman. He used to say to me, ‘If it’s hit to the left side, all I want you to do is duck. I’ll take care of everything hit over here.’ And of course Yaz was a rookie, and we knew right away that he would be a great one.”
The Celtics did not protect Conley in the 1961 expansion, and rather than join the new Chicago NBA entry that had selected him in the draft, he elected to play for New York in the fledgling American Basketball Association. “That was another great experience. They played wide-open basketball in that league. We would run down to our basket and let it fly”
The 1962 season was his best with the Red Sox, as he posted 15 wins for the eighth place team. His win total matched teammate Bill Monbouquette in victories and he led the Red Sox staff in innings pitched.
That season also featured his well-chronicled, unauthorized leave of absence from the team. The Red Sox bus was caught in a mid-Manhattan traffic jam, and he and teammate Pumpsie Green got off to search for a men’s room. Conley was next heard from three days later when he surfaced at a New York airport attempting to buy a ticket for Jerusalem.
Asked what he remembers best about the incident Conley responds, “Tom Yawkey’s understanding and kindness. He called me into his office and said, ‘Gene, we would all like to do what you did. But we can’t. Now I’m going to fine you $1,500, but if you stay in line for the rest of the year, I’ll give it back.’ I did, and he did. Good thing too: we really needed the money.”
Conley has a thoughtful response to the question: why Jerusalem? “Religion has always been a very important part of my wife Katie’s life. I honestly felt that if I spent some time in the Holy Land, I would have a better understanding of what and why religion meant so much to her.”
Following the 1962 baseball season, Conley returned to the NBA, this time with the New York Knicks. His stint with the Knicks represented his tenth back-to-back season over five years.
The next season would turn out to be his last in baseball. “My arm was sore from 1955 on, but it really hurt in 1963. The Red Sox were good to stick with me that whole year. A couple of my teammates had terrific years in 1963. My old roommate Billy Monbouquette won twenty games. He was an outstanding pitcher. And Dick Radatz pitched as well as any pitcher ever has. He threw what I call a ‘small ball.’ By the time it got to the plate it looked about as big as a pea to the hitters.”
The 1963 season also featured an unusual mound matchup of NBA players. Gene Conley was the starting pitcher for the Red Sox on April 27 and in the fourth inning the Chicago White Sox brought in pitcher Dave DeBusschere as a relief pitcher. DeBusschere had just finished his rookie season with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. DeBusschere ultimately put his baseball career on hold, going on to stardom with the New York Knicks.
Gene Conley played throughout the 1963-64 season with the New York Knicks, but the successive seasons were starting to take their toll on his body. When he could barely throw the following year, the Red Sox released him in spring training.
“I wasn’t trained to do anything but play ball, so I called the Cleveland Indians to see if I could catch on with them. They let me pitch a couple of games in the lower minors to see if I had anything left. It was pretty obvious, even to me, that I just couldn’t pitch any more.
“So here I am in this little town in the middle of nowhere, with no idea of what I was going to do next. I noticed there was a church service next to the hotel I was staying at, and I dropped in to think things through. Before I knew it I was crying my eyes out, I was so discouraged. A kindly gentleman slid over beside me and whispered, ‘what’s the matter son? Did you lose your dad or your mom?’
“‘No sir’, I sobbed. I lost my fastball!’”
After 13 years of earning his living as a professional athlete, Conley was faced with the prospect of having to find a regular job. “The late Paul Cohen, who was the president of Tuck Tape, had always told me to give him a call when I was through with sports. When I called him up, he said, ‘I was wondering when you would call!’ He set me up as his regional sales manager for this territory, and I spent the next year calling on companies all over the area.”
“Then he advised me on how to set up my own operation as a manufacturer’s representative handling industrial packaging supplies. My wife Katie and I ran our little company, Foxboro Paper, for over 35 years.”
His eight combined seasons of professional baseball and basketball give him a unique perspective on the two sports. He acknowledges that basketball players are better all-around athletes, but he is adamant that baseball is much harder to play at the professional level.
“Baseball requires a much greater skill-set to perform at the highest level. No knock on professional basketball players, because they are wonderful athletes, but basketball is a pretty basic game. In baseball you have to be able to throw, to run and hit, and you have to be aware of all of the game situations. The really great baseball players, Warren Spahn, Early Wynn, Hank Aaron, talked the game, studied the game, and learned everything they could about the game.
“When Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball, I got a lot of calls from the media. I told them all that Michael didn’t have a prayer. My wife said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t say that. Maybe he’ll be terrific.’ I told her there is no way he is going to be able to hit a baseball.
“Why am I so sure that professional basketball is the easier game to play? Because I was able to play it!”
Asked to name the greatest all-around athlete he saw during his career, Conley selects the late Dodger, Jackie Robinson. “I played with and against some marvelous athletes. But Jackie Robinson could do it all. He could hit and field, but he really intimidated the other team running the bases. He was a great football player, and a track and field star. He stood out.”
Recently Conley’s passion is his family. The Conley’s had been married for over 50 years and they have three children and seven grandchildren. “My son Gene Jr. is a urologist in California. My daughters Kitty and Kelly are both nurses. All of our kids ended up in the healthcare field.
A favorite trivia question for long-time Boston sports fans is: who played for the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins? The humorous answer is organist John Kiley.
But Gene Conley really did play for the Boston Braves, Red Sox and Celtics. And he played at a very high level throughout his professional sports career. We shall not see his like again.
GENE CONLEY’S MAJOR LEAGUE SPORTS CAREER
1952 Boston Braves 1952-53 Boston Celtics
(Minor league Player
of the Year)
1954 Milwaukee Braves
1955 Milwaukee Braves
1956 Milwaukee Braves
1957 Milwaukee Braves
1958 Milwaukee Braves 1958-59 Boston Celtics
1959 Philadelphia Phillies 1959-60 Boston Celtics
1960 Philadelphia Phillies 1960-61 Boston Celtics
1961 Boston Red Sox 1961-62 New York (ABA)
1962 Boston Red Sox 1962-63 New York Knicks
1963 Boston Red Sox 1963-64 New York Knicks