It has been quite the last twelve months for St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Mitch Harris, who saw his Major League dream realized when he made his debut April 25th against Milwaukee. He appeared in 26 games and in the process became the first Naval Academy graduate to pitch in the big leagues.
Now his journey, which included two deployments to the Persian Gulf and another to Russia and South America as he fulfilled his five-year commitment to the Navy, is being honored as Harris has been voted to receive the 26th annual Tony Conigliaro Award.
“It was a surprise,” shared Harris, who received an email notifying him as the winner. “When I got to know more about the award and what it meant, it definitely meant a lot to me.”
The award, which was started in 1990 by the late Red Sox publicist and team historian Dick Bresciani to honor native son Conigliaro, is presented to a major league player who, in Bresciani’s words, “has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage that were trademarks of “Tony C.’’
“Sometimes I just have to step back,” said Harris of all the events that have taken place recently. “It doesn’t really set in sometimes until outside sources kind of remind of the bigness or the scope of this story and it’s special. I like it and I like that it’s inspired some people. Hopefully, I can inspire some others.”
Harris has spent time this off-season watching his alma mater play football but also vacationed in Hawaii–which included a visit to Pearl Harbor.
“To say that it was an inspiring yet tragic time, was–words can’t even describe in my mind what those guys went through that day,” said Harris. “The courage that some of those guys had to go back in those waters to save their shipmates and fight on those next few weeks and years, it’s just amazing to be able to say that I’m a part of the organization of men and women who’ve been able to do such extraordinary things like rebound from an attack like Pearl Harbor.”
Conigliaro, a native of Swampscott, Mass., at 19 hit a home run in his first at-bat at Fenway Park in 1964 and then became the youngest player to lead his league in home runs when he hit 32 the next season. He also became the youngest American League player to reach 100 home runs when he hit No. 100 at 22 years and 197 days, just 65 days older than the major league record holder, Mel Ott (22 years, 132 days).
Conigliaro’s early promise of greatness went unfulfilled after he was struck in the face by a pitch from Jack Hamilton of the Angels on Aug. 18, 1967. The blow fractured his left cheekbone, dislocated his jaw, and severely damaged the retina in his left eye. It was the only hit batsman of the season for Hamilton, and just one of 13 in the span of an eight-year career.
As a result, Conigliaro missed all of the 1968 season, but did return to play two more years in Boston–which included hitting a career-high 36 home runs for the Sox in 1970. He was traded after the season to the California Angels, but declining vision led him to announce his retirement in 1971. He attempted another comeback for the Red Sox in 1975, but ended his career after batting just .123 in 69 plate appearances.
Conigliaro suffered a massive heart attack in 1982, and died eight years later at the age of 45.
Harris will receive the award on January 21st at the 77th Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner.
photo credit: Tommy Gilligan, Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports