Gene Conley is the only professional athlete to win world championships in basketball and baseball, and nobody played two major professional sports longer. For six years, the six-foot eight athlete played both sports continually, “I didn’t stop. I had to wear a jockstrap year-round.”
Conley played baseball and basketball for Washington State for two years before signing a professional baseball contract with the Boston Braves joining them in 1952 and later that year, Celtics guard Bill Sharman recommended Conley to Red Auerbach and that’s how Conley became a Celtic.
And Conley was pretty, pretty, pretty good. In the 1955 All-Star Game he struck out Al Kaline, Mickey Vernon, and Al Rosen in the top of the 12th inning and was the winning pitcher when Stan Musial homered in the bottom of the inning. He won championship rings as Bill Russell‘s backup with the 1958-59 and 1959-60 Celtics.
“I worked out for nine days, then called the Red Sox and said I was ready,” he recalled in a highly entertaining article by Dan Shaughnessy in the Boston Globe. “I came to Fenway and pitched against the Washington Senators and hit a double in my first game. Russell and K.C. Jones came to see me play for the Red Sox.”
In a way with his back-to-back schedules, you can’t blame him for his wanderlust. In New York on July 26, 1962, Red Sox pitcher Conley and teammate Pumpsie Green of the Red Sox mysteriously disappeared. On the way to Washington and caught in traffic, this duo left the team bus after a 13-3 loss to the Yankees in which Conley was the losing pitcher, to use a public rest room and failed to return.
“So we got off and went in this bar, and when we came back out, Pumpsie said, `Hey, that bus is gone,’ and I said, `We are, too!’ ”
It turns out that Conley and Green went drinking and Conley amidst his reverie decided he wanted to fly to Israel. Green rejoined the team but Conley went to the airport but was refused a ticket because he didn’t have a passport.
As Shaughnessy wrote: “Pumpsie came back after a day, but Conley got a room at the Waldorf, watched the TV news, and learned that people were searching for him. They should have tried Toots Shor’s, a Manhattan saloon favored by DiMaggio, Sinatra, and the rest.
When Conley came back to Boston, after he was turned away at Idlewild Airport, Tom Yawkey called him into his office and fined him. Yawkey also offered Conley a drink, but the tall pitcher said, ‘No way, Mr. Yawkey. I wouldn’t touch that stuff.'”