Coug baseballers wake the echoes of a legend

WORLD SERIES CHAMPS: Gene Conley & Hank Aaron

IN THE SPACE OF a few short months in 1959, Gene Conley struck out Ted Williams and canned a hook shot over Wilt Chamberlain. So began a 1993 Boston Globe feature story on one of the most storied athletes ever to come out of the Pacific Northwest. With the College World Series on the horizon and WSU in the running for the first time in ages, it's time to wake the echoes of Gene Conley.

You see, before Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and even our own Mark Hendrickson. Before shoe contracts. Before free agency. And before ESPN ...

There was Gene Conley.

He made headlines way back when for playing two professional sports at the same time. Fittingly, the Conley biography -- written by his wife Katie and published a year ago -- is called "One of a Kind."

"When I look back, I don't know how I did it, I really don't," Conley, now 78, told the L.A. Times a few months ago from his home near Orlando. "I think I was having so much fun that it kept me going. I can't remember a teammate I didn't enjoy."

Conley, the Times pointed out, once played 12 pro seasons over six years -- six in baseball, six in basketball -- without taking a break in between. The most he ever made in a single year from his double-duty was $50,000.

Before all that, however, this Richland High product helped lead the Washington State baseball team to a showdown with Texas in the first-ever College World Series championship. It was in June of 1950 — just four months after he led the Washington State basketball team in scoring and a date with UCLA for the Pacific Coast Conference title.

6-foot-8 GENE CONLEY circa 1949.

That was just the start of Conley's extraordinary run in the world of sports. He left Pullman after his sophomore year and went on to win four world championship rings --- one as a starting pitcher with Hank Aaron's World Series champion Milwaukee Braves in 1957 and three as Bill Russell's backup with the Boston Celtics in 1959, '60 and ‘61. He also played for the Braves in the 1958 World Series when they lost to the Yankees.

By the time he called it a career after the 1963-64 season with the New York Knicks, the 6-foot-8 Conley had played 11 seasons in the Major Leagues and six in the NBA.

He didn't just play two sports professionally. He soared to the highest levels.

He played against the likes of Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

Conley won nearly 100 games in the Majors. He was a baseball All-Star three-times, earning the win in the 1955 classic. He was named National League Comeback Player of the Year in 1959 while with the Phillies. Five years earlier he was third in Rookie of the Year voting, and a year before that, in 1953, he was chosen Minor League Player of the Year as a 25-game winner for the Toledo Mudhens.

GENE CONLEY and BILL RUSSELL IN TEAM PHOTO OF 1961 NBA CHAMPION CELTICS.

For folks in New England, though, where he made his home for many years, Conley is forever remembered as part of the greatest dynasty in pro sports history: Red Auerbach's Celtics teams of the 50s and 60s that won 11 titles in 14 seasons.

Still, no discussion of Conley is complete without talk of the Palouse. On the rolling hills, 59 years ago, the Cougars made pure magic on the baseball diamond, going all the way to the inaugural national title game --- a best-of-three series in Omaha against the Longhorns.

The Cougs lost, but the setback hasn't dimmed the shimmer on what arguably was the finest Cougar baseball team ever assembled. Under the watchful eye of legendary coach Buck Bailey, they finished 29-6. Conley pitched in 16 games --- winning five, two by shutout, and saving two more. He also batted .417.

Ironically, he wasn't among the five Cougars who made the all-conference team that season. And neither was Bremerton's Ted Tappe, the only other future Major Leaguer on the sqaud, or Tacoma's Terry Carroll, who batted .362.

Tappe, who homered in his first Major League at bat, played two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds before an Achilles injury ended his career. For the record, the five guys who did make the all-conference team were Don Paul (later a standout defensive back in the NFL), Lee Dolquist, Bob McGuire, Gordy Brunswick and Clayton Carr.

Asked by the Boston Globe to list his greatest achievements, Conley didn't mention anything about sports. He fought and won a vicious battle with alcoholism. He and Katie, a Spokane product, raised three nice kids and founded a successful paper company, he noted. Gene also hit nothing but net in helping nurse Katie back to health after life-threatening surgery to remove a brain tumor two decades ago.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he told the Globe in '93.

And a man ahead of his time. Just ask Bo and Deion.

NOTABLE NOTE:
Today's game at 11 a.m. isn't being televised but it is available via webcast live, for free, HERE. Also, KXLY 700 AM of Spokane and KQQQ 1150 AM of Pullman will also broadcast the game between the 24th-ranked Cougars and 23rd-ranked Razorbacks today. The WSU radio feed is available for free at www.wsucougars.com and an electronic GameTracker is also available there at no charge.

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