Three elderly men sat at an 8-foot plastic table outside the ballroom of the Red Carpet bowling center in Milwaukee. Among them, they possessed five NFL championships, three NBA titles, one World Series ring and the most famous home run ever hit in the annals of baseball.
It was the summer of 1987, still the height of the nation’s sports card craze. The card show was packed with people just inside the door behind this makeshift shrine to sports immortality. As was the case during that era, older athletes who lived near these shows would gladly pocket a few hundred bucks from the promoters to show up, sign autographs and tell stories.
The bald, gregarious man on the left was once the most feared man to ever remove his teeth and don a helmet. Ray Nitschke anchored the Lombardi defenses of the 1960s, prowling about his linebacker position like an animal waiting for the opportunity to ravenously pounce upon a fearful prey.
The dour-faced man on the right kept to himself, writing his name upon photos of himself in penmanship that bordered on artistic calligraphy. His claim to fame as a Milwaukee Brave was that he broke his ankle early in the 1954 season, forcing the team to call up a minor-league prospect by the name of Hank Aaron. Three years earlier, on Oct. 3 in the Polo Grounds, Bobby Thomson hit “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to earn the New York Giants the pennant. At the time he signed a personalized picture for me, I knew none of that and only years later, after I had sanctified that homer, did I realize I had met Thomson. It was a sad disappointment in retrospect, in which the man had already undermined the legend.
The round-faced fellow in the middle was Gene Conley, a pitcher for the 1957 World Series championship team, who died this week at the age of 86.
Nitschke took off his Super Bowl ring and let me try it on. The golden circle heavily dangled from my 12-year-old finger, looking something like an expensive game of ring toss. Thomson wouldn’t say a word to anyone and refused to interact with the other men. My father tried to engage him and was cut down with a glare for his trouble.
Yet it was Conley, a man I never knew about before that day, who made the biggest impression on me.
As “Big Gene” signed a photo for me and a card for Dad, my father informed me that this gentle giant had not only won a World Series title, but also had three NBA championships to boot. It was around this time that Bo Jackson was playing for the Royals and considering a “hobby” as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders.
“I don’t know why they’re giving Bo Jackson such a hard time for playing two sports,” Dad began. “This man played for the Braves AND the Celtics!”
Conley stopped in mid-signature. A blip in his penmanship remains a reminder in Sharpie of the moment I’ll never forget.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Conley said in a contradictory tone, punctuated with a laugh. “Don’t be comparing me to Bo Jackson! I had to EAT!”
The 6-foot-8 Conley earned $10,000 as a rookie in 1954, with $20,000 being the most he’d ever earn in as a pitcher. Like most players of his era, the off season meant it was time to find a Joe Job to hold the fort until the next season came in.
Yogi Berra sold hardware and worked as a restaurant greeter.
Phil Rizzuto sold suits at a store in Newark, New Jersey.
Jim Bunning and Rogers Hornsby were just two of hundreds who sold insurance.
Willie Mays and Willie McCovey sold vehicles of all kinds.
Jackie Robinson had a traveling vaudeville routine.
Conley’s height and basketball experience at Washington State College made him appealing to Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics.
He earned about $4,500 a season playing basketball, a much better deal than having to hawk clothes or cars.
Baseball players weren’t alone in this need for off-season employment. The minimum wage for an NFL player in 1977 was $14,500, or about $60,000 in today’s dollars. As Herm Edwards said in the documentary “Broke,” players he coached in the 1990s and 2000s would ask him what he and his teammates did in the off season as a player.
“Guys WORKED!” he shouted.
Conley lived long enough to see men in his profession have enough money to never need an off-season insurance gig or even a deal selling autographs at a card show. Less than a week before Conley passed, Steph Curry signed a five-year, $201-million contract, the richest ever for an athlete. Seventeen years earlier, Alex Rodriguez became the first “quarter-billion-dollar man,” signing a 10-year, $252-million deal with the Texas Rangers.
Even in his comedic rebuke of my father, I never sensed that Conley begrudged the players of today for their fortunate timing of birth. I also never got the sense that he wished he could have spent his off seasons lounging around at one of his half-dozen McMansions. In 1960, the Phillies offered Conley $20,000 to NOT play for the Celtics. Conley refused and was shipped to the Red Sox in midseason.
He liked both games and enjoyed playing them. He also knew his deteriorating rotator cuff made it more likely that he could stick with basketball longer than baseball.
Plus, a man has to eat…