Mitch Harris – an officer, gentleman, and big league baseball player – has been voted the winner of the 26th annual Tony Conigliaro Award. The award, begun 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.’’
Members of the Conigliaro family will present the award at the 77th Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner co-hosted by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America and the Sports Museum. The dinner is scheduled to be held January 21, 2016, at the Marriott Copley Place.
“I’m beyond honored,” Harris said, “especially as I learn more about Tony Conigliaro and what he has meant.”
Harris, who turned 30 on November 7, made his major-league debut last season for the Cardinals, seven years after St. Louis drafted him in the 13thround out of the United States Naval Academy in 2008. He placed his baseball career on hold while serving a five-year commitment to the Navy, which included two deployments to the Persian Gulf and another which took him to Russia and then South America. He is currently a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, assigned to the Navy Operational Support Center in Hialeah, Fla.
After the Navy granted him permission to serve the final four months of his tour in the Navy Reserve, Harris returned to professional baseball in 2013. The Cardinals placed him in short-season Single-A ball, where he was considerably older than his teammates and unsure whether he would ever regain the velocity he once had on his fastball.
By the next spring, 2014, he was invited to big league camp, advanced through three classes of minor-league ball and on April 25, 2015, in Milwaukee, Harris was summoned from the Cardinals bullpen in the fifth inning. He struck out the first batter he faced, Adam Lind, on four pitches. He appeared in 26 games for the Cardinals, all in relief, compiling a 2-1 record with a 3.67 ERA. In 27.0 innings, the 6-4, 240-pound right-hander struck out 15 batters and walked 13.
Harris became the first graduate of the Naval Academy to make it to the big leagues since Nemo Gaines, a left-handed relief pitcher, appeared in four games, all losses, for the Washington Senators in 1921. Gaines, unlike Harris, was granted permission by the Navy to pitch the summer after his graduation from the academy. Gaines returned to service, retiring as a captain in 1946.
Harris was selected by a 13-member committee comprised of major league executives, sports editors, other media representatives, Red Sox vice president Pam Kenn, Red Sox historian Gordon Edes, and the Conigliaro brothers, Richie and Bill. Harris received five first-place votes and 34 points in the balloting, which awarded five points for a first-place vote, three for second, and one for third.
Toronto first baseman Chris Colabello was second and Oakland reliever Ryan Madson, who recently signed as a free agent with the Athletics after winning a World Series with Kansas City, was third. Others receiving votes were Jorge Lopez of the Brewers, Evan Marshall of the Diamondbacks, Jonathan Aro of the Red Sox, Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays, Franklin Gutierrez of the Mariners, and Garrett Richards of the Angels.
Conigliaro, a native of Swampscott, Mass., at 19 hit a home run in his first at-bat at Fenway Park in 1964. A year later, 1965, he became the youngest player to lead his league in home runs when he hit 32 in 1965, his second full season in the big leagues. 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, fracturing his left cheekbone, dislocating his jaw, and severely damaging 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.
Conigliaro missed all of the 1968 season, but returned to play two more years in Boston, hitting a career-high 36 home runs for the Sox in 1970, when he also drove in 116 runs. 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.
Congliaro suffered a massive heart attack in 1982, and died eight years later at the age of 45.
Past winners of the Conigliaro award include: Jim Eisenreich (1990), Dickie Thon (1991), Jim Abbott (1992), Bo Jackson (1993), Mark Leiter (1994), Scott Radinsky (1995), Curtis Pride (1996), Eric Davis (1997), Bret Saberhagen (1998), Mike Lowell (1999), Kent Mercker and Tony Saunders (2000), Graeme Lloyd and Jason Johnson (2001), Jose Rijo (2002), Jim Mecir (2003), Dewon Brazelton (2004), Aaron Cook (2005), Freddy Sanchez (2006), Jon Lester (2007), Rocco Baldelli (2008), Chris Carpenter (2009), Joaquin Benoit (2010), Tony Campana (2011), R.A. . Dickey (2012), John Lackey (2013), and Wilson Ramos (2014).