Gene Conley, who died last week, is remembered in Connecticut for more than being the only one to play basketball in the NBA and major league baseball in the National League. In 11 seasons he had a 91-96 pitching record with a 3,82 ERA for three teams. While with the Philadelphia Phillies he was the winning pitcher in the 1955 All-star game. In basketball, he was on three Boston Celtics championship teams.
Conley’s little remembered Connecticut connection
Few may remember that he finished his sports career ingloriously on the basketball courts of the Eastern League with the Hartford Capitols and New Haven Elms.
He played two seasons (1966-67 and 1967-68) with Hartford then, in July of 1968, was named player-coach of the reorganized New Haven Elms in the same league. The Elms were returning to their original home base at the New Haven Arena.
He began his coaching tenure under what the Associated Press called a “cloud of optimism.” But things did not work out as he hoped. Under Conley, the Elms went 0-5 and he promptly resigned as a coach, but not a player.
“The last two games, I played 30 and 40 minutes.,” he told Owen Canfield of the Hartford Courant.” I have to say they needed me. Rather than sit there and have a weaker team, I got myself in there. But you can’t play that long and do a good job coaching.”
So he continued with New Haven as just a player under the new coach Tom Sullivan. At the same time, the Elms moved out of the Arena and into Wilbur Cross High School for home games.
The following season Conley was back in Hartford with the Capitals, this time as a non-player coach. But he quickly found that things on the sidelines were no better than what he found them to be in New Haven. The Capitols lost their first three games in 1969, and Gene gave up the chase. For the second year in a row, he resigned as a coach.
Mark Yellin, a former player at Yale who became an attorney and was president of the Hartford club, said: “We have great respect for Conley and we hope to find a spot for him somewhere in the organization.” But it did not happen.
It was Conley’s third time as a sports figure in Hartford. Before his two stints with the Capitols, he began his pitching career in the same city with the Hartford Chiefs of baseball’s Eastern League.
An unfortunate end to a great career
In resigning from the Capitols, Conley completed his ignominious basketball coaching duties with a record of 0-8. Unfortunately, it ended a great and unique sports career with something his many fans would have rather forgotten if they ever knew about it in the first place.
However, it remains a part of our state’s sports history.