Two-sport athlete Gene Conley, who was best-known for achieving success in both the NBA and Major League Baseball from the 1950s to the early 1960s, died Tuesday night at the age of 86.
Decades before the likes of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders made their names as two-sport athletes in football and baseball, Gene Conley was doing the same in the NBA and MLB, playing as a backup power forward in the former league, and as a starting pitcher in the latter. According to WCVB Boston, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Conley was chosen by the Boston Celtics in the 1952 NBA draft and played 39 games for the team in the 1952-53 season. He then spent the next few years focusing solely on baseball, pitching from 1954 to 1958 for the Milwaukee Braves in the National League, per Baseball Reference.
Gene Conley would return to the NBA for the 1958-59 season, as he came off the bench for the Boston Celtics, averaging 4.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in 50 games, and winning the first of three consecutive NBA Championships for the Bill Russell-led Celtics dynasty. That made him the first athlete to win championships in two major American sports leagues, as he won a World Series with the Braves in the 1957 MLB season.
All in all, Conley played a total of 351 NBA games over six seasons, including two years with the New York Knicks to close out his career. Basketball Reference‘s career NBA averages for Gene Conley show him averaging 5.9 points and 6.3 rebounds. He was far more successful in baseball, where he played 11 seasons with the Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Red Sox, and was selected to three All-Star Games, finishing his MLB career with a 91-96 win-loss record, and an ERA of 3.82.
According to Patch, Conley would continue playing basketball after his NBA career ended, as he played for the Hartford Capitols of the Eastern Professional Basketball League from 1966 to 1968. This was the same city where he had kicked off his minor league baseball career in 1951, having joined the then-Boston Braves’ minor league system en route to his MLB call-up a year later.
Although it seems like a tall order for a professional athlete to be a two-sport star, Conley told the Los Angeles Times in 2008 that he was surprised that he was one of the very few athletes in his era to try competing at a high level in two sports, due to the lack of money in professional sports at the time.
“In those days, ballplayers had to look for off-season jobs. We didn’t get paid big money, and we were raising families,” said Conley.
“Other guys didn’t know how I could do it because they thought it was too much of a strain, but I didn’t look at it as a strain. I looked at it as work, a paycheck every two weeks. You got 12 checks in the summer and 12 in the winter.”
While the NBA teams Gene Conley played for had no issue with his being a two-sport athlete, it wasn’t quite the same in MLB, as he claimed to have been paid up to an extra $20,000 – a large amount of money in the 1950s – just so he wouldn’t spend his winters competing in the NBA.
Gene Conley is survived by his wife, Katie, three children, and seven grandchildren. There have been no reports on his cause of death or updates regarding funeral arrangements as of this writing.
[Featured Image by AP Images]