Walla Walla lost another piece of its treasured athletic history recently when Gene Conley died in Foxborough, Mass., at 86 years of age.
Like Bobby Cox and Eddie Feigner before him, I knew of Gene Conley long before I ever visited Walla Walla for the first time in 1962.
Cox, of course, was a multi-sport star who quarterbacked Wa-Hi to back-to-back undefeated football seasons during his junior and senior years. He graduated in 1953 and played football for one year at the University of Washington before transferring to the University of Minnesota.
It was at Minnesota where Cox was honored as a preseason All-American quarterback.
And as a young and ardent Gophers follower back in those days, I discovered that Cox came from someplace called Walla Walla.
Cox, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2003 at the age of 69, resided in the Minneapolis area for the remainder of his days.
I had the opportunity to interview him by telephone on several occasions late in his life, and we enjoyed sharing stories of how he found my old stomping grounds and I found his.
Feigner was already famous and barnstorming the country with his four-man softball team, the King and His Court, by the time Cox made a name for himself in Minneapolis.
Feigner formed the King and His Court on a dare in 1946 and toured the country — make that the world — for more than five decades, taking on all-comers and seldom losing a game.
His story has been written and rewritten over the years, a tale that begins with his berth in someplace called Walla Walla, his subsequent adoption and an unsettled childhood in College Place. Feigner died of complications from dementia in Huntsville, Ala., in 2007 at age 81.
I was lucky enough to cover a couple of Feigner’s exhibitions when he found his way back to his old hometown.
In fact, one of the stories I wrote for the Union-Bulletin wound up being reprinted in the program he sold before each and every game the following year.
I never had the chance to interview Gene Conley, but I sure knew of him. Growing up a Milwaukee Braves and Boston Celtics fan back in the 1950s, how could I not?
Big Gene was the fourth member of the Braves starting pitching rotation in 1957 when Milwaukee won the National League pennant and then defeated the New York Yankees in a memorable seven-game World Series. Conley won 91 games during his 11 seasons as a big-league pitcher and appeared in three all-star games, including 1959 when he was the winning pitcher.
At the same time, Conley moonlighted as a pro basketball player, first with the Celtics and later the New York Knicks.
Playing alongside and sometimes in place of legendary center Bill Russell, he was a member of Boston teams that won three consecutive NBA championships beginning in 1959.
I didn’t make the connection at the time, but Conley also had ties to someplace called Walla Walla.
Although he was born in Muskogee, Okla., in 1930, Conley’s family relocated in Richland while he was still young. He attended Richland High School and made a name for himself as a baseball, basketball and track and field standout.
After graduating in the spring of 1949, Conley enrolled at Washington State University and pitched the Cougars to the 1950 College World Series.
He also played basketball at WSU as a freshman and was an All-Pacific Coast Conference first-team selection and an honorable mention All-American.
It was during the summer of 1950 that Conley endeared himself to Walla Wallans as a pitcher for the semi-professional Walla Walla Bears baseball team.
But by then, professional scouts were in hot pursuit of the 6-foot-8 right-hander, and in August he signed with the Boston Braves for a $3,000 bonus.
Walla Walla native Dean Lodmell was fresh out of high school and the backup catcher on that Bears team, and he recalls catching Conley in a game played in Pendleton.
“He was hard to catch,” Lodmell told me. “He was so tall, and he was throwing that ball 90-some miles an hour. It was tough.”
Conley retired from professional sports in 1968 and founded his own paper company in Foxborough, which he operated for 36 years until he retired from business.
As an athlete, Conley will always be best known for winning national championships in two of the four major North American professional sports.
The only other athlete so recognized is Otto Graham, who won seven NFL championships with the Cleveland Browns and was a member of the Rochester Royals National Basketball League (precursor to the NBA) championship team in 1946.
Otto Graham’s not bad company to keep. The same goes for Feigner and Cox.