Grave Story: Bill Antonello (1927-1993)

Here lies Bill Antonello, an outfielder who had one season in the major leagues and a pretty successful 11-year minor-league career. He played for the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers.

Bill Antonello was born in Brooklyn on May 19, 1927 and grew up playing stickball there. He was a graduate of Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn and signed with his hometown Dodgers by chance. Art Dede, one of Dodgers GM Branch Rickey’s scouts, overheard Antonello complaining in a sporting goods store that a Phillies scout had stood him up. Dede jumped on the opportunity and signed him up. Unlike a lot of ballplayers I’ve profiled in the past, Antonello got his military service done before his pro ball career started. He enlisted in the Navy on July 5, 1944, when he was 17 years old. He was released on June 22, 1946 after serving for two years on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific.

Following his discharge, Antonello didn’t waste much time in getting his pro ball career started. He played 43 games for Daytona and hit .265, primarily as a shortstop. He had his first full season the following year with the Newport News Dodgers and batted .270 with 17 home runs.

Source: Star Tribune, March 7, 1993.

Antonello moved to the outfield as he progressed through the minor leagues, but he hit well regardless of his position. He batted .299 for the Mobile Bears with 13 homers and 13 triples, establishing himself as a prospect of note in the Dodgers farm system. Antonello made the Dodgers team out of Spring Training in 1950, as this was a time when teams were allowed more than 25 players on the roster for the first month of the season. He spent his month sitting on the bench and was sent to the minors without getting into a single game. Antonello struggled a bit in AAA in 1950, but he did have one noteworthy accomplishment during the Dodgers’ Spring Training in Miami, Fla. He hit the first home run at the brand-new Miami Stadium in an exhibition game against the Braves.

Antonello hit .253 for the St. Paul Saints in 1951 and smashed 28 home runs with 130 RBIs for Mobile in 1952 (a team record that lasted until 1959). The Dodgers brought him to the major leagues in 1953. By then, Antonello was 26 years old with a 7-year minor-league career, so he wasn’t quite the prospect he was a few seasons prior.

The 1953 pennant-winning Dodgers featured four Hall of Famers (Campanella, Reese, Robinson and Snider) in their starting lineup, and even the guys who didn’t make the Hall (Gil Hodges, Billy Cox, Jim Gilliam, Carl Furillo) had impressive MLB careers. Robinson was 34 years old and split the season between left field and third base — the first time he had ever played the outfield. Antonello served as a valuable backup outfielder, capable of playing any position, as well as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner. He played a total of 40 games for the Dodgers that year, and 20 of them came as a left fielder — frequently serving as Robinson’s defensive replacement.

Antonello struggled at the bat all season long, perhaps due to his relatively infrequent use. He appeared in 40 games but made just 45 plate appearances. He got his first MLB hit off of the Cardinals’ Jackie Collum on May 6, and he had his batting average as high as .214 after a 2-hit performance on May 17. After that, he went hitless for the rest of the month of May. And June. And July. And August. Antonello hit a double off the Phillies on September 7, breaking an 0-for-17 slump that took place over 26 games and 114 days. I told you he was used infrequently; it would be difficult for anyone to maintain a sharp batting eye when they play like that.

Antonello got his first hit in more than three months, only to find himself in a rundown at third base a couple plays later. Source: Daily News, September 8, 1953.

Antonello picked up a few more hits in September to raise his average to .163. Of his 7 hits, he hit 1 double, triple and home run (off the Reds’ Ken Raffensberger) and drove in 4 runs. Unsurprisingly, he did not play in the World Series as the Dodgers fell to the Yankees, 4 games to 2.

The Dodgers put Antonello on waivers on April 1954 and sent him to Mobile of the Southern Association when no other NL team claimed him. He said he was disappointed by the news. “I’m not going to report right away,” he said, hinting at a possible retirement. “My wife and I are going to think it over.” He eventually did report to the Bears and played in the minors through 1957, spending tine in St. Paul, Charleston, Toronto, Oklahoma City and Shreveport. His contract was acquired by the Seattle Rainiers at the start of 1958, but he hung up his spikes rather than head to the West Coast.

In his 11 seasons in the minor leagues, Antonello hit .268 with 143 home runs. He moved to St. Paul, his wife’s hometown, but he wasn’t sure what to do with his life after baseball. His father-in-law, a pipefitter, encouraged him to become an apprentice, and he spent more than 30 years as a steamfitter. He worked out of the St. Paul Pipefitters Local 455 from about 1959 until his retirement in 1991. He also spent two years working on the Alaska pipeline. In his spare time, he made metal sculptures and encouraged a love of music among his seven children, several of whom became professional musicians.

Bill Antonello suffered a heart attack while driving on March 4, 1993. A policeman who was at the scene was unable to revive him, and he was pronounced dead at Unity Hospital in Findley, Minn. He was 65 years old. He is buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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