Obituary: Johnny Antonelli (1930-2020)

RIP to Johnny Antonelli, an All-Star pitcher and World Series who bridged the era between the New York and San Francisco Giants. He died on Feb. 28 at the age of 89. Antonelli pitched for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves (1948-50, 1953, 1961), New York/San Francisco Giants (1954-1960) and Cleveland Indians (1961).

News of his passing hit hard at the Giants spring training camp, where several of his former teammates were attending. “My first roommate in professional baseball,” said Joey Amalfitano to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Thank God for Johnny and Sal Maglie. Both those guys, especially Johnny, took me under their wing. He was a class guy.”

“The news today of the passing of Johnny Antonelli brings great sadness to our organization,” said Larry Baer, Giants President & CEO in a statement. “Johnny was one of the all-time great Giants and was part of our rich history in the 1950s. He enjoyed visiting Oracle Park for alumni reunions and other events, and I’m thankful for the laughs we shared over the years. Our condolences go out to the Antonelli family for their tremendous loss and we extend our thoughts to Johnny’s teammates, his friends, and to all those touched by his passing.”

Johnny Antonelli, left, plays around in spring training with Giants teammates Billy O’Dell, Sam Jones and Billy Loes. Source: Baseball Hall of Fame.

John Antonelli was born on April 12, 1930 in Rochester, N.Y. He went to Jefferson High School in Rochester, where his fame as a southpaw pitcher quickly spread, thanks in no small part to his father, August. Gus, as he was called, told MLB scouts in 1946 that his son could “throw harder than Bob Feller right now.”

“Mr. Antonelli touted the impressive baseball records of his son to the baseball training camps during this year’s grapefruit season, and it was while he was there that he first gained widespread recognition for his son,” reported the Rutland Daily Herald on July 12, 1947. The Herald‘s article was tied to the fact that young Antonelli had just signed a contract to play for the Rutland Royals, a team in the independent Northern League.

Antonelli, a high school junior by then, had been named to the New York State All-Stars and pitched at the Polo Grounds against the Connecticut All-Stars. He struck out four batters in 2 innings. He also pitched in American Legion ball and and fanned 278 in 129 innings. He clinched the city championship for his high school team with a no-hitter in front of 6,000 fans, a record at the time for a Rochester high school game. He threw five no-hitters in three seasons as a high school pitcher (he started as a first baseman).

“I’ve never seen a lefthander, especially a kid, pitch to a spot like Antonelli can,” said Charlie O’Brien, his high school coach. He compared his pitcher favorably to Herb Pennock.

Antonelli went straight to the major leagues in 1948 as a $52,000 bonus baby (the exact figure varied from article to article, but it was definitely between $50,000 and $100,000). The Boston Braves outbid eight other teams to secure the rights to the teenage phenom, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals and Giants. Antonelli was signed in early July and made his major-league debut on July 4, 1948 — about two months after his 18th birthday.

Braves manager Billy Southworth promised to ease the kid into the majors, and Antonelli appeared in 4 games in 1948, allowing a run in 4 innings of work. He didn’t strike out a single batter but did pick up a save. He pitched in 22 games in 1949 and 20 in 1950, including a few starts each season. He won his first start, a 4-2 victory over the Giants on May 1, 1949. He walked 9, including three straight in the 9th inning, and struck out 3, but he made a good impression on both teams. “The kid’s a helluva pitcher,” said acting Giants manager Frankie Frisch. “I’d like to have him on this ball club.”

Antonelli missed the 1951 and ’52 seasons due to military service. When he came back to the Braves, they had moved to Milwaukee, Charlie Grimm was the manager, and Antonelli found himself as a starter instead of a swingman. He still saw some relief work, but of his 31 appearances in 1953, 26 were starts. He got off to a strong start but faded in the second half while battling the effects of pneumonia. Still, he ended up 12-12 with a fine 3.18 ERA and 131 K’s in 175-1/3 innings.

Over the offseason, the Giants and Braves pulled off a blockbuster trade, which sent Antonelli, Billy Klaus, Don Liddle, Ebba St. Claire and cash to New York in exchange for Bobby Thomson and Sam Calderone. According to Antonelli’s SABR bio, the Braves felt that they had too many left-handed starters, and Warren Spahn, the team’s ace pitcher, said he favored Chet Nichols over Antonelli. Thomson had a couple of serviceable years with the Braves, but Antonelli turned into a phenom who helped lead the Giants into the World Series.

Source: The Tennessean, April 3, 1955.

The Cy Young Award didn’t exist in 1949, but if it had, Antonelli would have been a likely winner in the NL. He did win the Sporting News pitcher of the year award and finished third in the NL MVP voting. He had a 21-7 record to lead the league with a .750 winning percentage. He led all of baseball with a 2.30 ERA and 6 shutouts, and his ERA+ of 178 also topped all pitchers. His 21 wins were tied with Spahn for second-best in the NL, behind Robin Roberts, and his WHIP of 1.171 was second to Roberts’ 1.025.

As good as his regular season was, it was Antonelli’s work in the World Series that was the stuff of legend. In Game Two, he outdueled Cleveland’s Early Wynn in a 3-1 win. The first batter he faced, Al Smith, belted a leadoff home run. After that, Antonelli shut the Indians down, striking out 9 batters while allowing 7 other hits and 6 walks. In Game Four, he appeared on a day’s rest to relieve Hoyt Wilhelm, who had allowed two baserunners in the bottom of the 8th with a 7-4 lead. Antonelli struck out Vic Wertz and Wally Westlake to end that threat. He then allowed a leadoff walk in the bottom of the 9th before retiring the next three batters, saving the game and giving the Giants an unexpected four-game sweep.

Antonelli dropped to a 14-16 record in 1955, with a 3.33 ERA. He then returned to form with 20 wins in 1956. He made the All-Star team with his sensational 1954 campaign and repeated the feat from 1956 to 1959. He was elected to both All-Star teams in 1959, giving him a total of 6 All-Star selections in five seasons. He was a 16-game winner in 1958, which was the Giants’ first season in San Francisco. Through a cursory glance, I couldn’t find any other living ballplayer who participated in two franchise moves, so Antonelli may have been the last player with that distinction.

Antonelli won 19 games in 1959, leaving him just shy of being a 20-game winner for the New York and San Fransisco Giants. He led the NL with 4 shutouts in what would be his last great season. He was the winning pitcher in the All-Star game played on July 7. He relieved Roy Face in the top of the 8th and, after walking Roy Sievers, got out of a jam by retiring Sherm Lollar on a force out at third base. He got the win when Giants teammate Willie Mays tripled in Hank Aaron, breaking a 3-all tie.

Antonelli was no fan of Seals Stadium, where the Giants played before Candlestick Park was built. His frustrations boiled over after he allowed two home runs in a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers on July 20, 1959. The wind-aided homers by Gil Hodges and Charlie Neal accounted for all the offense the Dodgers could muster off of him. He had retired 21 straight hitters before Neal’s shot.

“Put it in the paper that this is a [bleep] ball park,” he told reporters after the game. “You asked me what kind of a pitch I thew Neal, and I say what difference does it make?… A pitcher should be paid double for working here. Worst ball park in America. Every time you stand up there, you’ve got to beat the hitter and a 30-mile-an-hour wind.” He sort-of apologized the next day but did criticize the out-of-town writers who used the quotes, saying, “They should use more discretion.”

All in all, Antonelli managed just fine in any National League ballpark until 1960. He was moved back into a swingman role, starting just 10 of his 41 appearances. He didn’t excel in the role, with a 6-7 record, 11 saves and 3.77 ERA. He also ran afoul of Giants fans and reporters in his last couple of seasons with the Giants, and it deteriorated relationships to the point that owner Horace Stoneham asked him publicly, “Why don’t you quit? I can’t fire you.”

Antonelli later said that he and his actions had been mis-characterized by the press. His blowup about Seals Stadium came after an out-of-town writer and asked about the pitch that Neal “pummeled” — the writer’s word, not Antonelli’s. That set the pitcher off, and when the reporter sent a photographer to get a picture of Antonelli against the player’s wishes, he offered to have the photog thrown out of the clubhouse. Antonelli maintained that the whole thing had been blown out of proportion — when Nikita Khrushchev visited San Fransicso around the same time, the Soviet leader was pushed off Page One of the newspapers because of Antonelli.

The pitcher asked to be traded, and the Giants accommodated him by sending him to Cleveland in exchange for Harvey Kuenn. He hated the way his time with the Giants ended. “I don’t think, in the 13 years I’ve been in baseball including Army time, that I’ve been an alibi artist, or a crybaby, or a trouble maker,” he told columnist George Beahon of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “Baseball is tough enough under ideal conditions. When conditions become adverse, then the game is something else. That’s why I asked to be traded. And no matter what’s been said, or what I have read, I don’t want to hurt anybody I worked for.”

Johnny Antonelli with a group of Rochester little leaguers. Source: Democrat and Chronicle.

Antonelli struggled in Cleveland, losing his only 4 decisions and piling up a 6.75 ERA in 20 games, including 7 starts. He was sold to the Milwaukee Brewers, the team where he started his career. He won his first game for the Braves by throwing a scoreless third of an inning on July 6, but he had a 7.59 ERA in 9 games with Milwaukee.

The Braves sold his contract to the expansion New York Mets in the offseason. Rather than play with the Mets, Antonelli decided to retire in January 1962, at the age of 31. “I’ve been thinking of this for a long time, and I’ve made up my mind,” he said. “I’m tired of traveling and I want to be home with me family.”

In his 12 seasons in the major leagues, Antonelli had a 126-110 record, with a 3.34 ERA. He threw nearly 2,000 innings and struck out 1,162 batters. He had 102 complete games, 25 shutouts and 21 saves. His lifetime ERA+ is 116, and he generated 31.8 Wins Above Replacement. He wasn’t an automatic out at the plate, either. He hit 15 home runs in his career while batting .178.

Antonelli returned to Rochester, where he had a burgeoning business empire in the tire business. He opened his first store in 1955 with his World Series money and at one point had 28 locations across the state of New York, according to his obituary. The business ran successfully until 1994. He remained a popular figure in Rochester and released his autobiography, A Baseball Memoir, in 2012.

For more information:

An ad for Johnny Antonelli’s tire business from 1962.

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