Johnny Antonelli, the All-Star left-handed pitcher who helped propel the 1954 New York Giants to a World Series championship and remained one of the National League’s leading pitchers during the Giants’ early years in San Francisco, died on Friday at his home in Rochester, N.Y. He was 89.
Scott Pitoniak, who collaborated with him on “Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir” (2012), said the cause was cancer.
Coveted by many major league teams for his blazing fastball, Antonelli became one of baseball’s first “bonus babies” in the summer of 1948 when, right out of high school in Rochester, he signed with the Boston Braves for $52,000 (the equivalent of about $566,000 today).
Antonelli never spent a day in the minors, since players with large bonuses could be claimed by another team if farmed out. He was used sparingly by the Braves in his first three seasons with them, then spent two years in the Army and returned to post a 12-12 record when the team moved to Milwaukee in 1953.
He emerged as a star after the Braves traded him to the Giants in February 1954. “It was the best break of my career,” he once told The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester.
Antonelli relied on a fastball and curveball, but he also learned to throw off-speed pitches in posting a 21-7 record for the pennant-winning 1954 Giants. He led the National League in earned run average (2.30) and shutouts (6) and tied the Giants’ relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm for best winning percentage (.750).
“The Polo Grounds was a friendly ballpark for me,” Antonelli was quoted as saying by Danny Peary in the oral history “We Played the Game” (1994). “I was able to keep batters from pulling the ball. I made them hit the ball straight away, and I had Willie Mays to track it down.”
The ’54 World Series between the Giants and the Cleveland Indians is remembered mainly for Mays’s spectacular over-the-shoulder catch and throw at the Polo Grounds with two men on base in Game 1, and for Dusty Rhodes’s pinch-hit home runs.
But Antonelli sparkled as well. He threw a complete-game 3-1 victory in Game 2 and closed out the Series in relief, getting the last five outs in Game 4, three on strikeouts, as the Giants swept an Indians team that had won an American League-record 111 games.
Antonelli finished No. 3 in balloting for the National League’s Most Valuable Player and was named by The Sporting News as the league’s pitcher of the year. (The Cy Young Award had not yet been created.)
He pitched all 16 innings in a 2-1 victory over Cincinnati at the Polo Grounds in May 1955, won 20 games in 1956 and was the starting pitcher when the Giants played their last game at the Polo Grounds before moving to San Francisco in 1958.
Antonelli won 35 games over the Giants’ first two years there, when they played in the hitter-friendly Seals Stadium, a former Pacific Coast League park.
But Giants fans reserved much of their adulation for players making their major league debut in San Francisco, mostly notably Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Felipe Alou.
Antonelli became something of a villain in San Francisco because of an outburst after losing game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Seals Stadium in July 1959, yielding two home runs on a windy day.
“I get beat by two lousy fly balls,” Sports Illustrated quoted Antonelli as saying in the clubhouse. “A pitcher should be paid double for working here. Worst ballpark in America. Every time you stand up there, you’ve got to beat the hitter and a 30-mile-per-hour wind.”
An editorial in The San Francisco Chronicle suggested that Giants management should send Antonelli to “some mythical park where the wind never blows, or else hang a pacifier in the clubhouse.”
When Antonelli started a game at home against the Cubs a week later, the fans booed him. He never got back in their good graces.
Antonelli said long afterward that he had been misquoted as having insulted San Francisco itself.
Antonelli told Danny Peary long afterward that a reporter who had questioned him after the game “was out for sensationalism and wrote vindictively that I said, ‘You can stick San Francisco. …”
“I never said anything bad about the city,” he said, “just Seals Stadium.”
In 1960 the Giants began playing at Candlestick Park, which became notorious for winds in its own right. Antonelli had trouble winning as a starter that year, was shifted to the bullpen and posted a 6-7 record. He was still being booed over his 1959 remarks, and he was traded to Cleveland after the 1960 season.
He had a combined 1-4 record with the Indians and Braves in 1961, then was sold to the Mets. But he retired at age 31 instead of joining them, wanting to devote more time to his family and business interests.
He had a career record of 126-110 and was an All-Star in 1954 and every year from 1956 to 1959.
John August Antonelli was born on April 12, 1930, in Rochester, a son of Gus and Josephine (Messore) Antonelli. His father, an immigrant from Italy, laid track for the New York Central Railroad.
Antonelli pitched in only four games for the Braves in their pennant-winning 1948 season. When they were beaten by the Indians in the World Series, the players did not vote Antonelli a losing share while giving themselves 31 full losing shares of $4,570.73 apiece. The baseball commissioner, Happy Chandler, directed that Antonelli receive a one-eighth share, amounting to $571.34.
Antonelli’s survivors include his second wife, Gail Harms Antonelli, and three daughters, Lisa, Donna and Regina, and a son, John Jr., from his marriage to his first wife, Rosemarie, an archivist at Eastman-Kodak in Rochester, who died in 2002.
After retiring from baseball, Antonelli owned more than two dozen Firestone tire stores in Rochester and surrounding areas.
In 2008, when the Giants celebrated the 50th anniversary of their move to San Francisco, there were no hard feelings on Antonelli’s part despite the dust-up over his comments in 1959. He was on hand for a ceremony at AT&T Park, the wind-aided home runs at Seals Stadium only a distant memory.