Johnny Antonelli and Me

Johnny Antonelli, a boyhood hero to many, was lost on Friday. (via Public Domain)

Johnny Antonelli, a star pitcher for the New York Giants in the 1950s and my boyhood hero, died at age 89 on Friday.

Some people who get to meet their childhood idols are disappointed to discover they are not very nice people. I was fortunate to meet my boyhood hero and discover he was a warm, gregarious, generous, and humble person.

It happened two summers ago. I was scheduled to give a talk at a symposium at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. A few weeks before my visit to Cooperstown, I wrote a letter to Johnny, who grew up and still lived in Rochester (three hours from Cooperstown), and asked if I could take him lunch. I explained that in 1954 – when I was six years old — my uncle Augie, the day after going to a game at the Polo Grounds, brought me an 8-by 11-inch glossy photo of Johnny in his New York Giants uniform, posing as though he had just completed his follow-through. In the upper right-hand corner, in dark black ink, it said: “To Peter Dreier (a future major leaguer) Your friend, Johnny Antonelli.”

It was my first baseball autograph, and I have treasured it ever since, making sure whenever I moved, it came with me. Sixty-four years later, I still had the photo. The ink had faded, but it was still legible. My wife had the good sense to put it in a frame as a birthday present. I included a copy of that photo in my letter to Johnny, hoping it might entice him to allow me to visit him.

A week later, I received an email from Johnny’s wife, Gail. She wrote: “John rarely opens mail from someone he does not know. However, he could not resist opening that big envelope from you.”

Gail said Johnny was thrilled to get my letter, and she invited me to visit them at their home and to have lunch with them at the Oak Hill Country Club. “You can buy us lunch the next time we get to Los Angeles,” she wrote. “Start saving up. John doesn’t drink but I do.”

The next part of her email, however, was devastating: “I wish you had not sent the copy of the autographed picture because the handwriting is not John’s. John wants me to assure you that he never ever had anyone sign for him. Who signed that photo for you will always have to be a mystery.”

After carrying that autograph around with me for six decades, I had to confront the existential truth that my uncle Augie, with the best intentions, was surely the person who had inscribed that glossy photo to me in 1954. But a few week’s after that email from Gail, I received a package in the mail from Rochester that included another 8-by-11 glossy photo with the inscription, “To my friend Peter Dreier, Best Wishes, Johnny Antonelli.” The two photos – from 1954 and 2018 – now both hang on the wall in my home office.

A few weeks later, I drove from Cooperstown to the Antonellis’ modest house in Rochester. Johnny met me at the door, shook my hand, and welcomed me with a big smile. At 88, he had shrunk a few inches from his 6-foot 1-inch frame during his ballplaying days, but he was fit and energetic. He showed me around his house, including his many mementos from his baseball days and his subsequent career as a Rochester businessman and local celebrity. Then we drove to the country club for lunch.

During the meal, Johnny told me that for many years, the swanky club, host of many top PGA tournaments, did not allow Jews or Italians (much less African-Americans) to join. Even though he had become a successful businessman – with a chain of popular tire stories across upstate New York – as well as being the greatest all-around athlete ever to come from Rochester, the snobby club refused to admit him for many years. Eventually he was allowed to join, but, as the proud son of Italian immigrants, he never forgot the slight.

Johnny was charming. His memory was solid. During our two-hour lunch – throughout which he regaled me with stories he must have told hundreds of times, but which sounded fresh as he told them – we were interrupted at least a dozen times by club members who came over to say hi to Johnny and Gail. Knowing I am Jewish, Johnny made a point to tell me which of those friends were Jews, recounted their civic and professional accomplishments, and winkingly told me that his closest pals at Oak Hill were the children and grandchildren of immigrants – a small triumph in the nation’s battle over bigotry.

Growing up in Rochester’s immigrant enclave, Johnny was unaware of racial segregation in his hometown or elsewhere. He arrived in the majors in 1948 – a year after Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color line. The Braves integrated their roster in 1950 with Sam Jethroe and two years later had three Black players.

Johnny was shocked by how his black teammates were treated, especially when they traveled in the South. He recalled an incident when the Giants went to St. Louis in the 1950s to play the Cardinals. The visiting teams stayed at the Chase Hotel, which didn’t allow African-Americans in the hotel restaurant, requiring them to eat in the kitchen. Without informing the team’s owners or executives, Johnny, the Giants’ player rep, told the hotel manager if they didn’t allow his black teammates into the restaurant, the Giants would move to another hotel. The hotel relented. Johnny didn’t publicize his role, but six decades later, he was still proud of his stand for civil rights.

Born in 1930, Johnny grew up in Rochester’s west-side immigrant neighborhood. He was a three-sport star (baseball, basketball, and football) at Rochester’s Jefferson High School. He was probably the best high school baseball player in the country. His father, Gus, a railroad construction contractor who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1913, made sure major league teams knew about his son’s baseball prowess. Gus wrote letters to scouts about his son’s accomplishments and even went to spring training camps in Florida with Johnny in tow and with newspaper clippings of his diamond triumphs. After Johnny graduated from high school in 1948, Gus rented out Silver Stadium, home of the International League Rochester Red Wings, and invited scouts from nine major league teams to watch his son pitch against a top-notch semi-pro team. Johnny struck out 17 hitters and pitched a no-hitter.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

That began a bidding war to sign Johnny to a major league contract. The Red Sox, Yankees, Giants, Indians, Tigers, Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, and Boston Braves all expressed interest. The Braves’ scout told Lou Perini, the club president, Johnny was “by far the best big-league prospect I’ve ever seen. He has the poise of a major league pitcher right now and has a curve and fastball to back it up. I think so much of this kid’s chances that if I had to pay out the money myself, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it — if I had the money.”

The Braves signed Johnny to a contract with a $52,000 bonus ($570,000 in today’s dollars), the second-largest in baseball history at the time. Under the “bonus baby” rule of the time, teams that signed players for over $4,000 were required to put the athletes on their major league rosters, even if they would have been better off spending a year or two in the minors.

That meant Johnny spent 1948, his first season as a professional player, with the Boston Braves. Some players resented him and his huge bonus. The team’s left-handed pitching ace, Warren Spahn, initially refused to talk with the 18-year old Antonelli. Its other star pitcher, Johnny Sain – whose $21,000 salary was less than Antonelli’s bonus – threatened to quit, but he stayed after the team gave him a new contract in midseason for $30,000.

Although the Braves won the National League pennant that year, Johnny mostly was consigned to serving as a batting practice pitcher, appearing in only four games as a reliever. When the season ended, he attended  Bowling Green University in Ohio (where sang in the choir and intended to major in voice), but he only stayed for a semester in order to make it to the Braves’ 1949 spring training.

Antonelli was used sparingly in 1949 and 1950, then served for two years in the Army, where he won 42 games and lost only 2 games for the Fort Myer team, gaining the kind of regular experience (and self-confidence) he missed by not playing in the minor l199eagues. In 1953, he rejoined the Braves, who had moved from Boston to Milwaukee, and became part of the starting rotation. He had a 12-12 win-loss record, but showed signs of his promise by finishing fifth among National League pitchers in earned run average (3.18).

In February 1954, the Braves traded Johnny to the New York Giants as part of six-player deal that sent Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson to the Braves. Many Giants fans weren’t pleased with the trade because Thomson – who had hit the legendary ninth-inning walk-off home run to beat the Dodgers for the 1951 pennant – was one of the most popular players in New York.

But Johnny earned Giants’ fans respect in 1954. He was not only the best pitcher in baseball that year but also led the team to a World Series victory against the heavily favored Cleveland Indians.

Baseball talk was a constant in our New Jersey home, but it wasn’t until I was six that I began paying attention to the players and the teams, and inherited my father’s loyalty to the New York Giants. His boyhood heroes were Giants outfielder Mel Ott (who once held the National League career home run record) and pitching ace Carl Hubbell. My dad maintained his allegiance to the team through good times and bad. His favorite joke, which he never tired of telling, and which I laughed at because I knew that’s what he wanted, was to have me ask him, “Dad, are you a Giant fan?” and he’d answer, “No. I’m an air conditioner.”

It was a wonderful accident that my baseball awakening and Johnny’s best year in baseball both took place in 1954. That was when I was just old enough to realize that everyone had to have a favorite team.

The timing was perfect. That was the year that my friends and I began collecting baseball cards and comparing our favorite players and teams. Most of my friends rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Yankees. Throughout my adolescent years, one of the favorite topics of conversation among my friends was which team had the best center fielder (the Dodgers’ Duke Snider, the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, or the Giants’ Willie Mays) and the best pitcher (the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe, the Yankees’ Whitey Ford, or the Giants’ Antonelli). I kept a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine articles about the Giants and taped photos of my favorite players – Johnny, Willie, and pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes — on my bedroom wall.

At age six, I had just begun playing catch with my father at a park near our home and he convinced me that, being left-handed, I should be a pitcher. So, it was only natural that I’d feel an affinity with Antonelli, the Giants’ ace lefty. And when my uncle brought me the autographed Antonelli photo, my loyalty to the 24-year old pitcher grew exponentially.

Antonelli had an incredible 1954 season — the best in his 12-year major league career. He led the league in shutouts (six), earned run average (2.30), and win-loss percentage (.750) with 21 victories and only seven defeats, and was selected for the All-Star game. At season’s end, he came in third in the voting for the league’s Most Valuable Player, behind Mays and Cincinnati Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski. Two years before the first Cy Young Award was created to honor the best pitcher, The Sporting News gave Johnny its Pitcher of the Year award.

The Cleveland Indians were highly favored to beat the Giants. They had won 111 games, the most in American League history, led the league in home runs and had one of the greatest pitching rotations ever.

At six years old, I didn’t know that the Giants weren’t supposed to win, and I didn’t understand the concept of “beating the odds.” I remember watching the Series on our black-and-white television, but I don’t remember any details. I don’t even have any memory of “the catch” — what some considering the greatest outfield play in baseball history. It took place during the first game of the World Series, played at the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ stadium in upper Manhattan. With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth inning, Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz crushed the ball about 420 to deep center field. Mays, who had been playing in shallow center field,  made an on-the-run, over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track. He then spun around (losing his cap in the process) and threw the ball to a waiting infielder, keeping the Indians’ Larry Doby, who was at second base, from advancing, and allowing the Giants to win the game in the 10th inning.

The following day, Antonelli started Game Two and gave up a home run to Al Smith on the first pitch of the game. But he didn’t allow another run for the rest of the game, pitched a complete game, and beat the Indians and Early Wynn,  3-1. Giants pitcher Ruben Gomez beat the Indians in the third game with some help from ace reliever Hoyt Wilhelm, who would go on to become one of the greatest knuckleball pitchers in baseball history. Don Liddle won the fourth and final game, but needed help not only from Wilhelm (who pitched the seventh inning), but also from Antonelli, who took over relief duties and shut down the Indians. He got the last five outs on three strikeouts and two popups, clinching the victory as the Giants pulled off a clean sweep. Rochester feted him with a parade, he was invited to speak at an assembly at his alma mater, Jefferson High School, and he was given a Buick by the local Italian-American Businessmen’s Association.

Johnny pitched well for five more years and made four straight All-Star teams from 1956 to 1959. He won 20 games for a sixth-place Giants team in 1956. In 1959 he won 19 games for the San Francisco Giants, tied for the most shutouts (four), and was the winning pitcher in the first of the two All-Star games that year. After mediocre seasons with the Giants, Indians, and Braves in 1960 and 1961, he retired at age 31, tired of traveling and wanting to spend more time with this family.

In 12 major league seasons, he won 126 games, lost 110, and threw 25 shutouts. In 1,992 1/2 innings, he allowed 1,870 hits and 687 bases on balls, striking out 1,162. His career earned run average was 3.34. He was particularly proud that he completed 102 of the 268 games he started and that he hit 15 home runs during his career, tied for 21st most career homers by a pitcher.

Johnny’s entire big league career was before the Major League Baseball Players Association overturned the reserve clause, allowed players to hire agents, and catalyzed the salary revolution. Like most players at the time, Johnny had to find work during the offseason to make ends meet. During his outstanding 1954 season, he earned $12,000 (equivalent to $115,000 today), made some extra money with postseason appearances on TV games shows, and did endorsements for a cigarette company and a jock strap firm. His top salary — $42,000 in 1958, $375,000 in current dollars – is a far cry from today’s average major league salary of $4 million.

Following the 1954 season, Johnny invested his $8,750 share of the Giants’ World Series bonus in a tire store in Rochester, becoming the exclusive Firestone dealer in the area. After he retired from baseball, he returned to Rochester and built the business to 28 locations across update New York. To promote the business, and to express his gratitude to his hometown, Antonelli’s company and a local radio station jointly sponsored “Captain Friendly” — store managers who cruised around Rochester in a van and helped motorists fix flat tires and make other repairs, for free.

Many upstate New York residents who grew up after Johnny retired from baseball knew his name because of his association with the tire business, not sports. He became a civic leader and a local philanthropist and was a popular speaker at fundraisers for nonprofits and in support of amateur sports leagues, surely telling many of the same stories that he told me during my visit. He served on the board of the Rochester Red Wings, a Triple-A minor league team, and loved to attend its games. Johnny sold the tire business in 1994.

After he retired from baseball, Johnny became an outstanding golfer, winning local tournaments into his early 80s. He had three daughters and one son with his first wife, Rosemarie, who died in 2002. He married Gail Harms in 2006. The couple celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary by traveling to California, starting in Los Angeles so they could visit Del Crandall, Johnny’s Boston Braves teammate, and close friend, and then driving to San Francisco, to spend time with his Giants teammates Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, and Willie McCovey.

In 1958, when the Giants moved to San Francisco, they broke my heart. I would never again cheer for the Giants as a team, but I reserved a special place in my heart for Johnny as well as Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes.

I grew up in a Jewish family in postwar America. Issues of immigration, discrimination, and assimilation were never far from the surface. Baseball became a metaphor for the nation’s social changes, including the drama of racism and civil rights. So I’m not surprised that my first baseball heroes were a polyglot group. Antonelli was the son of working-class Italian immigrants who viewed baseball as their son’s route into the middle class. Mays grew up in a segregated town outside Birmingham, Alabama — where his father worked in a steel mill and as a Pullman porter. Mays played in the Negro Leagues before signing with the Giants.

Rhodes also grew up dirt-poor in rural Alabama. He was white, but his best friends on the Giants were its black players. When he retired from baseball in 1959, rather than return to the South, he moved back to New York, where he worked as a tugboat captain in the Staten Island Harbor and as a Pinkerton guard at the 1964 World’s Fair. My other baseball hero was Jackie Robinson, despite his playing for the rival Brooklyn Dodgers. In most Jewish homes at the time, he was as iconic a figure as the late Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As a kid, I not only followed the exploits of my favorite players daily. I learned geography and math by reading their baseball cards and newspaper stories about them. I learned how to debate, engaging with my friends in arguments about our favorite teams and players. I learned how to deal with victory (in 1954), disappointment (1955, 1956, and 1957), and loss and betrayal (when the Giants moved to the West Coast). I gained an understanding that there are always new beginnings and new horizons. I also learned – a bit late in life – that my uncle Augie had forged Johnny’s signature in order to bring joy to a six-year-old fan – a counterfeit for which I would have forgiven him if he were still alive. Six decades later, those are still valuable lessons.


Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. He is the author of several books, including The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012), Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (3rd edition, 2014), and We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style (2020). His next book, Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America, coauthored with Rob Elias, will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2021.
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Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Wonderful article. Ironically, though, Jim Bouton related a more negative story in Ball Four about Antonelli blowing him off when Bouton, as a kid, asked for his autograph. Obviously, that was not really representative of Antonelli. I’m a huge baseball history buff but Antonelli never really registered much with me until recently. That’s probably because the Yankees and Dodgers dominated the 50s so much. He was obviously a much better pitcher than I realized. The other thing is the bonus baby rule was obviously designed to discourage teams from spending big money on rookies, not much different than the salary… Read more »

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Good point but let’s face it: Jim Bouton may have been an iconoclastic raconteur to a generation of baby boomers but a paragon of credibility he was not. I say better than even money that Bouton pissed him off and with good reason.

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider

I agree with you. I’m pretty sure every ballplayer in the majors has blown off someone at one time or another. I wasn’t knocking Antonelli; it was really aimed more at Bouton who, at times, seems to have used the book to settle scores.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

Let’s assume Johnny had an off day when Jim approached him. I don’t know it to be the truth, but if not, like the fake autograph by Uncle Augie, it is a white lie for the benefit of Peter and kids everywhere. RIP Johnny.

gtagomori
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Member
gtagomori

Nice! Thanks for this story.

BranchRickey11937
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Member
BranchRickey11937

Sorry to hear Johnny has passed but thanks for this wonderful article Peter. When I was growing up we somehow stumbled upon the early sets of Strat-O-Matic and had the most fun with their original “Old-Timers” set. Though the Giants and Dodgers had already left our city, the 1953 Dodgers and 1954 Giants were among everybody’s favorite teams. Antonelli was a mega-star for us. His sterling 1954 season was one of the pitcher cards that fit right in with the pitcher-dominated 1960s that were accustomed to. How many times those summers Antonelli faced off against the 1953 Carl Erksine, the… Read more »

Yehoshua Friedman
Member
Yehoshua Friedman

How about the black Cadillac?