Johnny Antonelli, RIP: Overcoming the bonus claws

The first Bonus Baby and a 1954 World Series hero for the Giants passed away on Friday morning. He was 89 years old.

The first of baseball’s 1947-1965 bonus babies has gone to the Elysian Fields. Johnny Antonelli, a smart and sharp lefthanded pitcher who died at 89 Friday morning, was a World Series hero for the 1954 New York Giants. But first he was a Boston Braves bonus baby, which no few Braves equated to being a pain in the you-know-where.

It wasn’t Antonelli’s fault that he was so impressive a Little League and high school pitcher that a Braves scout named Jeff Jones insisted owner Lou Perini give the boy with what was described as a “loping” curve ball a good look and a lot of money.

“He’s by far the best big-league prospect I’ve ever seen,” Jones told Perini, according to The Sporting News. “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.”

Perini had the money, all right, $65,000 worth to hand the eighteen-year-old lefthander in June 1948. Oops.

The bonus rule introduced a year earlier required that teams signing prospects to bonuses $4,000 or higher had to keep those kids on their major league rosters for two full seasons before they could be farmed out to the minor leagues. It deprived those kids of badly-needed professional experience, and often as not made them pariahs more than prospects on their teams.

Antonelli was handed more money in one bonus than Braves pitching stars Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain earned in 1948 combined. Sain even threatened to walk off the team—until the Braves calmed him down with a hefty raise up to a $30,000 salary. Antonelli would remember that that had the neat trick of turning his bonus status into contract leverage for Spahn and other players.

That may have been one of the few instances of respect he’d receive, even in the breach. He saw almost no action other than batting practice in 1948. It took the intercession of commissioner Happy Chandler to get him an eighth of a full 1948 World Series share at all when the Braves’ bat boys each got shy of $400. He saw enough action in 1949 to show his talent, but in 1950 he struggled while sharing the fourth starter role.

Then Antonelli got lucky. He was drafted into the Army. It proved the next best thing to bona-fide minor league seasoning. He pitched for the baseball team out of Fort Myers, Virginia, and went 42-2 for his two years in khakis. When he returned to the Show for 1953, the Braves had moved to Milwaukee. Antonelli’s promising season—in which he’d still finish with the National League’s fifth-best earned run average—got roadblocked by a nasty bout with pneumonia.

Then Spahn did Antonelli a favour. He suggested the Braves needed only three lefthanders in the rotation, and one of them wasn’t Antonelli. So the Braves traded him in a six-player deal that also sent pitcher Don Liddle and two others to the Giants in exchange for Bobby Thomson and reserve catcher Sam Calderone. Double oops.

Antonelli in 1954 made his first All-Star team, won 21 games, led the National League in winning percentage and ERA (2.30), and while he was at it he beat his old Braves buddies three times while losing to them twice and facing them twice more pitching well enough to win both those games.

As if to rub it in a little more, Antonelli shone in the Giants’ ’54 Series sweep. He started Game Two, surrendered a home run to Cleveland’s Al Smith on the first pitch of the game, and didn’t allow another run, while beating Hall of Famer Early Wynn, 3-1. Then Giants manager Leo Durocher—seeing his Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm faltering, advised that sun glare was making it difficult for lefthanded hitters—brought Antonelli in to squelch an Indians rally in the eighth. Then he shut them out with a spotless ninth for game, set, and Series.

Antonelli’s Rochester, New York home town gave him a hero’s welcome. The Giants tried to force him to take the same salary in 1955 that he’d earned in 1954, but Alvin Dark, the infielder who’d been his teammate on the Braves as well as the Giants, suggested he return the offer and ask for double. It paid off. Antonelli got exactly that for 1955.

It was a tougher year for him and for the Giants, who lagged back to an 18 1/2-game finish behind the eventual world champion Brooklyn (Wait Till Next Year!) Dodgers. But Antonelli rebounded in 1956 with his second All-Star trip, a second 20-game winning season, and the National League’s most shutouts.

Never really a strikeout pitcher, Antonelli survived on the mound by pitching to contact, trusting his defenders, and being unafraid to throw his oft-remarked curve ball at any old time it felt right for him to throw it. He’d throw it “when other pitchers wouldn’t dare,” that old Sporting News story said. It also helped him make three more All-Star teams between New York and the Giants’ move to San Francisco.

But Johnny Antonelli wasn’t entirely happy in San Francisco. He didn’t exactly fall in love with either the city, its notorious winds, or its sports press, and it didn’t help that he’d pitched his way out of the Giants’ rotation during 1960. After manager Bill Rigney bolted unexpectedly, his interim successor Tom Sheehan was sure Antonelli would be traded post haste enough.

Re-enter Dark, now succeeding Sheehan as the full-time manager. He promised to keep Antonelli, whom he was convinced would bounce back. That promise got broken when the Giants traded Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland to the Indians for Harvey Kuenn. The same Harvey Kuenn whose lone Cleveland season wasn’t exactly hearts and flowers—since he’d been traded there for popular slugging outfielder Rocky Colavito in the first place, in a deal that still lives in Cleveland infamy.

The Indians thought Antonelli’s unhappiness in San Francisco contributed to his 1960 fall off. But after he opened 1961 0-4, the Tribe traded him to the Braves. The fall continued; he appeared in only nine games. Then the expansion New York Mets, preparing for their first season of life, bought Antonelli and fellow pitcher Ken MacKenzie from the Braves.

Antonelli said, well, we’ll just have none of that. None too thrilled about joining a newborn team whose chances of winning were likely to be two (slim, and none), he retired back to Rochester. But there was more involved than just the prospect of the Original Mets going below the basement.

“I quit baseball because I didn’t like traveling,” he told a Society for American Baseball Research writer in 2007. “Not for any other reason. I had no injuries or anything. I’d had my fill of traveling. I had a business to fall back on or else I would have played longer, I’m sure.”

He’d gone into the tire distributing business in the offseasons already. Now he could build the business and continue raising his family: three daughters (one becoming a vascular nurse, another becoming a teacher) and one son (graduated from the family business to become a Starbucks executive). They collaborated to give Antonelli, his wife, Rosemarie, and his second wife, Gail (Rosemarie died in 2006), eleven grandchildren and a couple of great-grandchildren.

Around Rochester, Antonelli was known as a humble fellow who always had time for friends and strangers alike. Antonelli and his second wife also continued another interest he’d taken up after baseball—travel, of all things. “When you play ball, you stay in a hotel or you go to the ballpark and you never see much of the sights because you’re playing ball,” he told SABR. “Now I’m seeing sights.”

Though he never worked in baseball again after retiring as a pitcher, Antonelli made eventual peace with his Giants past. The team’s chief executive officer, Larry Baer, said in a statement upon the news of Antonelli’s death that the former pitcher “enjoyed visiting Oracle Park for alumni reunions and other events and I’m thankful for the laughs we shared over the years.”

He did better for himself in baseball than many of his fellow old bonus babies, and he did a splendid enough job in life itself. It may tell you something about Antonelli the player and man combined that one of the few mementos he kept from his career was one trophy.

It was given to him by a group of Polo Grounds fans who decided he was the Giants’ most valuable player in 1956. Analytically, Johnny Antonelli’s 6.3 wins above a replacement-level player that year was second only to Willie Mays‘s 7.6 WAR. Whatever his problems in baseball otherwise, a gesture like that says plenty enough for the pitcher, but that he cherished that for the rest of his life tells you something about the man.