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On Sports

Antonelli reflects on his October glory from 60 years ago

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Rochester Business Journal
October 17, 2014

The games, particularly this time of year, evoke remembrances of swings past. As octogenarian Johnny Antonelli watches twentysomethings and thirtysomethings attempt to write their own baseball legacies, the best player ever born and bred in these parts can’t help but relive the emotions he felt when he took the mound a lifetime of Octobers ago. It was during that 1954 World Series that the planets and stars aligned perfectly and Antonelli fulfilled the potential scouts saw in him when they signed him out of Rochester’s Jefferson High School before the ink had barely dried on his diploma six years earlier.

Sixty autumns ago, the crafty lefthander capped a season in which The Sporting News named him Major League Pitcher of the Year by recording a complete game victory and a save in the New York Giants’ four-game Series sweep of the heavily favored Cleveland Indians.

“It all came together for me that year and that October,” the Pittsford resident said recently. “It was like I realized all my goals in one year. I made the National League All-Star team for the first time, I won 21 games and we became world champions. It doesn’t get any better than that. That year set up my career and my life.”

And what a wonderful life it has been. Antonelli was selected to six All-Star teams and posted a 126-110 won-lost record with a 3.34 earned run average, 25 shutouts and 21 saves during a 13-year career that saw him pitch for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, the New York and San Francisco Giants, and the Indians. He would become one of only 17 major league players in baseball history to never have spent a single day in the minor leagues and one of only two pitchers to record a win and a save in both World Series and All-Star game competition. (Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter is the other to achieve the feat.)

And then Antonelli would go on to have an even more successful career as an entrepreneur after using his Series bonus check to purchase his first Firestone tire store in 1954. To future generations who never saw him pitch, he became known as the “Tire Man,” with more than 28 stores in Rochester and beyond bearing his name. Unlike many athletes, past and present, Antonelli realized in the prime of his career that he wouldn’t be able to throw baseballs past hitters forever. During an era when the salaries of most professional athletes weren’t much higher than what the average Joe was making, Antonelli plotted a rewarding second career while still immersed in his first career.

He was just 31 years old when he walked away from the game. He could have pitched several more years but was tired of the travel and being away from his young family and eager to devote his energies to his new business.

“The New York Mets were about to begin play as a National League expansion team in 1962, and before the start of spring training that February they sent me a contract for $38,000, which was darn good money in those days,” recalled Antonelli, an 84-year-old whose mind remains as sharp as a new pair of baseball spikes. “I was tempted, but ready to move on. After I told them my decision, their manager, Casey Stengel, joked to reporters, ‘I guess Johnny Antonelli is doing OK selling those black doughnuts in Rochester.”

Through the years, teams would attempt to lure him back as a pitching coach or a scout, but Antonelli was done with that life. He has remained a die-hard fan, and still enjoys watching games, especially in October, when memories of his Mount Everest moment come rushing back. He vividly remembers how nervous he was making his first Series start as a 24-year-old. After just one pitch, he wondered if his first Fall Classic would result in a classic fall.

“The very first batter I faced was a singles hitter named Al Smith,” he said. “You could probably count on one hand the number of homers he had hit in his career. Anyway, I figured I’d just throw a fastball down the pike to get ahead in the count and calm my nerves. Well, he winds up smacking the ball over the roof at the Polo Grounds. I’m standing out there on the mound wishing I could dig a hole and crawl into it. But I couldn’t go anywhere. There was no place to hide.” Decades later, he chuckled about his rude introduction to the World Series. “Hey, I have a record that can never be broken,’’ he joked. “It can only be tied.”

Antonelli was not at his best that day. He yielded nine hits and six walks, but he used his guile to strike out nine batters and escape with a 3-1 complete game victory to put the Giants up two games to none. “I thank (Manager) Leo Durocher for sticking with me and letting me pitch out of those jams,’’ he said. “Cleveland left 13 guys on base. I was in trouble every inning except one. Good thing they didn’t have pitch counts in those days because I must have thrown close to 200.”

Two days later, Durocher asked him to close out Game Four and the Series. Sun glare off the scoreboard was making it difficult for hitters to pick up a southpaw’s delivery, so Antonelli was summoned from the bullpen with two runners on and one out in the bottom of the eighth. He struck out two batters to get out of the inning, then retired the side after walking the lead-off hitter in the ninth. In a Series that forever will be remembered for “The Catch” Giants centerfielder Willie Mays made in Game One, Antonelli had cemented his legacy as a “Mr. October” long before Reggie Jackson staked a claim to that moniker.

It’s no secret who Antonelli is rooting for this postseason. He’s hoping his old team, the Giants, can claim their third Series title in five years. As he watches, he’ll undoubtedly be reliving the emotions from his own Fall Classic a lifetime of Octobers ago.

Best-selling author, award-winning sports columnist and daily radio talk show co-host Scott Pitoniak co-wrote the book, “Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir,” published by RIT Press in 2012.    

10/17/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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What You're Saying 

Frank Cicha at 6:23:24 AM on 10/18/2014
Great tribute Scott. I remember meeting him at the book signing you had at Frontier Field a few years age. He is a real gentleman.

FAC

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