Gail Antonelli beams as she hands me an old, black-and-white newspaper photograph she recently purchased on ebay. It is from the second game of the 1954 World Series, and in it we see a bunch of men meeting at the pitcher’s mound at the old Polo Grounds on Coogan’s Bluff in upper Manhattan. The confab shows Gail’s husband, Johnny Antonelli, “mopping his feverish brow” with a towel. The New York Giants ace pitcher is surrounded by manager Leo Durocher, shortstop Alvin Dark, catcher Wes Westrum and umpires Jocko Conlan and Al Barlick.
The photo caption tells us that Antonelli yielded a home run on his first pitch of the game and was in trouble again, as the Indians loaded the bases. It also mentions that this is “sweating time” for Antonelli, but that he managed to wriggle out of the jam and pitch the Giants to a complete game, 3-1 victory.
“I still don’t know where that towel came from,’’ Johnny says, chuckling, while examining the photo. “But the caption was right. It was sweating time for me. In fact, that whole game was sweating time. I was in trouble every inning. The Indians left 14 men on base. They got something like eight hits and I walked six batters and struck out nine. I must have thrown about 200 pitches that day. But Leo stuck with me, and it all worked out fine.”
That it did. And two days later, the Jefferson High School graduate would cap his most memorable season by coming out of the bullpen to pick up the save as the underdog Giants swept the heavily favored Indians to win the World Series title. The finest born and bred Major League Baseball player from Rochester wound up tossing six shutouts and winning 21 games that season to earn pitcher-of-the-year honors from The Sporting News, a weekly newspaper regarded as the “bible of baseball.” Unlike today, Cy Young Awards weren’t presented to the top pitcher, but if they had been, Antonelli would have won in a landslide.
“That was a great year for me,’’ the 89-year-old said recently, leaning back in a comfy chair in the couple’s Pittsford townhouse. “Everything came together for me that season. It all clicked. It was magical.”
The arrival of October always conjures fond memories of that Fall Classic for Antonelli. That was the Series when centerfielder Willie Mays made “The Catch” on Vic Wertz’s titanic blast in the Polo Grounds; the Series when pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes provided clutch hit after clutch hit. But it also was the Series when Antonelli realized the potential that prompted the Boston Braves to sign him to that “bonus baby” contract of $53,000 shortly after he graduated from Jefferson in the spring of 1948.
Antonelli would go on to win 126 games, save 21 more, toss 25 shutouts and make six National League All-Star teams during his 12-year MLB career. He is one of just 21 players who never toiled in the minors, though he will tell you that his two years pitching for United States Army teams during the Korean War was the equivalent of minor-league experience. He also is one of only two pitchers in MLB annals to have recorded a win and a save in both World Series and All-Star games. (The other is Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter.)
Antonelli had the distinction of pitching for two franchises that switched cities — the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee and the Giants from New York to San Francisco. The crafty lefthander was only 31 when he retired following the 1961 season — a season in which he pitched for both the Indians and the Braves — and he clearly could have pitched several more seasons had he desired. But he had grown weary of the travel and wanted to settle back in Rochester so he could devote more time to his wife and kids and his ever-expanding businesses.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Antonelli began making plans for his post-baseball career while still in his prime. In fact, he took the $8,700 bonus he earned from winning the World Series and invested it in his first Firestone tire store. He eventually grew his business to 28 stores in Rochester and Upstate New York, employing nearly 300 people. One could argue that Antonelli became even better at pitching tires than baseballs — and that’s saying something given his diamond success. “After awhile, I became known as the ‘tire guy’ rather than the ballplayer,’’ he said, smiling. “But that was OK. I’m proud of both of my careers.”
Few have aged more gracefully than Antonelli, who still boasts a thick shock of silver hair and a mind as sharp as a new pair of baseball spikes. But this past year has been rough for him. He underwent back surgery, and that’s limited his mobility. And last October, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Still, you’d never know any of it by looking at him, or talking to him.
“I feel good,’’ he said. “I don’t feel old. My mind is good, I have all my teeth, and I still have my hair.”
He grinned for a moment, then grew serious.
“I certainly don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me,’’ he said. “We are going to continue to fight this, and, hopefully, we’ll have a few more good years.”
Next week, relatives and friends will gather at Oak Hill Country Club — where Johnny’s been a member since 1971 — to celebrate his career and life. There will be ballpark fare. His wife has even bought about 70 boxes of Cracker Jack to hand out.
Longtime club member and friend, Jerry Stahl, will conduct a conversation with Johnny about his career. And those in attendance are sure to be entertained because, as I’ve learned from interviewing Johnny on numerous occasions as well as collaborating on his memoir, he is a gifted storyteller. There’s a lot of wonderful material to cover. From a life well-lived.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.