ROCHESTER - Johnny Antonelli, an All-Star pitcher and World Series hero for the New York Giants, died in Rochester Friday morning. His son-in-law, Monroe County Judge Christopher Ciaccio, announced the passing in a post to Facebook. Mr. Antonelli was 89.
One generation of baseball fans knew him as a great left-handed pitcher who reached the pinnacle of his sport, and another generation knew him as a successful Rochester businessman who went out of his way to help strangers. Friends and others who knew him say that Mr. Antonelli remained humble and was always generous with his time.
“He was so good with people,” said longtime Rochester sportswriter Scott Pitoniak. “If I think of one word to describe him it would be ‘class.’ He was genuinely kind to people.”
Major League Baseball's official historian, John Thorn, called Mr. Antonelli "a fine pitcher and by all accounts an even better man."
"That he was the pitching star of the 1954 World Series, or that he was named to six All-Star Game squads, may be confirmed in the records. But like so many old ballplayers, his glory did not and will not fade," Thorn said Friday.
John August Antonelli was born in Rochester on April 12, 1930. He grew up on the city's west side in a neighborhood full of immigrants, like his father. Sports were at the center of daily life for kids there, and by the time he reached Jefferson High School he was a standout in football, basketball and baseball.
It was on the baseball diamond where he shone brightest. His blazing fastball and looping curveball drew the attention of baseball scouts from across the country to watch him pitch. The left-hander became the subject of a bidding war among major league teams after he graduated in 1948. He received a sizable bonus — $55,000 — for signing with the Boston Braves, and rules at the time mandated that "bonus babies" spend two full seasons in the big leagues. He is one of a handful of big league players who never appeared in a minor league game.
He pitched sparingly that first season, an 18-year-old kid surrounded by veteran players, many of whom were earning salaries less than the big bonus check he'd just received.
"Warren Spahn, the Braves ace, wouldn't talk to him," Ciaccio recalled. "So Johnny had to endure — which he did quietly — that slight for the remaining time on the Braves."
The grace and humility he showed in that experience was the result of his working-class background, Ciaccio said.
"He handled it so adroitly as a young man, with such class," Ciaccio said. "His parents did a wonderful job raising him with fundamental values that would guide him throughout his life."
Mr. Antonelli pitched sparingly in three seasons with the Braves before joining the Army after the 1950 season, serving for two years. He rejoined the club in 1953, which by then had moved to Milwaukee.
It was a blockbuster trade to the New York Giants in 1954 that helped propel him to the national spotlight. Backed by sluggers Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, the young left-hander dominated opposing hitters and earned a spot on the National League All-Star team. He finished the season with a won-loss record of 21-7 and a league-leading 2.30 ERA.
He started Game 2 of the 1954 World Series, allowing just one run in a complete-game victory against the Cleveland Indians. He returned to the mound on one day's rest in Game 4, shutting down an Indians' rally in the eighth inning and closing out the game and the World Series championship with a scoreless ninth.
Mr. Antonelli pitched seven seasons for the Giants, earning all-star honors six times and following the team when they moved to San Francisco in 1958. He was traded to the Indians in 1961 and then back to the Braves, but struggled out of the bullpen. The expansion New York Mets acquired him in an offseason trade, but Mr. Antonelli opted to retire instead, telling reporters he was tired of traveling and wanted to be home with his family.
He was just 31 when his baseball career ended.
“The news today of the passing of Johnny Antonelli brings great sadness to our organization,” said Larry Baer, Giants president and chief executive officer. “Johnny was one of the all-time great Giants and was part of our rich history in the 1950s. He enjoyed visiting Oracle Park for alumni reunions and other events and I’m thankful for the laughs we shared over the years.
"Our condolences go out to the Antonelli family for their tremendous loss and we extend our thoughts to Johnny’s teammates, his friends, and to all those touched by his passing.”
Mr. Antonelli was not the only Rochester native to achieve success in sports, but he was certainly one of the best.
"If there is a Mount Rushmore of Rochester athletes, he's gotta be on it," Pitoniak said.
Winning record after baseball, too
Mr. Antonelli opened a tire business in 1955 at the corner of Keeler Street and North Clinton Avenue, the exclusive Firestone dealer in the area. It eventually expanded to 28 locations across New York state.
"I started the business with my World Series money," Mr. Antonelli said in a 2014 interview. The payout for members of the 1954 Giants was a whopping $8,750, and, Mr. Antonelli said, "You could start a business then with $8,750."
At its peak, Johnny Antonelli Tire Co. had 12 shops in Monroe County as well as stores in places like Elmira, Binghamton and Schenectady.
The tire company held Johnny Antonelli Night every year at Red Wings games at the old Silver Stadium and gave away prizes like tires and TVs. Johnny Antonelli Tire Co. started a promotion with radio station WVOR called "Captain Friendly," in which store managers cruised around in a van and helped stranded motorists.
Captain Friendly never charged for the roadside assistance, which often left the surprised motorists impressed.
Mr. Antonelli got out of the tire business in 1994. He had become frustrated with Bridgestone, the company that bought out Firestone, and called it quits.
He remained a visible presence in Rochester throughout his life. He was a frequent and popular guest at fundraising dinners, where he would enthrall crowds with stories about his baseball days.
Mr. Antonelli teamed up with Pitoniak to write an autobiography, published in 2012, called simply "A Baseball Memoir."
"I was like a kid in a candy store getting to spend time with him," Pitoniak said Friday. "I was a huge fan of that era of baseball. But the thing I cherish most is that I got to become his friend."
The two would attend ballgames with their wives, and fans would inevitably recognize Mr. Antonelli and come up to talk to him.
"He would take off his big World Series ring and hand it to them and say, 'You want to try this on?'" Pitoniak recalled. "He was so generous like that and thrilled when people asked him for an autograph."
Mr. Antonelli's first wife, Rosemarie, died in 2002. The couple had three daughters and one son. He is also survived by his second wife, Gail, whom he married in 2006, as well as 12 children and 9 great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.