Antonelli recalls pitching for Giants in '54 Series
Left-hander won 21 games as team won last championship in New York
Former New York Giants ace Johnny Antonelli holds a World Series record that's been equaled once, but can't ever be broken.
The home run that Cleveland Indians leadoff man Al Smith hit off him, in Game 2 of the 1954 Fall Classic, was the only one ever recorded on the first pitch of a World Series contest until Derek Jeter accomplished the feat in Game 4 against the Mets in 2000.
It's one of the few mistakes Antonelli made that day -- Sept. 30, 1954 -- or that season, during which he went 21-7 with a National League-best six shutouts and 2.30 ERA while helping the Giants sweep the heavily-favored Indians, whose 111 wins were the most ever in a 154-game season.
"I'm still leading the league in that respect," Antonelli, 84, joked about the home run he gave up, looking back on the 60th anniversary of the Giants' last World Series championship in New York. They moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1957 campaign.
"Cleveland was a great ballclub," he said. "They had Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Bob Feller pitching. We were just confident we could win. But the four straight was kind of a miracle as far as we were concerned."
Two of the most dramatic moments in World Series history helped the Giants win Game 1. The first was "The Catch," Willie Mays' eighth-inning over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz's blast to deep center field that would have plated two runs and given the Indians a 4-2 lead.
"I saw it from the bench," Antonelli recalled. "We knew he had it because when Willie pounded his glove we knew he was going to catch it."
Antonelli, a 1948 Boston Braves "bonus baby," had come to the Giants that year in a trade with Milwaukee for Bobby Thomson, whose "Shot Heard 'Round the World" had won the 1951 pennant for New York. Antonelli, a southpaw, had a simple philosophy about pitching at the Polo Grounds, where he took a perfect 12-0 record into September.
"If you could keep hitters from pushing or pulling the ball down those short foul lines [280 to left field, 258 to right], Mays would catch everything else from right-center to left-center," he said.
Game 1's other hero was left-handed pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes, taking the place no less of future Hall of Famer Monte Irwin, whose pop fly down the right-field line dropped into the first row of seats, about 270 feet from home, for a dramatic 5-2 Giants victory in 10 innings.
Antonelli's Game 2 triumph wasn't a masterpiece as he scattered eight hits and walked six. But he also fanned nine Indians batters and stranded 13 runners for a hard-earned, complete-game victory. "I was in trouble all but one inning," he said. "We just seemed to get the next guy out. Luckily, we won 3-1."
New York held a commanding two-game lead as the Series shifted to Cleveland, where the Giants completed the sweep with 6-2 and 7-4 wins in Games 3 and 4, respectively. The Giants jumped out to big, early leads in both contests.
In the finale, Antonelli came on in relief with one down in the eighth inning and closed out the game, earning a save by striking out three of the six batters he faced. "It was common back then for starters to pitch in relief during a World Series," he said.
The '54 campaign was a breakout season for Antonelli and included the first of five trips to the All-Star Game. In addition to six shutouts, he only allowed one run in six other games, and two runs in a half-dozen others. So he only allowed an average one run per game in 18 of his 21 victories.
A Rochester, N.Y., native, Antonelli signed a $65,000 bonus contract with the Braves, the largest in history at the time, and made his debut on July 4, 1948 at the age of 18. Boston reached the World Series that year, but Antonelli had only appeared in four games and was left off the postseason roster.
The next year, he and catcher Del Crandall combined for another rare baseball feat as the youngest batterymates in baseball history. Both just 19, their combined age was less than that of 40-year-old Dutch Leonard, the Cubs' opposing starting hurler.
"There have been younger pitchers, but never a younger pitcher and catcher," Antonelli said.
He spent 1951 and '52 in the Army, even marching in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration parade with the 3rd Infantry Regiment. Many other big leaguers, including Mays, were drafted during the Korean War, so Antonelli's service team saw stiff competition, and he also played against Japan's top players while serving overseas there.
The experience made up for the Minor League seasoning he never got with the Braves. In 1953, he went a respectable 12-12 with Milwaukee and was then dealt to New York in a six-player deal. The Braves already had two lefties, future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn and Chet Nichols, who had just gotten out of the service.
"I was kind of surprised when the trade was made," Antonelli said. "Milwaukee had a great young ballclub (1954 was Hank Aaron's rookie season). I thought we were going to have a good team for years to come."
Antonelli holds one other unique distinction. He lost the last game the New York Giants played at the Polo Grounds. He pitched for the Giants through 1960 and split 1961, his final season in the Majors, between Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Antonelli was selected by the expansion 1962 New York Mets, which would have brought him back to the Polo Grounds. But he was tired of traveling and had already started a thriving chain of Firestone Tire stores, so he turned down the offer and retired.
"I remember Casey Stengel, the Mets' manager, saying, 'Johnny must be selling a lot of those black donuts [tires],'" Antonelli said.
Antonelli knew the Mets wouldn't be very good and didn't want to blemish his stellar career with another unenviable record. "Roger Craig lost 24 games for the Mets that year," he said. "I would have been right behind him. So I sent the contract back. I didn't want to be that kind of pioneer."