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Johnny Antonelli, The Milwaukee Braves and What Might Have Been

By MPL Staff on Oct 26, 2017 10:00 AM
Photo from Meet Your Braves: Brief Biographies to Help You Know Your Milwaukee Braves Better.

60 years after the ’57 Braves won Milwaukee’s only World Series championship, fans still lament the Braves could have been a dynasty had they not blown a 3 games to 1 lead against the New York Yankees in the 1958 World Series. Manager Fred Haney started Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn and “Saliva Lew” Burdette on two days rest in the 6th and 7th games. Both tired in the late innings and lost. Former Chicago Cubs ace Bob Rush gave up only 2 runs in losing Game 3, but was skipped for Game 6, despite capably filling in as the number three starter after Bob Buhl was injured early in the season.

In 1956, the Braves led the Brooklyn Dodgers by a game going into the final weekend of the season. Unfortunately, they dropped two of three to the St. Louis Cardinals (sounds like a broken record), while the Dodgers swept the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the National League (NL) pennant. The Braves and Dodgers tied for first at the end of the 1959 season and played a best of three playoff for the pennant. The Braves lost two one-run games, including a 6-5 12-inning season ending heartbreaker. That’s how close the Milwaukee Braves came to winning four straight National League pennants.

The close, but no cigar dynasty mishap can be traced to the off-season after the Braves first season in Milwaukee (1953). A little background. The Boston Braves won a bidding war for left-handed high school pitcher Johnny Antonelli over the Boston Red Sox, New York Giants and New York Yankees in 1948. They signed the 18 year old for $52,000. Since his signing bonus was much larger than $4,000, Braves had to keep him on the roster as a “bonus baby” for two full years before sending him down to the minor leagues (shades of Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Wei-Chung Wang and the Rule 5 Draft).

His signing bonus was more than any Brave’s salary and caused a rift in the clubhouse. Some of his teammates, including Spahn, resented Antonelli. There was no chemistry between the two southpaws. Others, like co-ace Johnny Sain (“Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain” and “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain”) used his signing bonus to point out their experience to wrangle salary increases from owner Lou Perini.

In 1948 the Braves were finally in a pennant race. Manager Billy Southworth only used him for four innings of mop-up duties in four games as the Braves won their first pennant since 1914. Antonelli made spot starts and relief appearances in the following two seasons, including forming the youngest battery with 19 year old catcher and future Brewers manager Del Crandall on June 24th, 1949. The two teens became friends.

Antonelli needed regular work in the minors to learn how to become a successful frontline starting pitcher. He finally gained the chance to pitch regularly when he was drafted into the Army for the 1951-1952 seasons. He was assigned with other future major leaguers to one of their teams to raise soldiers' morale. After posting a 42-2 win-loss record, he was discharged from the Army and returned to the Braves for the 1953 season.

Perini stunned the baseball world by moving the Braves out of the Boston Red Sox shadow to Milwaukee on March 18th, 1953. It was the first major league franchise relocation in a half-century and sparked subsequent team moves since then, including Milwaukee losing the Braves to Atlanta after 1965 and gaining the Brewers (Seattle Pilots) in 1970. Charlie “Jolly Cholly” Grimm, who replaced Southworth as manager the year before, put Antonelli into the starting rotation. He had a 12-12 record and a 3.18 ERA (Earned Run Average), fifth best in the National League that might have been better had he not contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized midseason. The Milwaukee Braves finished second to the Brooklyn Dodgers and believed they were one big bat away from going to the World Series.

They coveted New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson, the “Flying Scot,” best known for hitting the dramatic 9th inning come from behind “Shot Heard ’Round The World" homer that won the 1951 NL pennant for the New York Giants in a tie-breaking playoff against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He drove in more than 100 runs for three consecutive seasons. The Giants would only trade Thomson for Antonelli.

Max Surkont, the Polish Stallion who ate his way out of Milwaukee's starting rotation after gaining more than 20 pounds from eating free kielbasa given by fans during the season, was traded in the off-season too. He said the Braves would miss the young, promising Antonelli from the starting rotation. The team believed the trade would bring a World Series Championship in 1954. They were right...for the Giants.

Antonelli had his career year with a 21-7 record and a league leading 2.30 ERA. Had the Cy Young Award started one year earlier, he would have been its first recipient. He and Hall of Famer Willie Mays led the Giants to an upset World Series sweep over the Cleveland Indians, which won a then-American League record of 111 victories. He hurled a complete game 3-1 victory in Game 2 and saved Game 4. Meanwhile, Chet Nichols, his replacement in Milwaukee, struggled to a 9-11 record with a 4.41 ERA. Thomson broke his ankle in spring training and the Braves called up 20 year old Henry Aaron, whom they projected to be a future batting champion spraying singles and doubles like future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn.

Comparing the pitching records of Johnny Antonelli and the Braves' number two and three starters, Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl from 1953 to 1959, shows how much deeper the Braves' starting rotation would have been behind ageless ace Warren Spahn had they kept him. Antonelli and Burdette both won 20 games twice. Each led the National League once in ERA. Antonelli pitched in the Polo Grounds, which was less pitcher friendly than County Stadium. After trading Thomson for Antonelli, the Giants only had one big bat, Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid.” Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews (512 home runs), Aaron (755 HRs) and first baseman Joe Adcock (336 HRs) formed a potent lumber company to back up the pitching of Spahn, Burdette and Buhl.

 

1953-1959 Win Loss ERA WAR
Warren Spahn 145 81 2.86 37.7
Johnny Antonelli 114 89 3.09 32
Lew Burdette 120 71 3.36 20
Bob Buhl 84 52 3.14 15.6

 

Had the Braves kept Antonelli, he would have had a better win-loss record and ERA, and they would have won the National League pennant in 1954, 1956-1959 for a total of five pennants in seven seasons. They might have won one or more additional World Series championships.

After falling short of 20 wins (19) in 1959 for the now transplanted San Francisco Giants in Seals Stadium, a bandbox he detested, back spasms delayed the start of Antonelli’s 1960 season. His record was 3-0, 1.87 ERA with one save on May 21st, 1960. Then, the roof caved in during June before he was removed from the rotation (eventually replaced by future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal in July) to finish the year with a 6-7 record (10 starts), 3.77 ERA and 11 saves. His strikeout to walk ratio fell and walk to innings ratio worsened, which suggests his fastball lost velocity. The Giants traded him to the Cleveland Indians for future Brewers manager Harvey Kuehn in 1961.

Antonelli didn’t regain his magic and the Tribe sold his contract back to the Milwaukee Braves, where Antonelli was used sporadically in relief, picking up his 126th and final victory. The Braves sold his contract after the season to the New York Mets expansion team. He was only 31, but it was time for a new chapter in life. After 1954, he invested his World Series bonus in opening a Firestone Tire shop in his hometown of Rochester, New York. The Mets dangling a $38,000 contract and the lure of returning to the Polo Grounds, where he was the Giants ace wasn’t enough to lure him away from his second career owning a growing tire company franchise. Leave it to “The Old Perfessor,” former Yankees skipper and new Mets manager Casey Stengel to comment, “I guess Johnny Antonelli is doing alright selling those black doughnuts in Rochester.”

To find out more about the pitcher who might have helped the Milwaukee Braves win more World Series rings, read Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir and look at his stats at Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Dan, Local History Librarian



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