Rochester sports legend made his MLB debut on this date 76 years ago (2024)

Sal Maiorana, Sean Lahman and Bill Wolcott| Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

You won't find it in any history book, but July 4, 1948, is significant date in Rochester history.

It's the day when Johnny Antonelli, the greatest modern baseball player in Rochester history, made his major league debut.

Antonelli, a six-time All-Star who finished his 12-year career with a 126-110 record and a 3.34 ERA, remains one of a handful of big league players who never appeared in a minor league game.

Antonelli wouldn't have been there without his dad

Veteran sports writer Sal Maiorana said Gus knew his son Johnny was special.

The elder Antonelli rented out Red Wing Stadium, home of the triple-A Rochester Red Wings, and organized an exhibition game featuring Rochester-area semi-pros, and invited bird dogs from all the big-league clubs to attend so they could get a true indication of Johnny's talent.

Johnny worked his magic, tossing a 17-strikeout no-hitter.

Boston Braves scout Jeff Jones was wowed, and he convinced team president Lou Perini that he had to have Johnny. It cost Perini $55,000 — that's equivalent to $716,000 today — to sign Antonelli.

Johnny Antonelli's major league debut

While Antonelli was living his dream, his debut on July 4, 1948, wasn't really dreamy.

He came in in the ninth inning of doubleheader against the Phillies at Shibe Park and surrendered an earned run on two hits and a walk in Boston's 7-2 loss.

What they said after Antonelli's first game

"You can't tell anything about any pitchers ability in one appearance," Braves manager Billy Southworth said after the game. "But he seemed to have good stuff and what I liked most about him was his poise."

Phillies manager Ben Chapman said, "He had good form and seemed to know what it was all about, but he didn't seem too fast to me and the curves that he threw hung in the air. But gosh, you can't pass judgment on a youngster only 18 by one inning. I wish him all the luck, except when he pitches against the Phillies."

A tough first year for Johnny Antonelli

When he joined the Braves, former Democrat and Chronicle reporter Sean Lahman said Antonelli was an 18-year-old kid surrounded by veteran players, many of whom wereearning salaries less than the big bonus check he'd just received.

"Warren Spahn, the Braves ace, wouldn't talk to him," said his son-in-law, Monroe County Surrogate Court Judge Christopher Ciaccio.

Antonelli made three appearances in August, but pitched only four innings total in 1948, as he continued to deal with jealous teammates thanks to his bonus.

"He handled it so adroitly as a young man, with such class," Ciaccio said.

Antonelli breaks out in 1954

His finest years didn't come until he was traded to the New York Giants in 1954.

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 seasonwith a won-loss record of 21-7 and a league-leading 2.30 ERA. The Giants would go on to sweep the then-Cleveland Indians in the World Series, with Antonelli pitching a complete game in Game 2 and closing out Game 4.

Johnny Antonelli's legacy

Johnny Antonelli remained a visible presence in Rochester throughout his life, and was a popular guest at fundraising dinners, where he would enthrall crowds with stories about his baseball days.

He used his money from winning the World Series to start a tire business at Keeler Street and North Clinton Avenue. It became the Johnny Antonelli Tire Co., with 28 locations across New York state.

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. The company also 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

“He was so good with people,” said former Democrat and Chronicle sports columnist Scott Pitoniak.“If I think of one word to describe him it would be ‘class.’ He was genuinely kind to people.”

Johnny Antonelli died Feb. 28, 2020.

Sal Maiorana is a veteran Democrat and Chronicle sports writer who has covered the Buffalo Bills for more than three decades.

Sean Lahman is a former investigative reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle and served as an editor of a number of best-selling sports encyclopedias — including Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball and The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia.

Bill Wolcott is 30-year journalist who works as a producer at the Democrat and Chronicle.

Rochester sports legend made his MLB debut on this date 76 years ago (2024)
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