Remembering those whose path you crossed takes many forms.
When they pass from the scene, you take some time to think about them.
The impression they made, why they made that impression, and the circumstances which made them special to you.
Nothing has made more of an impact in recent weeks than the tragic, and premature death of basketball great Kobe Bryant. People still can’t believe he’s gone. These people include youngsters and older folks as well. This was a rare happening where Bryant’s death cut across all ages. Usually, for most people, it’s someone who has experienced decades of life.
It could be someone close to you. Someone you worked with, or a figure in your profession, or, as in my case, someone from the world of sports who I briefly got to know.
When Johnny Antonelli died at the age of 89 last week, I paused for more than a few moments, alternating between sadness and joy. Sadness because he left us, joy because he gave me so much of that when I was a youngster.
Johnny Antonelli was probably not a household name even to sports fans, more specifically, even to baseball fans.
Antonelli was a stylish, left-handed pitcher for several major league teams, notably the New York Giants, my team growing up.
And he was notable indeed. More on that shortly.
He was a native of Rochester, NY, and when he wasn’t throwing a baseball, was a successful owner of many tire stores in the area.
In the days when Antonelli pitched, in the 1950’s and before, players were not earning the astronomical salaries which came later, and had to have jobs in the off-season. Johnny Antonelli did well with his tire shops.
He was signed by the Boston Braves as a “bonus baby” in 1948. That was the term used by those prospects, signed right out of high school or college for high salaries, and had to stay with their teams for two years. They could not be sent to the minor leagues or be claimed by another team.
Bonus babies rarely saw action. They were young, and inexperienced. This routine was a far cry from baseball and other sports today, where kids jump quickly to the big leagues, are thrown into the pressure-cooker immediately, and often deliver as a proven veteran.
That was then, this is now.
Antonelli signed for $52 thousand, which represented the biggest bonus in baseball history at the time.
In 1948, the Boston Braves, who would move to Milwaukee in 1953, won the National League pennant, losing to the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
He was resented by most of the veterans on the Braves, including their future Hall of Fame southpaw Warren Spahn, and the Braves other ace hurler, Johnny Sain who was one of the best pitchers in the game, and was earning much less than Antonelli, who hadn’t earned that princely sum. Spahn practically ignored Antonelli, but that was the way of the world for many bonus babies.
All Antonelli did in 1948 was pitch batting practice, and appear in only four games, all in relief.
When the Braves voted to divide their World Series share, Antonelli was left out.
After two more nondescript seasons, he spent the next two years in the US Army.
He rejoined the Braves, now in Milwaukee in 1953 and posted a 12-12 record as a member of their starting rotation, but was fifth in the National League in earned run average, allowing a little over three runs a game.
His promise was beginning to show.
Then came the turning point.
Antonelli was traded to the Giants in a six-player deal that involved outfielder Bobby Thomson, the hero of the Giants 1951 pennant drive. It was Thomson who hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”, the stunning and dramatic three-run homer in the ninth inning to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final playoff game to decide the National League flag.
Now, the forever Giants legend, was dealt for the left-hander the New Yorkers craved to win once again.
You can imagine the high hopes a young man of 11 had going into that 1954 campaign.
The 1951 season was my first, as a Giants fan, in essence, setting the tone of a love of baseball which would be the blueprint for my life’s work.
That incredible comeback by the Giants, 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers August 13th, eventually beating the hated rivals in the ninth inning of the deciding third playoff game, was the introduction to my future. A breathtaking start, to say the least.
What followed were two disappointing seasons. The Dodgers won both times, and my Giants slipped to fifth place in 1953, with a 70-84 record.
What was going on?
Then renewed hope with the big trade.
Now imagine what it was like for the same kid having his hopes fulfilled to the utmost.
Antonelli had the best season of his career, winning 21 games, losing only seven.
He led the league in Earned Run Average, and in shutouts, with six.
He was an All-Star and led the Giants to the National League pennant.
He started and won Game 2, then entered Game 4 in relief and closed down the Indians to finish off an improbable four-game sweep over favored Cleveland, which had won an American League record 111 games during the regular season.
He was my new hero.
Antonelli won 20 games for the sixth-place Giants in 1956, as my team not only faded, but left town for San Francisco in 1958.
The lefty made four straight All-Star teams, in a successful career with the Giants after they moved to the Bay Area.
He retired at the age of 31 to spend more time with his family and his business.
As it turned out, Johnny Antonelli was more than merely a baseball favorite of mine from afar.
Living in my first community in Boca Raton, Florida in the late 80’s, I learned that a former big-league pitcher named Johnny Antonelli was also a resident, and I got to meet him personally at the golf course.
He was an outstanding golfer and played with the same foursome frequently.
We would see each other on the practice green and chat.
For me, the Johnny Antonelli who pitched my team to a world title, came alive.
I’ll never forget him. He will be missed.
A post-script on the big signing of Tony Romo by CBS.
Romo, who has developed into the best TV expert-analyst on NFL games, signed a new contract for $17 million to continue with CBS. He was wooed by ESPN, and the bidding war was cut short when CBS gave Romo what he wanted, prior to becoming a free agent.
Some players have objected to the astronomical deal. Why is a TV guy getting so much?
It’s simple. TV is a huge business in the NFL world, and with networks preparing to bid in increased billions to retain the rights to show the games, Romo’s windfall is a drop in the bucket.
It doubles the $8 million John Madden earned, but times change, and if you possess the best in his field, you can’t afford to lose him.
During the regular season, viewers don’t really know who will broadcast the games they see when they come on.
But when it’s playoff time, and the games are critical, leading all the way to the Super Bowl, you better have a broadcast booth that can match the battle on the field.
CBS has the Super Bowl next season. They have Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. And they’ll have them going forward as well.
They really had no choice.