What he did: I first knew of Antonelli as the ace of the 1954 New York Giants. A 24-year-old hurler who arrived in a trade before the season with the Milwaukee Braves, Antonelli proceeded to go 21-7 with a 2.30 ERA and help lead the Giants to a World Series title. Antonelli won 20 games again two years later and 19 games in 1959, on his way to 126 wins lifetime, but in another time he might have done far more. A couple of things limited Antonelli’s career, namely that he lost two seasons serving in the Korean War and, prior to that, his designation with a term that’s been defunct in baseball for decades: Bonus Baby.
From 1947 to 1965, baseball had a bonus rule that any prospect signed to a contract of more than $4,000 had to spend his first two years in the majors. A few Hall of Famers emerged from this group, including Sandy Koufax, Al Kaline, and Harmon Killebrew, but far more bonus babies wound up marginal and obscure, stunted by their lack of time in the minors. Antonelli very nearly was one of these players. On a 1948 Boston Braves team that went to the World Series with the mantra for its staff of, “Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain,” 18-year-old rookie Antonelli pitched but four innings all season and got more work throwing batting practice.
It’s a wonder Antonelli wasn’t a victim of the baseball times, and it makes me wonder what he’d do in an era better suited for developing young hurlers: the current.
Era he might have thrived in: With his precocious talent in high school, “by far the best big-league prospect I’ve ever seen” as one Braves scout put it, Antonelli would be a high pick today in the amateur draft, something that didn’t exist in his time. Luck of the draft might relegate Antonelli to a team like the Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals, or Pittsburgh Pirates, though he could still have a better start to his career than what he had.
Why: Times have changed a lot in baseball in 60 years. The bonus rule was abolished in 1965, and players need no longer go directly to the majors, though some like Jim Abbott have done it voluntarily. It’s also generally unprecedented that 18-year-old pitchers appear in the majors, ever since the 1973 Texas Rangers wrecked the career of high school phenom David Clyde. These days, it’s standard for any high school draft pick to spend his first two to three years in the minors, minimum. That’s assuming he doesn’t opt for college, which I’m assuming Antonelli wouldn’t, since his talent might assure him a seven-figure signing bonus.
Granted, surmounting the minors and eventually starring in the majors is no sure thing. Last year, I studied several years of top ten draft picks in football, basketball and baseball, and I found that while more than 90 percent of the picks in the NFL and NBA went on to play at least five years, only 70 percent of the picks in baseball did so. The difference seems to do with the fact that football and basketball teams look to draft pro-ready players generally, while baseball clubs opt for talented but young prospects.
It’s an inexact science, but it’s worked before even for lousy clubs like the Florida Marlins who staked their resurgence in the late 1990s on a high school pitcher they drafted second overall named Josh Beckett. Perhaps Antonelli could follow suit.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays