Monday, June 17, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1950s (Part II)

Lew Burdette
Burdette spent portions of 18 seasons in the majors, winning 203 career games. Most of those wins came in the 1950's. Burdette started in the Yankee farm system, going 16-11 at his minor league peak. There was little room for him on a star-studded Yankee staff so he was traded to the Braves. He was with the club when they made the move from Boston to Milwaukee. The change of scenery suited him well as he improved his record from 6-11 in '52 to 15-5 the following year. He would win at least 15 games in 7 of the next 8 seasons. With four effective pitches in his arsenal, the tall right-hander posted the lowest ERA in the National League during the '56 slate (2.70). He helped the Braves to consecutive pennants in '57/ '58. His performance in the '57 Fall Classic was among the most dominant of all-time as he won all three of his starts (2 of which were shutouts) against some of the game's most dangerous hitters, including Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Milwaukee triumphed in 7 games then bowed to the Bombers in the same number of contests the following year.  Burdette was a fair hitter for a moundsman, drilling 15 career homers while driving-in 271 runs. He had a pair of multi-homer games--one in '57 and another in '58. He fashioned back-to-back 20-win campaigns in '58/ '59 then followed with a 19-win effort in 1960.

Willie Jones
Jones carried the memorable nickname of "Puddin' Head," which was derived from a 1930's song entitled "Wooden Head, Puddin' Head Jones." His professional debut was delayed when he spent three years in the Navy during WWII. He joined the minor league ranks in 1947 and earned a September call-up that year. Most people would argue that Jones's primary value to the Phillies was his glove. The wide-ranging third baseman set a National League record for most seasons leading the league in fielding percentage (1952-1956). In that same period, he topped the circuit in putouts every year. In addition to flashing the leather, he was a pretty fair hitter, averaging 69 RBI's per season during the 1950's while finishing in double digits for homers in 7 straight campaigns. His single season high in both categories came in 1950,when he led his Philly squad to a World Series appearance against the Yankees. During the regular season, he ran his batting average up to .315 before slumping in the second half and finishing at .267. He hit at a respectable .286 clip in the Series as the youthful Philly "Whiz Kids" bowed to the New Yorkers in 4 games. 

Jim Gilliam
Since Gilliam played on 4 pennant winning Dodger clubs of the '50's, he has not necessarily been forgotten. It's more accurate to say that he has been overshadowed by the big names around him. In his '53 debut, he found himself playing alongside Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider. The 24 year-old infielder made his presence known, leading the league with 17 triples while working 100 walks. He captured Rookie of the Year honors that year. Nicknamed "Junior," Gilliam had a keen batting eye at the top of the order--most often hitting out of the first or second slot. From '53-'59, he averaged 83 walks per year and usually posted on-base percentages in the high-threes. He had good speed, swiping 21 or more bases 4 times in that span while consistently appearing on NL leaderboards. A 2-time All-Star, Gilliam was solid defensively, leading NL second baseman in fielding percentage during the '57 slate. He finished among the top 5 in putouts and assists five times apiece. Gilliam was a versatile fielder and was used quite a bit at third base and the outfield as well. The Dodgers won 2 of the 4 World Series he played in during the 1950's.

Johnny Antonelli
A southpaw with a devastating fastball and elusive curve, Antonelli threw 5 no-hitters for Jefferson High School in Rocehster, New York. He received a bonus of $65,000 when he signed with the Braves in 1948, but the big money made his teammates jealous and irritated Manager Billy Southworth. As a result, Antonelli saw limited playing time in his first three seasons, taking the hill just 46 times. He was denied a World Series share when his teammates voted on the issue in '48. He spent two years in the military during the Korean War. By the time he got back, the Braves had moved to Milwaukee and appointed a new manager. Antonelli saw far more playing time under Charlie Grimm in '53 and proved what he could do as a regular member of the rotation, winning 12 games while finishing among the top ten in ERA, strikeouts and complete games. He would finish with double digit win totals for the remainder of the decade. Traded to the Giants in '54, he had his best all around season, posting a 21-7 record while fashioning the lowest ERA in the circuit at 2.30. His 6 shutouts were also tops in the NL. In the World Series that year, he was virtually untouchable, starting once and relieving in another game against Cleveland. He emerged with a 1-0 record and a 0.84 ERA. From '56-'59, the slender left-hander made four straight All-Star appearances while posting a 67-54 record. He led the NL in shutouts again in '59. By the time the '60's rolled around, Antonelli was unhappy with the Giants and the media, which had never really treated him fairly. His performance suffered and he was booed by fans. Removed from the starting rotation, he was traded to Cleveland. The Mets tried to acquire him in the '61 expansion draft but Antonelli retired before climbing on board that sinking ship.    

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