Friday, August 9, 2013

William Julius "Judy" Johnson

Johnson with the Pittsburgh Crawfords
Time for another Guest Post here at the Mill Creek Hundred History Blog, as this time Bill Harris has stepped up to the plate. Bill has a post for us about arguably the greatest athlete ever to have lived in (or very close to) Mill Creek Hundred. (You can put your Randy White arguments in the comments section, if he did actually live in MCH as well as go to high school here.) Johnson's home on Newport Road is technically in Christiana Hundred, but A) it's part of Marshallton, and B) it's close enough that he could probably hit a ball into MCH, so he's close enough for us. After Bill's piece, I'll follow up with a few thoughts of my own.


The Mill Creek Hundred History Blog has highlighted dozens of people and families that have been innovators, businessmen, and politicians that have contributed to the region and state’s growth. However its arguably most famous [very close] resident gained national notice in through his skills on the baseball diamond.

William Julius “Judy” Johnson was born in Snow Hill, Maryland, probably in 1899 although there is some confusion as birth records for African Americans from that time period are spotty. His family soon moved to Wilmington where Judy became involved in sports. A gifted athlete, his father wanted him to box, but Judy desired to be a professional baseball player. Like many ballplayers of that era, he started playing semi-professional baseball in industrial leagues and eventually was signed by the Negro National League Hilldale Daisies in 1919 and played in the Negro Leagues through 1936, earning many batting titles and playing for several league championship teams.

Johnson in 1924

Johnson had the misfortune of playing his entire professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues. Banned from playing in the all-white American and National Leagues, the accomplishments of these men were often overlooked by contemporary newspapers even though their level of play was on par with the official American and National “major leagues”, as evidenced by frequent exhibition games between stars from white and black leagues. Baseball scholars rate Johnson as one of the five greatest men to play third base and in recognition of this was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, the first Delawarean, black or white, to achieve this honor.

The Judy Johnson House

After retirement, Judy remained involved in baseball, including coaching and scouting for several Major League Teams. Although never wealthy, life in professional baseball provided Johnson with enough money to live comfortable. Money earned while playing allowed Johnson to buy his first and only house in 1934 in Marshallton, at the intersection of Newport Road and Kiamensi Avenue.

One of the young ballplayers that Johnson scouted was Bill Bruton, a fleet-footed outfielder who had a successful major-league career primarily with the Milwaukee Braves. Bruton was obviously the favorite player Judy Johnson had ever scouted as he married Johnson’s daughter.

Johnson's Hall of Fame Plaque

In his later years, especially after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Johnson would graciously greet sports writers and historians from around the country to his home in Marshallton to discuss life in the Negro Leagues. More importantly, though, Johnson continued to mentor and support the youth of his neighborhood. Today, the Judy Johnson Home is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Judy Johnson died in 1989, and was twice honored by the City of Wilmington: a ball field named after him near his boyhood home at 2rd and DuPont Streets and again with a statue at Frawley Stadium.

REFERENCES: Application for Register of Historic Places: http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/95001145.pdf
National Baseball Hall of Fame: http://baseballhall.org/hof/johnson-judy
SABR Biography: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/5c84de56


Thanks, Bill, for this look at an underappreciated former member of our community. I'm pretty sure I only became aware of Judy Johnson (who got his nickname early in his playing career for his resemblance to a veteran player also nicknamed "Judy") after his passing, which I now regret. From all reports, he truly was of the all-time great players. Due to the unfortunate situation at the time (isn't that a nice way to say "blatant, open racism"?), Judy and his contemporaries didn't get the chance to play for mainstream audiences in the "Major Leagues". It took many years, but now most baseball people understand the level of play (and the talent of the players) in the Negro Leagues. Johnson himself was later compared as a player to the likes of Brooks Robinson. I think under different circumstances Brooks Robinson would have been seen as a later day Judy Johnson.

In addition to being known as an excellent fielder and possibly the best clutch hitter of his day, Judy Johnson was always respected as being a very smart player. In 1930 he served as a player manager with the Homestead Grays. In 1935 he was the captain of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a team that featured five future Hall of Famers -- Johnson, Oscar Charleston, "Cool Papa" Bell, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. Because of his knowledge of the game, after his playing days (and after baseball's racial integration) Johnson worked as a scout for the Philadelphia A's, Milwaukee Braves, and finally for the Phillies. During his stint with the A's, Johnson later said he could have signed Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, and Minnie Minoso. He said that with an outfield like that, the A's could have stayed in Philly! While with the Phillies, he did help sign Richie Allen. For another good look at Judy Johnson's playing career, check out the following site : http://research.sabr.org/journals/judy-johnson-a-true-hot-corner-hotshot.

2 comments:

  1. I will try to keep what I have to say short.
    I am glad to see this post. Back in the mid 90’s I belonged to a group that worked with New Castle County and the Sate to place Judy’s house on the National Register. During that time I got to know Bill Bruton and his wife, Judy’s daughter. I never knew Judy either but through my relationship with Mr. Bruton and others that knew him, I felt like he still lived there. Due to cold and windy conditions on the day we unveiled the Historic Marker the celebration was held inside in a small hall across the street in the old Saint Barnabas Church. It was standing room only. In attendance were former Negro League players, Negro League historians along with some local and state legislators including Mike Castle. The United States Post Office was even there and had a special postal cancellation for that day. There was even one or two paragraphs in the New York Times about the event. I was told there were close to 200 people there. It just goes to show what kind of person Judy must have been. Sorry I never got to know him.

    On a side note. His house now sits empty. It has for 2 – 3 years. Hopefully someone can persuade the current owner to sell and a person with knowledge of the house take it over.

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  2. At a little league banquet in the 1960's Judy Johnson was our guest speaker. I had no idea what a great player he was as a kid.I have since read about his career and feel honored to have been able to hear him speak to us as young ball players.

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