SABR

Jud Wilson

This article was written by Joseph Gerard.

Jud Wilson was one of the greatest hitters in the history of Negro League baseball, known for his fierce hitting style as well as his explosive temper and his penchant for brawling with both players and umpires. He stood only 5-feet-8 inches tall but weighed a solid 195 pounds, with broad shoulders, a small waist and tiny calves that left him bowlegged and pigeon-toed. He was a slashing left-handed hitter who often drove the ball to the opposite field. Wilson played for 23 seasons, from 1922 through 1945, beginning with the Baltimore Black Sox before moving on to the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and Philadelphia Stars. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .351 that was the fifth highest in Negro league history, and batted over .300 in 16 seasons and over .400 four times.1 He spent six seasons in the Cuban Winter League and compiled an average there of .372. On July 30, 2006, Wilson was posthumously elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ernest Judson “Jud” Wilson was born on February 28 in Remington, Virginia. We know that much, but the year is in question. For many years his birth year was listed as 1899, as indicated in a letter from his widow, Betty, to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in April 1972, but at some point it was revised to 1894, which is engraved on his plaque at the Hall of Fame and on his tombstone. To confuse matters further, census records list 1897. As Wilson himself put it, “These fellows in our league lie too much about their ages.”2

The first mention of Wilson’s early life was his induction into the US Army on June 29, 1918. He served in World War I as a corporal in Company D of the 417th Service Battalion. After his discharge from the Army, he settled in Washington, D.C., and played semipro baseball on the sandlots of his Foggy Bottom neighborhood. It was there that he was discovered in 1922 by Scrappy Brown, shortstop of an independent Negro team, the Baltimore Black Sox. Brown encouraged Wilson to return with him to Baltimore for a tryout, and Wilson passed the test, only to leave the team two weeks later when he became disenchanted with Baltimore. Brown tracked Wilson down in Foggy Bottom and persuaded him to return, only to have his protégé skip the team again. Finally, on his third foray to Baltimore, Wilson remained with the Black Sox.

It did not take long for Wilson to make his presence known. His teammates quickly tagged him with the nickname Boojum, for the sound his line drives made when they smashed into outfield walls. The independent 1922 Black Sox – founded in 1916 by white businessman George Rossiter, a restaurateur, and his partner, George Spedden – finished the season with a 49-12 record, and Wilson is credited with a batting average of .467.

The Black Sox joined the fledgling Eastern Colored League in 1923. The league was formed when the Hilldale Club of Philadelphia and the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City splintered from the Negro National League to form their own circuit. Wilson hit for an average of .338 but Baltimore finished last in the six-team league with a 19-30 record. They bounced back to finish a strong second the following year, with a mark of 51-35. Wilson hit .385 and compiled a hitting streak of 24 straight games.

In 1925 the Black Sox posted a winning percentage of .678, finishing at 61-29, but still could not overtake the Hilldale Club (sometimes known as the Daisies), which was led by future Hall of Fame inductees Judy Johnson and Biz Mackey. Wilson finished ninth in the league in hitting with an average of .354.

After the 1925 season, Wilson made his first venture out of the country, traveling to Cuba to play for the Habana Leones of the Cuban Winter League. He made his mark in his first season in Cuba by leading the league with a batting average of .430, and by hitting a rare home run over the right-field wall at Almendares Park, a distance of more than 400 feet, in the last season before the park was destroyed by a hurricane. In doing so, Wilson joined Cristobal Torriente, Oscar Charleston, Alejandro Oms, and Esteban Montalvo as the only men ever to do so, earning himself the nickname El Jorocon – The Bull – in the process.

Back in Baltimore in 1926, Wilson hit .347, but the Black Sox slipped to 23-36, leaving them 30½ games behind the Bacharach Giants, who finished with an extraordinary record of 63-15. Wilson returned to Cuba that winter but saw limited action, hitting .333 in only 54 at-bats. The following year, 1927, he was at his peak. He hit .403 for the Black Sox, who once again finished far behind the repeat pennant winners from Atlantic City. Wilson followed this with one of the greatest performances seen up to that time in Cuba, leading the league in hitting (.424), triples (7), and runs (36), only to be upstaged by his own teammate, Martin Dihigo, who not only hit .415 but pitched five complete games, winning four of them and the league MVP award in the process, as Habana easily captured the pennant.

In 1928 the Eastern Colored League, beset by the constant disagreements and financial difficulties of its club owners, disbanded in June, with two of its teams, the Philadelphia Stars and the Cuban Stars, lasting only three weeks. Many of the teams continued to play each other and other independent Negro clubs, and Wilson is credited with a .399 batting average for the Black Sox in 42 games. He returned to Cuba that winter and finished second in batting (with a .397 average) behind Habana teammate Oms, and in runs and home runs behind Cool Papa Bell. Habana decimated the competition by winning 14 of its first 16 games, and by the time they had raced ahead to a ten-game lead, two of the other three teams – Cuba and Cienfuegos – had bowed out of the competition altogether.

The American Negro League was formed in 1929 by five carryovers from the Eastern Colored League – the Bacharach Giants, the Cuban Stars, the Hilldale Giants, the Lincoln Giants (of New York), and the Black Sox. The popular and renowned independent Homestead Grays, as well as a new incarnation of the Harrisburg Giants, were added in an attempt to bolster the league’s structure.

The circuit debuted with a split-season format, but the Black Sox made that aspect moot by winning both halves of the season, doing away with the need for a playoff to determine the champion. The Black Sox were bolstered by a realignment of talent in the league, and featured what came to be known in the black press as “The Million Dollar Infield,” of Wilson at first, Frank Warfield at second, manager Dick Lundy at shortstop, and Oliver Marcelle at third, so named for what they would have been worth had they been white players.

Wilson hit .344 in 1929, and in a testament to his stature as a ballplayer, a rumor unfolded that Baltimore was entertaining a trade of Wilson to the Homestead Grays for both the esteemed Dihigo and the talented John Beckwith, perhaps the only man with a reputation for meanness that exceeded even that of Wilson. The trade never took place.

That fall Wilson played in several documented exhibitions against white teams that included major-league players. Wilson went 2-for-4 against pitcher Ed Rommel of the Philadelphia Athletics in an 8-3 victory over the world champions. In a game against the St. Louis Browns, Wilson hit a home run and a double against pitcher Johnny Ogden in a 5-2 win.

Wilson returned to Cuba only days before the stock market crash that would imperil the existence of the Negro leagues. He hit .363, second to Oms, who hit .380. The Leones had a reversal of fortunes, slipping all the way to last place as Cienfuegos won the pennant, mostly on the basis of defeating the Habana club in 15 out of 20 games.

Despite improved newspaper coverage and great play on the field, the American Negro League did not reorganize in 1930.The Black Sox soldiered on as an independent team, and were credited with a 21-16 record, with Wilson hitting for an average of .372. In an October doubleheader against a team of barnstorming major leaguers, he got three hits against New York Yankees pitcher Roy Sherid in game one and went 1-for-2 with two stolen bases in the nightcap against Big Jim Beaver of the Cubs.

In 1931 Wilson joined the independent Homestead Grays, who traveled the country taking on all comers, teams in the Negro National League as well as white semipro clubs, and were credited with an extraordinary record of 186-17. Joining Wilson were Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams, Vic Harris, Double Duty Radcliffe, and Ted Page. On a team of hard-nosed fighters, Wilson brooked no nonsense. Page recalled that the team pulled up to a black rooming house in Zanesville, Ohio, after a game. The landlady filled the bath with hot water, and the men lined up – behind Wilson, who was first. “I was second,” said Page. “I was his roommate. Nobody fooled with Jud Wilson.”3

As a result of the Great Depression, there were no operative Negro leagues left after the demise of the Negro National League in March of 1932. By that time, Cum Posey, the owner of the Grays, was facing a stern challenge from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, an upstart youth club that had been garnering attention for years. At times Posey would help the Crawfords out with money for uniforms and equipment, but always with an ulterior motive in mind. He finally lured the Crawfords’ top player, Josh Gibson, to the Grays, but it was too late. By 1932 businessman, restaurateur, and numbers racketeer Gus Greenlee had built the Crawfords into a formidable club, replacing local semipro talent with the finest professional players he could attract.

The Crawfords began the 1932 season with spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and then barnstormed across the South against the best competition they could find. They arrived in Pittsburgh on April 29 to open Greenlee Field, the spectacular new ballpark their owner had built for his team.

Posey hoped to turn back the Crawfords’ tide by filling the void left by the demise of the previous Negro leagues. He started his own circuit, the East-West League, which was the first attempt to include both Eastern and Midwestern cities in a black baseball league. The league could not overcome the dismal economic conditions; by late May, Posey was forced to capitulate to the Crawfords, having already lost many of his premier players to Greenlee, including John Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Cool Papa Bell. Wilson had begun the season as player-manager of the Grays, but he too defected to their crosstown rivals. Despite inviting the Crawfords to join his circuit, Posey was forced to shut down the East-West League before June.

The Crawfords’ roster resembled that of the 1931 Grays in many ways, with the notable inclusion of the great Satchel Paige. In October they played a series against Casey Stengel’s major-league All-Stars, winning five of the seven games. The Crawfords also played an exhibition game against a team featuring Babe Didrikson, the female Olympic champion, who often pitched for barnstorming male teams as a gate attraction. “We told Jud to take it easy on her,” remembered manager Vic Harris. Wilson proceeded to smash a line drive past Didrikson’s head. “She don’t have no business out there,” he said upon returning to the bench. Harris took him out of the game. “He used to like to win,” said Harris.4

In 1933 Wilson jumped the Crawfords to join the Philadelphia Stars, a new team formed by Ed Bolden with the financial backing of white promoter Ed Gottlieb. Bolden was the force behind the old Hilldale club and the founder of the ill-fated Eastern Colored League.The Stars were independent in their inaugural season despite Greenlee’s establishment of a new Negro National League, which had a tempestuous unveiling that saw only three clubs make it to the finish line. Bolden believed the Stars would be more profitable barnstorming against the strong semipro teams on the Eastern Seaboard, most of them composed of white players. Wilson had an auspicious debut for the Stars, batting .372/.456/.555, and he was voted by readers of the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier to be the starting third baseman for the East squad in the first Negro league East-West All-Star Game, held on September 10 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Despite inclement weather, a crowd of just under 20,000 attended, and the game quickly became one of the most important annual events in black sports. With one out in the second inning, Wilson got the first hit in the All-Star Game’s history, and he drove in two runs in the fifth inning with a single.

The most renowned example of Wilson’s temper took place after the game; his best friend and roommate, Jake Stephens, returned inebriated to the hotel room where Wilson had been sleeping, and made more noise than his friend was disposed to tolerate at that moment. “He got mad, grabbed ahold of my leg and held me out the window 16 stories above the street,” said Stephens. “I yelled ‘Oh please, Willie, don’t drop me.’ Then I started kicking. I was kicking his arm with my free leg. So he shifted hands on me, just like that, from one hand to the other, 16 floors above the street.”5

The Philadelphia Stars joined the Negro National League in 1934, and while the circuit remained solvent, it was still subject to the instabilities of a startup league, exacerbated by poor administration and a lack of resolve on the part of league management to rein in the scheduling whims of team owners. Under these less-than-ideal circumstances, the Stars were awarded the second-half pennant and the right to face the first-half winners, the Chicago American Giants, for the league championship in a best-of-seven series.

The first four games were well played and cast the teams in a positive light, but things went unaccountably downhill from that point on. First, interest in the series was lost as Game Five was delayed for ten days to allow the Stars to play various exhibition games, including the second game of a lucrative, four-team Negro doubleheader at Yankee Stadium in which Wilson collected four hits including a home run. When the series resumed, Game Six featured one of the more blatant examples of Wilson’s flagrant disregard of authority. After disagreeing with one of umpire Burt Gholston’s decisions, Wilson apparently struck the umpire, but was somehow allowed to remain in the game, despite the protests of Chicago’s manager, Dave Malarcher.

Commissioner Rollo Wilson met with both sides before the seventh game, and heard evidence from Gholston that he intended to eject Wilson until the player threatened to get him after the game. Once again, money trumped principle in a league matter, as the commissioner caved in to pressure applied by Bolden, who threatened to boycott the remaining games if Wilson was banned. Wilson played in Game Seven, which ended in a 4-4 tie due to a curfew. Finally, the series ended when the Stars won the final game by 2-0, a result that had to withstand another protest by Chicago.

Wilson hit .360/.436/.500 for the year. He drove in Cool Papa Bell from second base with an infield single to give the East a 1-0 win in that year’s All-Star Game in front of a crowd of 25,000 at Comiskey Park. “When Bell stole second and Wilson of the Philadelphia Stars singled to break up a six-pitcher duel, you should have heard the mob, they forgot themselves temporarily. Who knows that they had not seen the greatest ball game ever played,” wrote Nat Trammell.6

Wilson continued to play for the Stars from 1935 through 1939, and he played the 1935-36 season in Cuba, which was to be his last. He was voted to the East All-Star Game again in 1935, and had two more hits, finishing with a career average of .455 in the event. He hit .344/.380/.566 with 10 home runs in 1935, but the Stars entered a period of decline both on the field and at the box office. As receipts dwindled, Bolden could no longer afford to send his team south to train each spring, which cost him considerable income from the exhibitions he typically scheduled as his squad worked their way north, and made it more difficult for players to round into prime physical shape for the season.

Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to explain Bolden’s decision to have Wilson assume managerial responsibilities in 1937. He saved a salary, and he knew that his fiery star was a fierce competitor who expected the very best from himself and his teammates. Wilson suffered a broken rib in late June of 1937 when the Stars’ bus overturned outside of Pittsburgh on a trip to Cleveland. It was one of the few times in his career that Wilson would not attempt to play through injury.

Jake Stephens recalled a time when pitcher Jim Wilson, who threw very hard, beaned Wilson with a fastball. The ball ricocheted off Wilson’s skull into the screen behind home plate. “It would have killed anyone else,” Stephens said.7 Wilson crowded the plate and was often hit by pitches, including one in 1926 that broke his elbow. Rumored to be out for the season, he returned to play after only two weeks. Wilson was not known to be a graceful fielder either, and he suffered numerous injuries by knocking down groundballs with his body. It became an effective strategy, however; he had such a strong arm that he could recover in time to retrieve the ball and still throw out the runner.

Wilson held the position of manager until he was relieved of his duties by Bolden in favor of Jake Dunn midway through the 1939 campaign. That did not prevent him from hitting .373 for the season. Cum Posey still coveted Wilson’s services, and in 1940 brought him back to the Grays, then based in Washington, D.C. Wilson joined Gibson, Bell, and Buck Leonard, giving the Grays four Hall of Famers in their lineup. Wilson produced a two-out, two-run single that won the 1940 pennant for the Grays, and he was mobbed on the field by the 30,000 spectators. He played more sparingly during his time with the Grays, but contributed to six straight Negro National League championships, from 1940 through 1945. In the winter of 1944, he made his only foray to Puerto Rico to play in the island’s Winter League, where he hit .404.

Many of his contemporaries lauded Wilson as one of the greatest hitters of his time. Josh Gibson said Wilson was the greatest hitter he had ever seen, and Radcliffe said that Wilson was even better than Gibson himself: “Boojum was a better hitter than Josh. He didn’t hit as many home runs, but he hit so many doubles and singles.”8 Satchel Paige once said that the two toughest hitters he ever faced were Chino Smith and Jud Wilson. Wilson recalled hitting against Paige: “He just tried to blur that ball by you. I timed his blinding stuff and just raked him for base hits.”9 Teammate Ted Page said that Wilson hit Lefty Grove “like Grove came off the sandlots.”10 In 1928 Wilson got two singles and a double off Grove in Baltimore, and in his one season in the California Winter League (in which he hit .469 and .385 against major leaguers) Vic Harris reported that Wilson took two pitches from Grove before lining the third between the pitcher’s legs into center field, at which point Grove threw his glove down and left the mound. Pitcher Scrip Lee said Wilson hit one home run that was longer than any he had seen off the bats of Babe Ruth or Jimmie Foxx. In 26 barnstorming games against major-league pitchers, Wilson hit .353.

Wilson may have been even better had he been able to control his temper. He is remembered for his aggressive nature and fondness for fighting. While generally under control off the field, Wilson often lost it between the white lines. “When he saw an umpire,” said Stephens, “he became a maniac. There was never a meaner, nastier man than Boojum when he put his uniform on.”11 In an era noted for rough play and a lack of respect for arbiters, Wilson often set the standard for bad behavior. He once lifted umpire (and former player) Phil Cockrell off the ground by the skin on his chest and would not let him down until teammate Crush Holloway brandished a bat on behalf of the victim. On another occasion, Wilson was wrongfully accused of hitting an umpire and exploded when tossed from the game. It took three policemen to subdue him with their nightsticks and haul him to jail. At Bushwick Park in Brooklyn, he once chased another umpire out to center field waving his bat.

Players were scared of Wilson as well. Clint Thomas said, “He’d kill you. He was dangerous! He was never out. The pitcher never throwed a strike. All ball players were scared of him.”12 Chino Smith, a tough cookie himself, once felt Wilson’s wrath firsthand. He slid hard into third, and Wilson picked him up and threw him 15 feet into the air. “You better go about your business, boy,” said Wilson. “I’ll break every bone in your body.”13

Despite these examples to the contrary, Stephens and other contemporaries experienced a gentle, good-natured side to Wilson’s personality. “He was good-hearted,” said Judy Johnson. “He would do anything in the world for you.”14 “Jud was a kind-hearted individual,” said Ted Page. “He would give you the shirt off his back. The writers made him into a villain.”15 “He loved me. I could do anything with him,” said Stephens.16

In the last few years before he retired from baseball, Wilson began to act erratically. Buck Leonard recalled a game at Griffith Stadium that had to be interrupted because Wilson was drawing small circles in the dirt at third base with his fingers. At times he did the same with his bat while hitting, and it would take several players to snap him out of his trance. On another occasion, Wilson was on a ferry to Chester, Pennsylvania, when he began to remove his clothing and had to be restrained.

After retiring from baseball, Wilson worked on a road crew building the Whitehurst Freeway in Washington, and his last job was as a janitor. He lived in Washington with his wife, Betty, whom he had married in February of 1923 after visiting her in rural Virginia, often by crossing a stream on a log. “Jud was all man,” she said. “He was a man of few words, but when he said those words, he meant them.”17

Eventually the incidents Wilson experienced worsened into epileptic seizures, which may have been brought on by an auto accident, the frequent pitches to the head, or the beatings he received fighting. His condition deteriorated, and he had to be institutionalized. Toward the end of his life, he had ceased to be able to remember most people, but brightened up when told about his old friend Jake Stephens.

Jud Wilson died on June 27, 1963, from a heart attack. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. On July 30, 2006, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame along with 16 other former Negro league players and executives, having received more than 75 percent of the votes of a committee of baseball historians assembled to consider a roster of 94 nominees. His great-niece and only living relative, Sha’Ron Taylor, accepted the award. She remembered that her grandmother told her that Wilson would take her onto the field at Griffith Stadium after games.

It is of course unfortunate that Jud Wilson was never able to play major-league baseball, but his record indicates that he would have been more than up to the challenge. Unlike some Negro league players, Wilson supported integration but did not believe it would be forthcoming. “It’s too big a job for the people who are now trying to put it over,” he said in 1939. “It will have to be a universal movement, and that will never be … because the big-league game, as it is now, is overrun with Southern blood. These fellows would have to stop at the same hotels, eat in the same dining rooms and sleep in the same train compartments with the colored players. There’d be trouble for sure.”18

By the time integration finally came, it was too late for Wilson, but that did not minimize his remarkable achievements on the field. “Wilson was one of our great players,” said Cool Papa Bell. “He was mean. Ballplayers are like that a whole lot. As soon as they walk out on that field, they want to win. Well, he was that type of guy. Good fellow, but he just got so much heart and soul in this ball game.”19

 

Sources

Holway, John, Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1992).

Holway, John, The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Winter Park, Florida: Hastings House, 2001).

McNeill, William F., Black Baseball Out of Season: Pay for Play Outside of the Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2007).

Riley, James A., The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1994).

Lanctot, Neil, The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)

Porter, David L., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc, 2000).

Holway, John, “One of the Greatest Hitters to Ever Swing a Bat: Jud (Boojum) Wilson,” The Sun Magazine, June 24, 1979.

Lacy, Sam, “Sepia Stars Only Lukewarm Toward Campaign to Break Down Baseball Barriers,” Baltimore Afro-American August 12, 1939.

Sheinin, Dave, “D.C.’s ‘Boojum’ Gets His Day in Hall of Fame,” Washington Post, July 31, 2006.

Trammell, Nat, “Baseball Classic – East vs. West,” Colored Baseball and Sports Monthly, October 1934.

Ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

Seamheads.com

Baseball Hall of Fame Library, player file for Ernest “Jud” Wilson

 

Notes

1 Unfortunately, official uniform statistics for the Negro Leagues do not exist. I relied on the work published by Seamheads.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and historian John Holway to cover the extent of Wilson’s career. While these sources sometimes diverge (usually as a result of how non-league games are treated), they are a reliable and invaluable resource.

2 Sam Lacy, “Sepia Stars Only Lukewarm Toward Campaign to Break Down Baseball Barriers,” Baltimore Afro-American, August 12, 1939

3 John Holway, “One of the Greatest Hitters to Ever Swing a Bat: Jud (Boojum) Wilson,” The Sun Magazine, June 24, 1979.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Nat Trammell, “Baseball Classic – East vs. West,” Colored Baseball and Sports Monthly, October 1934.

7 Holway, “One of the Greatest Hitters”

8 John Holway, Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers.

9 John Holway, “One of the Greatest Hitters”

10 Holway, Blackball Stars.

11 Holway, Blackball Stars.

12 Holway, Blackball Stars.

13 Holway, Blackball Stars.

14 Holway, Blackball Stars.

15 Holway, Blackball Stars.

16 Holway, Blackball Stars.

17 Holway, Blackball Stars.

18 Sam Lacy, “Sepia Stars”

19 Holway, Blackball Stars.

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