Judy Johnson: A True Hot Corner Hotshot

This article was written by John Holway

This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal

William “Judy” Johnson was one of the slickest fielding third basemen in the history of black baseball — or any other baseball. Old-timers who saw him cavort with the old Philadelphia Hilldales or Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1920s and `30s inevitably link his name with that of Brooks Robinson.

Connie Mack, the sweet-natured owner of the Philadelphia A’s, watched Judy dance around the bag at Shibe Park in the 1920s and sighed. If Johnson were only white, Mack said, “he could write his own price.”

The old Negro leagues produced many great third basemen – Jud Wilson, Oliver (Ghost) Marcelle and Ray Dandridge. But many authorities consider Johnson the finest of all.

Dandridge may have been flashier, but Johnson “was like a rock,” commented ex-outfielder Jimmy Crutchfield, “a steadying influence on the club. Had a great brain, could anticipate a play, knew what his opponents were going to do.” “He had intelligence and finesse,” explained Willie Wells, one of the game’s great shortstops.

Judy was an excellent sign-stealer, too, Ted Page pointed out. “He and Josh Gibson – boy, they trapped more men off third base! Judy’d put a little whistle on to Josh, who was catching, and I’d say, ‘Oh, oh, they got something cooking.’”

In Cincinnati in the 1930s the Crawfords were playing a team of white big league all-stars. Leo Durocher reached third base and began dancing off the bag down the line to rattle the pitcher. Judy gave Gibson “the whistle.”

“Durocher started in toward home,” Johnson recalled, “and I moved up with him. Then I just backed up, put my foot about two feet in front of the base. Josh had the best snap, wouldn’t move to throw, just snapped the ball. I caught it. Here comes Durocher sliding in and the umpire says, ‘You’re out.’ “

Some 20 years later Johnson and his wife were leaving Milwaukee County Stadium, where their son-in-law, Bill Bruton, had just finished playing a World Series game against the New York Yankees. In the crowd they jostled against none other than Durocher. “Leo,” Judy said, “do you remember playing a barnstorming game in Cincinnati back in 1934 or so?”

Durocher stepped back and blinked. “Yes,” he responded, “I remember you, Judy, damn your soul. That’s the day you tricked me.” Johnson was born October 26, 1899 in Snow Hill on Maryland’s eastern shore, not far from the birthplace of another famous Hall of Fame third baseman, Frank “Home Run” Baker.

Judy remembers frosty mornings in Snow Hill. He and his sister slept in a loft which they reached by climbing a ladder and awoke to the smell of country breakfast cooking. His father, a sailor, moved the family to Wilmington, Del., when Judy was about ten.

Johnson recalls his first uniform vividly. His mother sewed a big “D” on the shirt for the team he played on. “I was strutting around at 5 a. m., even though we didn’t play until two in the afternoon,” he said.

After a game he always managed to hang around the team captain’s house to talk baseball – and to steal glances at the captain’s sister, Anita. Somehow he and Anita ended up sitting on the bench in front of the house until her father coughed. “That meant, ‘Get,’ ” Judy explained. “She’d walk me to the corner, and I’d give her a ‘hit-and-run’ kiss.” The two were married for more than 60 years until her death in 1986.

Anita became a school teacher. In later years when Judy went to Cuba to play winter ball, she stayed home, adding her salary to the family income. Without her, Judy said emotionally, “I probably couldn’t have been a ball player. She was a great, great woman.”

Johnson received his first big break when many of the black league stars were summoned into service in World War I and he got a call to play with the Bacharach Giants, at the age of 18, for a salary of $5 a game.

In 1919 he tried out for the famous Philadelphia Hilldales but was rejected as being too small. Judy then joined the Madison Stars of Philadelphia, a training ground for the Hilldales, who were fast developing into the top black club in the East.

The Hilldales had been organized some eight years earlier as a neighborhood amateur club in Darby, a suburb south of Philadelphia. Ed Bolden, a taciturn postal official, took over the club and began signing professional players. By 1920 he was ready to bring up young Johnson, paying the Madison Stars the munificent sum of$ 100. Judy understudied Bill “Brodie” Francis that season and the next spring took over the third base job from Francis.

The Hilldales built up a rapid fan following. “We had our own park in Darby,” Johnson explained, “and our crowds got so large we had to enlarge the park – not just for Negroes, but for white fans, too. Both the Athletics and Phillies were down in the standings and people were getting season tickets to see us. You couldn’t buy a box seat.”

Rookies were at the bottom of the pecking order in those days. “Here, Slacky, take my bats,” catcher Louis Santop ordered Johnson one day after the team had played in New York. While the older players took the subway to Harlem for a little fun, they made Judy catch a train back to Philadelphia laden with Santop’s uniform roll and bat bag plus his own equipment. “I looked like a porter,” Johnson recalled. “I had to hire a taxi to carry those bats. But you had to do it.”

In 1923 Bolden formed the Eastern Colored League with his own team plus the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City, the Cuban Stars, Harrisburg Giants, Baltimore Black Sox, New York Lincoln Giants and Brooklyn Royal Giants. He also raided Rube Foster’s Negro National League, signing catcher Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, first baseman George “Tank” Can and second baseman Frank Warfield to give the Hilldales the strongest team in the East. Johnson’s contribution was a modest .237 batting average, but he played a strong, steady game at third base.

Judy journeyed to Cuba that winter, along with many black and white stars from the States. Against the stellar pitching of Dolph Luque, Jess Petty, Fred Fitzsimmons and most of the two Negro leagues’ top hurlers, Johnson raised his average to .345.

He hit a solid .327 during the summer of 1924 as the Hilldales repeated as champions. That fall, in black baseball’s first World Series, the Hilldales faced the Kansas City Monarchs, champs of the western or Negro National League. Because of a tie, the best-of-nine series actually went ten games before the Monarchs emerged victorious. Judy led the hitters on both teams with a .364 average. His 16 hits included six doubles, a triple and a home run, the latter an inside-the-park job with two aboard in the ninth inning to win Game 6 for the Hilldales.

The following year the Hilldales captured their third straight flag and grimly entrained for Kansas City for a chance at revenge against the Monarchs. This time the Hilldales, after losing the first two games, bounced back to win the next three and gain the championship. Johnson hit an even .300 in the five-game series.

That winter Johnson joined many other black stars who were finding Palm Beach, Fla., to be a lucrative wintering spot. Two rival hotels, the Breakers and the Poinciana, signed the best black professional ball players to wait on tables and to entertain guests on the baseball diamond. The rivalry between the two hotels was intense, but it was the opportunity to make money that lured many of the players. The pay and tips were excellent. In addition, there were floating crap games and, for the really adventurous, rum running from nearby Cuba to the Prohibitionist but thirsty mainland.

Judy didn’t participate in these off-the-field enterprises, but he observed them – the rum was sometimes stacked against the wall of the dormitories right up to the ceilings. He remembers being awakened one night when several white men burst into the dorm, shined flashlights in his eyes and demanded to know where his “brother” was. They apparently meant outfielder George Johnson and assumed that Judy was related. Judy said he didn’t know, and the men, presumably underworld figures in search of their cut, eventually left. It was a close call.

The Hilldales lost the 1926 pennant to the Bacharachs, but Judy finished with a .302 average. There were compensations for missing out on the pennant, for it meant the Hilldales were free to barnstorm against white big leaguers again and to make a lot more money doing it. Later he sailed back to Cuba for the winter season, hitting .372. Johnson slumped to .228 with the Hilldales the following year and to .231 in 1928. But one year later he hit a robust .416, sixth best in the league. (There were no fewer than four .400 hitters that season.)

The Eastern Colored League folded in 1930 under the impact of the Depression, and Johnson jumped to the independent Homestead Grays, who may have been the best black team in the East if not in the country. That fall Cum Posey, the Grays’ owner, challenged Pop Lloyd’s Lincoln Giants for the mythical championship of black baseball. The Grays won, six games to four, with Johnson hitting .286.

He rejoined the Hilldales in 1931. With the Depression hitting hard, the players waived their salaries to enable teams to make ends meet and instead divided whatever money was left after expenses. They had to bounce from game to game by bus, playing anywhere and any time they could. “We used to play two games every Thursday, two on Saturday and three on Sunday,” Johnson remembered. “I recall times we’d go to New York to play a doubleheader and then a night game. We’d leave Coney Island at one o’clock at night, ride all night on the bus and get into Pittsburgh for a twilight game on Monday. We used to get $1.50 a day eating money.”

During that period an athlete played anywhere he could make a buck. In 1932 Judy jumped back to the Grays. In the middle of the season virtually the entire Grays team jumped to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Grays’ bitter crosstown rivals owned by numbers king Gus Greenlee.

The `32 season was a long one. It began with ten days of spring training at Hot Springs, Ark., where the players took the mineral baths. By the end of March they would travel to New Orleans for a doubleheader and then start playing their way north. The season ended late in October when the last of the exhibitions against white major leaguers was over, and the players – the fortunate ones anyway – dispersed for a full season of winter ball.

On their rare days off, Johnson and the Crawfords went to watch the white major leaguers play to see what they could learn. “We never had to pay to go to see the A’s or Yankees,” Johnson said. “The only park where we had to pay was St. Louis, and they us in the Jim Crow section. Other than that, every big league park knew us.”

Judy batted .333 for the Crawfords in 1934 and then improved his average in 1935 to .367, based on incomplete figures. That autumn he found himself in another World Series as the Crawfords tangled with the New York Cubans. Johnson was in a long slump when he came to bat in the ninth inning of the sixth game, the Craws one game down, the score tied 6-6 and the bases loaded. He drove a 3-2 pitch on the ground past first base, and the Crawfords had tied the series. The following day Gibson and manager Oscar Charleston slugged homers to wrap up the title for the Craws.

Johnson’s average slipped to .282 in 1936, and he retired the following year. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the big leagues, Judy was hired by the Athletics as a scout. “I could have gotten Hank Aaron for them for $3,500 when he was playing with the Indianapolis Clowns,” he said. “I got my boss out of bed and told him that I had a good prospect and he wouldn’t cost too much, but he cussed me out for waking him at one o’clock in the morning. He said, ‘Thirty-five hundred! That’s too much money.’ Too much for a man like that! I could have gotten Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso, too, and the A’s would still be playing in Philadelphia because that would have been all the outfield they’d have needed.”

From the A’s Judy switched to the Phillies and helped sign Richie Allen. “He lived in Wampum, Pa., about 60 or 70 miles out of Pittsburgh,” Johnson commented. “The Pirates had him at their park I don’t know how many times, but they wouldn’t give a nickel to Babe Ruth if they could get him for nothing, so I told our general manager,`That’s the best looking prospect I’ve ever seen; please don’t lose him,’ and he went out there and signed him.”

Until his retirement from scouting in 1974, Judy went to Florida with the Phillies every spring. “Mr. (Bob) Carpenter, the owner, liked me because I can help the Negro boys, also the white boys. If a kid does something wrong, I’ve got to go through the motions and show him the right way. You can’t just holler at him; you’ve got to show him how the ball is handled, and that’s what my boss liked about me.”

Next to his wife, Johnson’s first love in recent years was teaching baseball. “I’d rather do it than anything,” he often said. “I even coach a sandlot team in Wilmington.”

The late Ted Page, another former Negro league standout, once said he believed the major leagues squandered one of their most valuable resources by not employing Johnson as a manager or at least as a coach. “He had the ability to see the qualities, the faults, of ball players and have the correction for them,” Page remarked. “Several years ago Willie Stargell was continually popping the ball up. He was turning his head. Judy would see things like that. I bet he could have helped Stargell out of his slump. Some have it and some don’t. Judy should have been in the major leagues 15 or 20 years as a coach. He was a scout, but he would have done the major leagues a lot more good as someone who could help develop players.”

(This article is a condensation of the biography of Judy Johnson which will appear in the book Blackball Stars” by John B. Holway to be published in 1987 by Meckler Publishing Co.)