William Julius (“Judy”) Johnson (b. 26 October 1900 in Snow Hill, Maryland; d. 15 June 1989 in Wilmington, Delaware), was a star third baseman in the old segregated Negro Leagues and later a major-league scout.
Johnson was the son of William Henry Johnson, a sailor, boxing coach, and athletic director of the Negro Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, and his wife, Annie Lee Johnson, a homemaker. As a boy, Johnson was taught how to box by his older sister Emma, but he preferred the baseball and football he played on integrated teams in Wilmington.
Johnson quit school after his freshman year at Howard High School in Wilmington and became a stevedore on the loading docks at Deep Water Port, New Jersey. He was not yet eighteen years old when he first played baseball for pay in 1918, earning $5 a game with the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City. In 1919 Johnson had a tryout with the Hill-dale Club in Darby, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Hilldale was one of the best African-American teams of that era, and Johnson, a five-foot, eleven-inch, 150-pounder, was deemed too small by its manager. He began playing with the semiprofessional Madison Stars in Philadelphia, and in 1920 the Stars sold him to Hilldale for $100.
As a rookie, Johnson earned $135 a month with Hilldale. Manager Billy Francis was the third baseman, so Johnson played shortstop for a time. He had the strong arm but not the foot speed required of a good shortstop, and he blossomed when he was shifted to third base. Johnson, who batted right-handed, was one of the team’s leading hitters, posting averages not much under .400 as Hilldale won the first three pennants in the Eastern Colored League in 1923, 1924, and 1925. In the first Negro World Series in 1924, Johnson led his team in hitting with a .341 average, but Hilldale lost 5 games to 4 to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League. In the 1925 World Series, again against the Monarchs, Hilldale won 5 games to 1, but Johnson’s batting slipped to .300.
Johnson was a sure-handed fielder with an excellent arm. He credited John Henry (Pop) Lloyd, one of the game’s greatest shortstops, with giving him the skills. “He was a great man and a great teacher,” said Johnson of Lloyd, who managed Hilldale in 1923. “He put the confidence in you and you had to do it—you just had to do it. I think that was one of the best years I ever had in baseball.” Like many other Negro League stars, Johnson spent some winters on the diamond. He played in Cuba for six winters and spent one winter in Palm Beach, Florida, in the “Hotel League.” Players, both black and white, were waiters in resort hotels and entertained the guests on the ballfield.
Johnson stayed with Hilldale through 1929 and then spent the next season as player manager of the Homestead Grays in Pittsburgh. He rejoined the Hilldale club in 1931 and was player-manager during the team’s two final years. It was tough going for African-American teams during the Great Depression. Salaries went unpaid, and the players agreed to divide what was left after expenses. Johnson told historian John B. Holway, “We used to play two games every Thursday, two on Saturday, and three on Sunday. I recall times when 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.”
Johnson went back to Pittsburgh in 1932, this time to play third base for the year-old Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords already boasted such stars as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, and Cool Papa Bell, all future Hall of Famers. Over the next four seasons until his retirement in 1936, Johnson is credited with batting averages of .332, .333, .367, and .306.
Before leaving the Crawfords for good, Johnson went to Mexico with the team to play a series of games against major leaguers, including such stars as Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx. In twenty games against the big leaguers, Johnson batted .263.
Following his retirement from baseball, Johnson coached a semiprofessional basketball team in Delaware and drove a taxicab for the Continental Cab Company in Wilmington. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues in 1947, Johnson was hired as a scout by the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics. One day he asked the Athletics’ venerable owner Connie Mack why he had never hired black players. Mack told him, “Well, Judy, if you want to know the truth, there were just too many of you to go in.” Johnson explained that Mack was saying, “It would take too many jobs away from the other (white) boys.”
Johnson later scouted for the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Braves and is credited with signing slugger Richie Allen and star outfielder Billy Bruton, who married Johnson’s only child, Loretta.
Johnson was an enthusiastic teacher. He could analyze a young player’s strengths and faults and make useful suggestions. His Pittsburgh Crawfords teammate Ted Page said, “He had the ability to see the qualities, the faults, of ballplayers and have the correction for them. Judy could have done the major leagues a lot more good as somebody who could help develop young players. He should have been in the majors … years ago as a coach. I always thought Judy would have made a perfect major league manager.” Near the end of his life, Johnson was still a teacher, coaching sandlotters in Wilmington.
Johnson was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, the sixth Negro Leaguer so honored. Subsequently, a city park in Wilmington was named for him, and his statue was erected at a baseball park. Johnson’s wife of sixty-three years, Anita, a former schoolteacher, died in 1986. Three years later, Johnson suffered a stroke and died at the age of eighty-eight. He is buried at Silverbrook Cemetery in Wilmington.
Negro baseball historian John B. Holway devotes a chapter of Blackball Stars (1987), to Johnson’s life and baseball career. Other useful sources are the biographical sketches of Johnson in Robert W. Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (1970); Dick Clark and Larry Lester, eds., The Negro Leagues Book (1994); and James A. Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994).