Negro Baseball League celebrates 100 years and Wilmington’s Judy Johnson is a big part of that history

There used to be two professional leagues—the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues. They were separate but never equal. Despite the separation, the men of color believed in America’s national pastime, more than the pastime believed in them. They had the will and skill, the grit and spit, and the fire and desire to play a beloved game between the white foul lines at the highest level.

This year, we celebrate the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1920. League founder Andrew “Rube” Foster boasted: “We are the ship, all else the sea,” symbolizing the league’s distant relationship with apartheid baseball.

“Foster’s Chicago American Giants won the league championship the first three years before the Kansas City Monarchs ascended to the throne in 1923. That same year, Ed Bolden, a postal worker out of Philadelphia, started the Eastern Colored League, and put his Hilldale Club in the mix with the Cuban Stars, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Bacharach Giants (Atlantic City), New York Lincoln Giants and the Baltimore Black Sox.

As a scout, Johnson had a chance to sign Henry Aaron but the Philadelphia A’s thought the price was too high. Photos courtesy James Knott (lifelong friend of Judy Johnson).

The following season, Hilldale, led by Wilmington’s own William “Judy” Johnson, hosted the Kansas City Monarchs in the first official Colored World Series. In the series, Johnson (.324 regular-season average) led all batters, hitting .364 and slugging out a .614 average. He also topped everyone in RBIs (8) and hits (16) while adding an inside-the-park home run in a thrilling nine-game series lost to the Monarchs.

Cool Papa Bell once bragged, “Johnson was the best hitter among the four top third basemen in the Negro Leagues, but no one would drive in as many clutch runs as he would. He was a solid ballplayer, real smart, dependable, quiet, not flashy at all, but could handle anything that came up. No matter how much the pressure, no matter how important the play or the throw or the hit, Judy could do it when it counted.”

“I played against every big leaguer from Babe Ruth on down,” says Johnson. “When I was with Hilldale, on Sundays we’d go up to New York and play the Bushwicks, a white team in Brooklyn, and they had some Major Leaguers on that club. It got so for a while that we’d play the Bushwicks on the first and last Sunday of every month. We were drawing more people with the Bushwicks than the Dodgers were drawing in Ebbets Field sometimes.”

Johnson added, “We played against the Philadelphia A’s [full team] one year and we beat them five out of six games.”

Former Crawford outfielder Ted Page bragged: “Judy Johnson was the smartest third baseman I ever came across. A scientific ball player, did everything with grace and poise. You talk about playing third base—heck, he was better than anybody I saw and I saw Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt and even Pie Traynor. He had a powerful accurate arm. He could do anything, come in for a ball, cut if off at the line, or range way over toward the shortstop hole. He was really something.”

Page added: “He played a heady game of baseball, none of this just slugging the ball, a man on first base, and he just dies there because you didn’t hit the ball up against the wall. Judy would steal your signals. He should have been in the Major Leagues 15 or 20 years as a coach. They talk about Negro managers. I always thought that Judy should have made perfect Major League manager.”

The ultimate clutch-player, Johnson specialized in game-winning hits and rally-killing snatches at third base. He was a bashful, quiet performer with an astonishing ability to perform under pressure. He was respected for his intellectual approach to the game, excelling with grace and poise while providing a positive influence for teammates and, occasionally, opponents.

A collection of Negro League Baseball legends with then-MLB Commissioner
Peter Ueberroth. From l-r: Judy Johnson, Monte Irvin, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard. Photos courtesy James Knott (lifelong friend of Judy Johnson).

Johnson credits Hall of Fame shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd with his early development. “He’s the man I give the credit to for polishing my skills. He taught me how to play third base and how to protect myself. John taught me more baseball than anyone else.”

In February 1954, according to the Chicago Defender, Johnson became America’s first affirmative action coach with the Philadelphia A’s. Earle Mack, vice-president of the A’s, mentioned he wanted to make sure his new Puerto Rican and African-American acquisitions, Vic Power and Bob Trice, were “starting on the right foot.” Mack added that Power is “…expected to hit at a Major League level, but fielding is his doubtful quality.” Johnson must have done a great coaching job as Power became one of the best fielding first basemen in the game.

Earlier, while serving as a scout from 1951-53, Johnson had a chance to sign a cross-handed hitter from the Indianapolis Clowns named Hank Aaron for $3,500, but the A’s reneged on the deal. Although the Athletics respected Johnson’s evaluation gifts, the team felt the price tag for the future home run king was a little hefty.

In 1975, Judy Johnson became the first Delaware native inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. And 20 years later, a Judy Johnson bronze statue by sculptor Phil Sumpter was unveiled at Daniel S. Frawley Stadium, home of the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks of the Carolina League.

Also that year, the residence of Judy Johnson became the first Negro Leagues player’s home to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located on the corner of Kiamensi Avenue and Newport Road, the home was recognized by the Delaware Historic Markers. The dedication was attended by his daughter Loretta and her husband, Billy Bruton. Bruton, a former Milwaukee Braves outfielder, also played in the Negro Leagues under the alias James Bruton for the Louisville Clippers in 1949.

Currently, there are 35 Negro League players and executives in the Hall of Fame today, but their relative anonymity is a cruel joke on every sports fan in America. Few fans can name a handful of inductees and that is why Black baseball history matters.

It begs the question: Would baseball be baseball without the contributions of Ernie Banks or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Roy Campanella or Larry Doby or Monte Irvin? All are Hall of Famers who started their careers in Black professional baseball.

I tip my hat to the Christina Cultural Arts Center for taking steps toward inclusion of this dynamic, important and inspiring chapter in baseball history and in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the league’s founding.

— Larry Lester is an author, historian and lecturer specializing in Negro League Baseball. He was co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City, Missouri, and served as its Research Director and Treasurer for five years (1991-1995). He was instrumental in the development of the museum’s business plan and its incorporation in 1990. Along with attorney Thomas Busch, he was the driving force in its licensing program that generated $1.4 million in the museum’s start-up years.

CCAC presents: The 100th Anniversary of The Negro Leagues Featuring Judy Johnson—Delaware’s Local Hero

Exhibit runs through October 30

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Negro League Baseball. To commemorate this landmark, Andrea McCoy-Carty (Chair for the Judy Johnson Memorial Foundation in Wilmington and the Interim Executive Director for The Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball, in Owings Mills, Md.) has curated a striking assemblage of memorabilia and artifacts—photographs, uniforms, booklets and more—from the Negro League’s rich history and archives via loans from national private collectors.

Exhibit viewable Mon-Fri (9am-3pm) by reservation only at CCAC offers 20-minute exhibit visiting slots with a four-person maximum during each time slot. Entrance/exit is only through the Market Street entrance of the building. Temperature checks will be conducted at the door, and masks must be worn at all times within the exhibit and CCAC building. An exhibit information booklet will be viewable on patrons’ phones via QR code onsite. Touching of any exhibit items is prohibited, but photography is permitted.

Weekday Exhibit Access

Monday through Friday, 9:00am (first entry) to 2:30pm (last entry), broken down daily into 20-minute segments with 10-minute “change time” between each segment.

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