‘If Judy (Johnson) were only white, he could name is own price’
In his April 6, 1930, column, legendary Philadelphia Tribune sportswriter W. Rollo Wilson expounded on the greatness of Julius "Judy" Johnson, a star third baseman in the Negro Leagues who would eventually enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.
"I consider Judy Johnson one of the most valuable men in Negro baseball, and by all odds, the best third baseman," Wilson penned. "And Judy, let it be known, did not reach that point in my esteem, over night. His has been a long, hard and brilliant climb."
Indeed, time has since validated such praise for Johnson, who achieved his greatest fame and on-field accomplishments during a near-decade-long stint in the 1920s with the Hilldale Club of Darby, Pa. Johnson, a Wilmington, Del., native who died 25 years ago Sunday, is now considered one of the greatest figures in both Philadelphia and African-American baseball history.
Unfortunately, thanks to the "gentlemen’s agreement" that kept black ballplayers out of so-called "organized baseball" for decades until Jackie Robinson debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Johnson was barred from the Major Leagues for his entire career, tragically making him — along with hundreds of other Negro Leagues greats — an overlooked figure to many baseball fans.
"He never had the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, so I'm not sure many baseball fans know about him or his playing accomplishments," says Cabrini College professor Courtney Smith, who has extensively studied the blackball scene in the Philadelphia area.
"Hardcore baseball fans and historians know of Judy Johnson, but the casual fans may not," she said. "That is sad, particularly since he was a product of local sandlot teams. His legacy to Philadelphia's baseball history is very important, but knowledge of that legacy remains unknown outside of local historians/baseball historians."
That supreme insult and tragedy, to some extent, ended in 1975, when a special committee on the Negro Leagues selected Johnson for election into the Hall of Fame. When Johnson gave his speech at that year’s induction ceremonies, the weight of segregation that had burdened him for decades was finally released. As he spoke, the 74-year-old broke down in tears.
"I hope I can make many more trips here," Johnson told the assembled crowd of about 7,500 in Cooperstown. His voice wavered again as more tears flowed and he ended his speech.
"God bless you all," he said simply.
It was a poignant release of emotion for a player who was a steady, dependable, line-drive hitter who was even better known for his near-peerless fielding prowess. Neil Lanctot, an esteemed Negro Leagues historian who authored, "Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the development of black professional baseball," says Johnson was essentially unmatched on the ballfield.
"He was a slick fielder, a great clutch hitter, and the glue that held together those great Hilldale teams of the 1920s," Lanctot said. "There's no question that he would have been a Major League star if integration had occurred two decades earlier."
In his seminal 1970 tome, "Only the Ball Was White," Robert Peterson wrote that Johnson "was regarded as one of the smartest players in the game, with sure hands and a great arm at third base."
As Lanctot and Smith described, Johnson anchored the now-revered Hilldale teams of the 1920s, guiding the team to three straight Eastern Colored League crowns and a victory in the Colored World Series in 1925.
Hilldale, sometimes called the Daisies or the Darbies, was helmed by intrepid owner Ed Bolden, who was often seen as a renegade for "raiding" other black teams for talent. But Bolden also treated his players extremely well and achieved great financial success, building a 5,000-seat wooden grandstand and field for the team.
And, Johnson told Peterson, "We usually filled it. Mr. Bolden told me one Decoration Day that we had already made enough money to pay off our salaries for the rest of the year. So what we made from Decoration Day was on the velvet.
"We had the best infield that the big-league players had ever played on — that’s what they told us," Johnson added. "The dirt — I don’t know what it was, but it shone something like silver."
"Hilldale was a dynasty during most of Johnson's time with the team," Smith says. "Hilldale dominated eastern black professional baseball, and more than held its own against competition from top teams in the Midwest."
In fact, she said, Hilldale was, in many ways, the linchpin of East Coast blackball.
"Under the leadership of Ed Bolden, Hilldale was a key part of the Eastern Colored League, a league Bolden founded as a competitor to Andrew Foster's Negro National League," she said. "Hilldale's withdrawal from the ECL precipitated the league's collapse in the late 1920s."
And Judy Johnson was the on-field leader, quiet but reliable and always supremely confident. When Johnson died a quarter-century ago today, the New York Times wrote, "as a third baseman, Johnson was often compared with Pie Traynor," and the paper recalled near-mythical Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack’s heartrending comment about Johnson.
"If Judy were only white," Mack said, "he could name his own price."