Play Ball with William “Judy” Johnson

Johnson signing balls for young players, one of his favorite ways to pass time. Ca. 1976-79. Collections of the Delaware Historical Society.

Born in Snow Hill, Maryland in 1900, William Johnson moved with his family to Wilmington when he was five years old.  Growing up, his true love was playing baseball, and he was good at it.  In the west side neighborhood where he lived, near 2nd and DuPont Streets, young William had both white and African-American friends, who played together, and went to each other’s homes.   He got his first break in 1920 when he was picked up by a Chester, Pennsylvania team, the Madison Stars.  That’s when he really got his baseball and life lessons.  Traveling as an African-American team through the coal regions of Pennsylvania taught him a lot about the discipline needed to play full time, and the hard lessons of the segregated nation. 

It was with the Stars that he was named “Judy” after an old-time player that he resembled.  Never shedding that name, he would laugh when someone asked him about his “girl’s name!”  The next year, he signed on as a Negro Leaguer with the Hilldale Daisies in Darby, Pennsylvania for $100.00.   Hilldale was part of the Eastern Colored Leagues, one half of the Negro Leagues.  He had made it to the big time!  For the next 15 years, Judy was a solid, player and manager, holding his own behind the bat and as a third baseman. 

On his off days, Judy visited the Philadelphia A’s and their owner, Connie Mack became his friend.  Mack was once quoted as saying that if Judy were white, he could name his price with any team.  Hilldale played in the first two Negro World Series in 1924-25 against the Kansas City Monarchs.  In 1930 he moved to the Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh earning $500 a month as a player/manager in the midst of the Depression.  In 1932 Judy was wooed to play for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a power house of a team with the likes of Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and Double Duty Ratcliffe.  Judy finished out his career with this team playing through the 1936 season. 

All the while as he and his teammates played great ball, often beating the best white players of the day, they reached the status of superstar while remaining invisible to most.   Few people outside the African-American community, other than the most enthusiastic fans knew the best players in the Negro Leagues.  The men suffered all the same hardships that segregated society doled out before the Civil Rights Movement. 

His playing days over, Judy returned home to the home in Marshalltown and to his wife, Anita and their daughter Loretta.   That house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as the home of a  Negro Leaguer, purchased with baseball money  In 1975 his highest ambition and something he could never have dreamed, came true—he was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame! 

Since that time, Judy passed away in 1989 and the field at the Blue Rocks stadium has been named for him.  Many still remember him, smiling, telling stories, and signing balls for young players.  His legacy might be his playing ability, for it was substantial.  But for most who met him, his true legacy was the forgiveness he showed, never complaining about the harsh conditions the African-Americans played under, or the lack of attention they garnered.  He was truly grateful for all the opportunities he had, and he treasured the lifestyle that baseball provided. 

For more about the Negro Leagues, watch the Ken Burns documentary Baseball there is one “inning” or episode devoted to the Leagues.  Or to read more about Judy Johnson, Judy Johnson:  Delaware’s Invisible Hero (1994: Cedar Tree Books).

Ellen


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