Connie Mack once told Judy Johnson, “If you were a white boy you could name your own price.” Johnson was considered the Negro Leagues top third baseman in the 1920s and 1930s. Because of his defensive abilities, he was known as “the black Pie Traynor.”
When Johnson was a child growing up in Wilmington, DE, his father set up a “fitness center” for the neighborhood children, complete with barbells, monkey bars, and the like. “My Daddy liked physical fitness and wanted me to be a prizefighter,” Johnson recalled. He was exposed to baseball at an early age, serving as a batboy for his father’s local team. He realized then that his “greatest ambition was to play baseball.” He quit school after tenth grade and went to work on the New Jersey docks during WWI.
After the war, Johnson caught on with the Chester Giants, playing on weekends. He then signed a pro contract with the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants, who paid him $5 per game. In 1919, he played for the semi-pro Madison Stars of Philadelphia, which served as a sort of minor league team for the Hilldale club. Hilldale purchased Johnson for $100 in 1920, and in 1921 gave him $150 a month to be their starting third baseman. While with Hilldale, Johnson acquired the nickname Judy, because he resembled a Chicago American Giants player, Judy Gans.
Hilldale won a championship in 1921 and played in the first two Negro League World Series, in 1924 and 1925, winning the latter. In the 1924 NLWS, lost to the Kansas City Monarchs, Johnson led both teams in hitting (.341) and had five doubles, a triple, and a home run. Hilldale and Kansas City met again in the 1925 NLWS, and though Johnson batted just .250, he singled and later score the winning run in the tenth inning of a 1-1 tie in Game Three. Hilldale won, five games to one.
By the mid-1920s, Johnson had established himself as a top third baseman and a dangerous clutch hitter, with a career average of over .300. Hall of Famer John Henry Lloyd had great influence on him. Said Johnson of Lloyd, “He’s the man I give the credit for polishing me; he taught me how to play third base.” Johnson was not a particularly fast runner, but he meticulously studied opposing pitchers and took every advantage on the basepaths. He often stole third base. He played winters in Florida or Cuba (where he compiled a .334 average in six seasons) but never again set foot on a boat after his return voyage from Cuba in 1931.
In 1929, his final season with Hilldale, Johnson batted .401 – believed to have been his career high. The Eastern Colored League folded in 1930 as a result of the Depression, and Johnson joined the Homestead Grays as a player-coach. One night, when the Grays’ catcher was injured during a game, Johnson pulled from the stands and signed 18-year-old catcher Josh Gibson, who became a Hall of Famer.
Johnson returned to Hilldale (which had become the Darby Daisies) in 1931 and remained there until mid-1932, when he jumped to the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords’ lineup, which included Gibson and fellow Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston, was often compared to the New York Yankees‘ “Murderers Row.” He played in his last NLWS in 1935 when the Crawfords faced the New York Cubans. He got a clutch hit in the ninth inning of the sixth game, with the bases loaded, the score tied 6-6, and the Crawfords behind three games to two in the series. His sharp single down the first base line won the game for them and they went on to win the series the next day.
After baseball’s color barrier was broken, Johnson scouted and coach for the Philadelphia Athletics. He worked for the Phillies from 1959 to 1973 and helped sign Richie Allen. In 1975 he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues.