Teammates, opponents, sportswriters and fans all agreed on one thing, Judy Johnson was the smartest third baseman ever to grace a diamond. Johnson instinctively knew where a ball was going and how to get at it and put it where it needs to be. His baserunning gave the Hilldale Daisies an edge many other teams couldn’t compete with and his clutch hitting was legendary.
Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and raised in Delaware, Johnson’s father wanted his son to become a boxer and physical training was a part of his life from an early age. As a boy he was batboy for his father’s semi-pro baseball team and decided on making it a career. After working on the New Jersey docks during the first world war, Johnson played for a succession of semi-pro teams and was eventually signed by the mighty Hilldale Daisies from the outskirts of Philadelphia. Hilldale was just at the beginning of its period of dominance over black and white ballclubs and the team was stocked with old professionals and up and coming stars, of which Johnson was one.
The great John Henry Lloyd took Johnson under his wing and taught the promising young ballplayer the ropes. Lloyd’s tutelage paid off in dividends as he turned out to be the preeminent third baseman of the 1920’s and 30’s.Johnson swung a heavy 40 ounce bat and while he did not hit with tremendous power, he smacked out timely base hits that seemed to evade the opposing fielders. Time and time again his clutch hitting saved the day as Hilldale marched to top of the Eastern Colored League in 1923, 1924 and 1925. In 1925 Johnson and the Hilldale Daisies defeated the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League 5 games to 1 in the second Colored World Series.
Throughout his career Judy Johnson consistently batted just under .400 but it was his ability to drive in runs during a clutch and his levelheadedness in any situation that made him such a well respected player. He was known throughout the league for his fair play and good sportsmanship in an era where violence and cheating was just another part of the National Pastime. Johnson studied the game from a scientific point of view and became a world-class sign stealer, knowing exactly what the opposing team was going to do at any time. He became the rock on any team he played for, the steady, quiet influence that players like Lou Gehrig and Gil Hodges were later known for.
When Hilldale folded in 1932 he signed with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and became the cornerstone of what is now seen as the best negro league team of all time. After his playing days were over Johnson became the first black coach in the majors when he joined the staff of the Philadelphia Athletics. Later he scouted for the Phillies organization, signing future stars Bill Bruton and Dick Allen. In 1975 he was elected to the Baseball Hall Of Fame, the sixth negro league player to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Judy Johnson’s great attitude and cheerful disposition was always remembered by those who played with him. I’ll leave the last words to his teammate “Cool Papa” Bell: “He would never let you down. he was always up and optimistic. He brought sunshine into your life. When things got rough for us, Judy would always say, somewhere the sun is always shining.”