William Julius Johnson: "Judy"
A cottage industry has developed comparing Negro League ballplayers to major league stars - Josh Gibson and Babe Ruth; Satchel Paige and Bob Feller; Buck Leonard and Lou Gehrig; Pop Lloyd and Honus Wagner. The major leaguer most comparable to Johnson was Pie Traynor.
A sure-handed third baseman from the sandlots of Delaware, Judy Johnson was a key member of some of the greatest teams in Negro Leagues history. Though he had little power, he was a skilled contact hitter who consistently batted .300 or better. In the inaugural Negro League World Series in 1924, he led the Hilldale club with a .341 average. A smart, soft-spoken and well-respected player, Johnson later served as team captain of the 1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords, perhaps the Negro Leagues' greatest dynasty.
Hall of Famer Pop 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.
Johnson was considered the Negro Leagues' top third baseman in the 1920s and 1930s. He was exposed to baseball at an early age, serving as batboy for his father's local team. He realized then that his "greatest ambition was to play baseball." He quite 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. 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, where he signed 18-year-old catcher Josh Gibson.
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 included Gibson and fellow Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, he followed Satchel Paige (1971), Josh Gibson (1972), Buck Leonard (1972), and Monte Irvin (1973). Of course, Jackie Robinson (1962) and Roy Campanella (1969) had long since been inducted, following their stints with major league ball clubs.
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