More than twenty years ago, my tiny daughter was enjoying her morning nap while I sat in a kitchen flooded with California sunlight, delighting in the wonder of a newborn and quietly reading The New York Times. The sensation of well being and pure contentment swiftly vanished, however, as an eerie headline unsettled me: Judy Johnson Dies at 89.
It seemed that I'd come upon my own obituary. The announcement made me feel strange and cold, but then I read further and learned of the amazing person with whom I shared a name:
Judy Johnson, a Star 3d Baseman in the Negro Leagues
Dies at 89
by Al Harvin
who never received a chance to play in the major leagues but became the sixth
black player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame from the Negro leagues, died
at his home in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. He was 89 years
old and suffered a stroke last year.
As a third baseman, Johnson was often compared with Pie Traynor of the Pittsburgh Pirates, also a Hall of Famer. Johnson hit over .300 seven times in the Negro leagues, with a career high of .416 in 1929, in the days when black players were not permitted to play in the major leagues.
Connie Mack, for 50 years the owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, once said, ''If Judy were only white, he could name his own price.''
As a member of the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues, whose responsibility it was to select Negro league stars for inclusion into the Hall of Fame, Johnson withdrew from the voting in 1975, the year he was elected to the Hall in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Only Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin, James (Cool Papa) Bell and Josh Gibson from the Negro leagues preceded him.
''I felt so good, I could have cried,'' Johnson said of his election . . . ."
The New York Times, June 17, 1989
These words - together with a few other things - brought me back to a game I once loved dearly as a child and had abandoned for far too long.
William Julius Johnson, born October 26, 1899 in Snow Hill Maryland. Bats right, throws right. "A sure-handed third baseman from the sandlots of Delaware, Judy Johnson was a key member of some of the greatest teams of Negro League history." He was a "good instinctive base-runner," a "line drive hitter with an excellent batting eye," "a smart, soft-spoken and well-respected player," an athlete whose intelligence reportedly set him apart. If I I were a professional ballplayer, these are the attributes I'd hope to display.
It is truly an honor to bear his name.
Some years later, I would come upon Judy Johnson again. I arrived at the ballpark - Frawley Stadium, voted in 2009 as Delaware's "Best Place to Take the Kids" - well before noon for a game that was scheduled to begin at 6:05. The sky was murky, the July air heavy with humidity. Five other cars had taken spaces in the parking lot, and the "Will Call" window was tightly closed, but the front gate was open, so I walked right into the park that is home to the Wilmington Blue Rocks, now a Class A affiliate (Carolina League) of the Kansas City Royals.
The stadium seemed to welcome anyone who happened to show up, no questions asked. I tried a few different spots. One at the end of a row. Another in the middle. A seat beneath the press box, just to get the feel of that privileged perspective. Finally I sat down several rows behind the visitors' dugout and hung my legs over the railing. Six or eight lanes of traffic sped noisily north and south on Interstate 95 out beyond left field.
A John Deere idled near third base. When the driver jumped on and threw it in forward, I realized that there was nothing else I wanted to do at that particular moment in my life except this: watch a bright green tractor go back and forth and round in circles on a baseball field.
When the machinery finally grew quiet, I walked toward the dugout and onto the grass where three sweaty workmen were taking a break from raking and tamping and smoothing the ground.
"Hi, I'm from Boston and I really love baseball." That was my opening line.
"Welcome," said the head groundskeeper, reaching out for my hand with a strong grip and introducing himself by name. I was welcome, but clearly they didn't quite know what to make of a lone woman standing in foul territory at high noon.
"Would you guys mind if I walked out to center field? Just to take a few pictures." I looked out toward an aging scoreboard. Colorful ads framed an empty screen where a player's face should have been: Happy Harry's Discount Drugstore. Williams Family Auto Mall. WSTW 93.7. St. Francis Hospital. 302-652-LIFE.
"Be my guest," was his reply. So out I went, just as players do.
Crowning the Blue Rocks' scoreboard was a modest baseball cut from plywood, a whitewashed circle with two painted curves of red stitching, and three words printed in blue:
Upon returning to the on-deck circle, I introduced myself again - this time by name - and joked with the men that the field they were grooming had been named after me.
Stadium came into existence thanks to the diligent efforts of onetime first-round draft pick Steve Taylor, who signed with the Yankees in 1977 and went on to suffer a career-ending arm injury three years later while playing for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Returning to his native Delaware, Taylor was determined to attract a minor-league franchise to the city of Wilmington. The lively stadium now hosts a variety of athletic and community events, including "Judy Johnson Night," now in its fifteenth consecutive year. The guest of honor at the 2009 celebration happened to be another Johnson, someone you probably already know: Mamie, a.k.a Peanut.
Outside Frawley Stadium - just over the far right field corner fence - sits an unassuming structure that houses the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame. Inside that unpretentious building you can find Judy Johnson. He's chatting with a small boy about the game of baseball, as if they had all the time in the world.
"That's how you learn about baseball," Tommy Sandt once said. "You just chat."
The Wilmington Blue Rocks' stadium is named for William S. Frawley, a former mayor of that same city. But the field - the field itself, marked with a modest white ball cut from plywood - is named in honor of William Julius Johnson, a distinguished athlete who deserved much better during his playing days, yet left behind a legacy worth celebrating.
Inside the Delaware Sports Museum, I wandered the exhibits alone, pausing for a long time at the Judy Johnson display case. I walked his field alone. I spoke with virtually no one for twelve straight hours except for a groundskeeper who'd been riding around on a John Deere. Oh how fine it would be to have a conversation with Judy Johnson - to toss a ball and chat with him about baseball and other things too.
I've noticed that fans usually say they're "going to the ballpark" or the "stadium" when attending a live game. Players seldom use these terms. They almost always say they're going to the field. It makes sense, then, that it's the field itself - not the stadium - that bears Judy Johnson's name. That's where the soul of baseball resides.
Judy Johnson Field at Frawley Stadium, Wilmington Delaware
Next up... Judy Johnson: Delaware's Invisible Hero
by Ellen Rendle
and more on William Julius Johnson