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Josh Gibson - Related Biography: Manager Judy Johnson

hilldale negro pop pittsburgh

Besides being Josh Gibson's first manager in the Negro Leagues, Judy Johnson was one of the finest third basemen—black or white—in the history of baseball. An ardent student of the game, his greatest joy later in life was passing down his knowledge to young players. He was also an astute judge of talent who, as a major league scout, discovered the likes of Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, and Ritchie Allen.

Born William Julius Johnson on October 26, 1899, in Snow Hill, Maryland, he would not acquire the nickname "Judy" until after he had broken into the Negro leagues and someone noticed his physical resemblance to another player, outfielder Judy Gans. Johnson got his start in 1918 playing for the Hilldale club in Philadelphia, one of the dominant clubs of the day. Johnson's skills were still shaky. However, John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, a giant of early black ball, took the young Johnson under his wing. The elder's influence was decisive. Judy Johnson would later remark that he had learned more from Lloyd than he had in 16 years playing ball.

During the 1920s with Hilldale, Johnson established himself as a wizard on the field and a solid .300 hitter. He also developed into one of the most intelligent analysts of the "inside game." He hit .364 in the first Negro World Series in 1924, leading Hilldale to a Series victory over the mighty Kansas City Monarchs. In 1929, he hit a career high .416, leading the Pittsburgh Courier to name him the Most Valuable Player of the Negro National League.

In 1930, when the Great Depression drove the Hilldale club out of business, Johnson signed with the Homestead Grays. He was managing the club when catcher Buck Ewing injured his hand. Johnson asked a young catcher he knew, who was tearing up Pittsburgh's black semipro circuit with his hitting, to come down from the stands and take Ewing's place. Josh Gibson was eager, willing and more than able. After the game, Gibson stuck with the team—it was plain to Johnson that he was too good a hitter to give up.

Gibson's work behind the plate left much to be desired though. So Johnson began teaching the youngster as Pop Lloyd had taught him, concentrating in particular on the foul pop-ups that caused Gibson such trouble. It was a subject which third baseman Johnson had studied long and hard. Under the veteran's patient tutelage, Gibson slowly came into his own as a catcher.

Johnson returned to Hilldale in 1931, before signing with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, where he rejoined Gibson from 1932 to 1935 and finished his playing career. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Judy Johnson became a major league scout, first for the Philadelphia Athletics, and later for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1975. Judy Johnson passed away in Wilmington, Delaware on June 15, 1989.

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