(April 26, 2019) Worcester County native son and baseball legend William Julius “Judy” Johnson, member of both the Negro League and National Baseball hall of fames, will be honored with a memorial statue unveiling and dedication in front of the Snow Hill Library on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Worcester County Historical Society President Newt Weaver said the Judy Johnson Memorial, a five-foot plus granite statue, is the culmination of nearly two years of effort to remember the heights reached by Johnson, who was born Oct. 26, 1899 in Snow Hill.
“Judy Johnson had a compulsion and obsession to get everything right on the field,” he said. “This developed into a precision that led to excellence.”
Weaver said a large contingency of dignitaries would be on hand, with scheduled speakers including: Diana Purnell, Worcester County Commissioners president; Rev. Dr. Roxie Dennis Acholonu, Worcester County NAACP President; and Dr. Kirkland Hall Sr., University of Maryland Eastern Shore professor/coach and former president of the Somerset County NAACP.
Shifting to a youthful perspective, Snow Hill High School senior Orlando Dennis will highlight the cross-generational interest in Johnson’s achievements.
Dennis was selected for inclusion after recently being awarded top design honors among 44 entries in a school bulletin board contest to honor Johnson’s memory.
The visually engaging, data-rich display also netted Dennis four tickets to an upcoming game at Delmarva Shorebirds Stadium.
Long aware of Johnson’s standout professional career, Weaver, a member of the Society for Professional Baseball Research, said although the Town of Snow Hill had discussed a potential memorial as far back as 2013, the undertaking caught fire two summers ago.
After reading an essay about Johnson penned for an academic project by Cole Mumford, who was completing his senior year at Stephen Decatur High School, Weaver said the lingering notion to commemorate the Worcester born baseball standout grew legs.
“Cole Mumford wrote the essay that sparked the effort,” he said.
Credited as one of the most intelligent men ever to compete on a baseball diamond, Johnson was also one of the best athletes to surface from Worcester County, Weaver said.
Putting aside the stark racial divisions that restricted freedoms for all people of color during Johnson’s playing days, Weaver said the hall of famer was at first discouraged when attempting to play semi-pro baseball in 1918, because of his limited physical stature.
Initially deemed too small to play at 5 feet 6 inches and 120 pounds, within a few years Johnson gained 25 pounds and grew to 5 feet 10 inches, eventually signing on with the Philadelphia-based Hilldale Club. That first contact afforded a monthly salary of $134.
After this, Johnson quickly built a reputation as a clutch-hitting, sure-handed third basemen, and despite only having a few years in the league was named Hilldale team captain in 1923.
“He was one of the youngest Negro League team captains,” Weaver said.
Johnson’s ascension sparked a three-year post season run by the Hilldale Club, who won three consecutive Eastern Colored League pennants between 1923-1925.
In addition to hitting over .390 during two of those seasons, in 1924 Johnson had the top batting average (.364) during the inaugural Negro League World Series.
During Johnson’s last campaign with Hilldale, before departing to become a player-manager for the Homestead Grays in 1930, he batted .416 for the season and was named both MVP and Player of the Year.
In 1932, Johnson became team captain with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, where he played on, arguably, the best Negro League team ever, which Weaver said included the likes of Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige.
“They were like the 1927 Yankees,” Weaver said.
In 1975, Johnson become the sixth former Negro League player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and subsequently served on a selection committee that nominated several peers, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
During his Hall of Fame appointment, then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn compared Johnson’s prowess at the hot corner to contemporary legend Brooks Robinson.
Weaver said the years-long campaign would not have been fruitful without diligent fundraising efforts by Worcester County Historical Society board members, who sourced private donations to finance the statue’s more than $13,000 price tag.
Weaver said the legacy left by Judy “Mr. Sunshine” Johnson, putting aside gaudy baseball statistics, boils down to exhibiting a positive demeanor.
Famous for a perpetual smile, Johnson, who teammates tagged with the sunshine nickname, had a fast reply when anyone inquired about the joy clearly evident in his expression, Weaver said.
“He would reply, ‘because the sun is shining somewhere and I’m on the ball field,’” he said. “He always thought the sun was shining somewhere when he was on a ball field.”