Who Mourns for Judy Johnson?

[Editorial Note: I’m sorry. This really is awful. It is not clear at all what I’m on about. I do, however, think it is a good starting point for a 5000 word personal essay on race in America. Read it at your peril.]

Judy JohnsonRight now, I’m working on the screenplay for the pilot of a TV show called The Post-Post Modern Comedy Hour. It is the result of years of my writing what I call “theatrical essays.” It is hard to explain exactly what these plays are all about. The closest thing you can come to it is Orson Welles’ last released film, the great F for Fake. Below is the nine-minute trailer for the film, but before you view it, there are a few things you should know. First, it starts with 20 seconds that are not the trailer and rather some The Matrix-like images and Laurence Fishburne’s “What is Real?” speech from the movie. Second, the trailer is in black & white, even though the movie is in color. Third, there are a number of things in the trailer that are not in the film. And finally, and probably most important: the movie is far more coherent than the trailer, but not exactly coherent. It is fascinating and becomes more so on subsequent viewings.[1]

Regular readers of this site will immediately see why I would be so interested in such a film: I’m most interested in taking intellectual journeys and the less predictable, the better. And thus it is with this article, because I bring up this great film only to explain that even though there is nothing about baseball in the pilot script, it required that I read three books (with one more coming) and watch one documentary about baseball—the Negro Leagues, to be more exact.

For whatever reason, I became really interested in the great third baseman Judy Johnson. You can find out more about him at the Negro League Baseball Players Association, if you are interested. Probably the most important thing about him is that he was the first manager to break the color-barrier in Major League Baseball, when he coached for the Philadelphia Athletics. He was later a renowned talent scout, having discovered a number of great players including Dick Allen, who hit 351 home runs in his career.

As much as it is exciting and edifying to learn about Johnson and the many other great black players of his time, it is heartbreaking to read about what these men went through. The opportunity cost of baseball segregation was horrible for black players (and great for marginal white players). And as I think of it now, I suspect that when Judy Johnson was consistently batting over .300 (even though he was most know for his fielding skills) while making just a dollar a day, people were claiming there was no racism in the United States because he wasn’t a slave. It reminds me now of the belief that there is no racism because we have a black president.[2]

I suppose no one need mourn for Judy Johnson. He had, it would seem by all accounts, a good life. But what of all those who weren’t exceptionally talented at something their culture valued? Who mourns for the unexceptional in our various out groups? I was at a festival today that was supposed to honor the years from 1900 through 1949. Other than a brief conversion with a haberdasher, I found only things I disliked: unearned affluence, retro-entertainment acts, jingoism, and ridiculously priced food.

What I did not find was a single black person.[3] But then why would they want to honor this period? Certainly, it was a period to mourn.

[1] I only own two Welles films: F for Fake and Othello. I am, however, planning to buy Chimes at Midnight—the only released film I haven’t seen. I have watched F for Fake far more than any of Welles’ films—at least twenty times. I’ve seen Citizen Kane at most five times and do not believe that I will ever watch it again. Although I think it is overrated (The best film of all time?! Come now!) there is no doubt that it is one of the greatest films ever made. Thus you can see what high regard I hold F for Fake in.

[2] It really bugs me—as a mathematically literate person—that a man who is half black and half white is always referred to as “black.” Isn’t the statistical case for his being “white” just as strong? And what of an octoroon? Just how white does one need to be before he is “white”.

[3] Or Latino. Or Asian. Or…

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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