Judy Johnson and Baseball’s Checkered Past

Judy JohnsonOn this day in 1842, the great Russian war painter Vasily Vereshchagin was born. You know all those really cool war photojournalists who we see to this day? Well, before there were cameras, there were men like Vereshchagin. Of course, they were more like the great war poets of old. They were there to document the heroic acts of the men who manage wars. He did really beautiful work. I’m sure he romanticized it. How could you not? But I don’t know that much about him. I just wanted to present the following painting to you. It is called The Apotheosis of War and is dedicated “to all conquerors, past, present and to come”:

The Apotheosis of War

The great character actor Jackie Coogan was born in 1914. He is known for two things. First, he was the original Uncle Fester in The Addams Family. Second, he was the title character in Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid, which he made when he was 7 years old. He was absolutely adorable:

The great singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant is 50 today. I love her work, but she is a bit over-serious. I know, I know, life is a vale of tears. But there are other things: kittens, carnations, and hand puppets. But there is more than enough to be depressed about:

Other birthdays: Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685); philosopher and popularizer of Kant, Karl Leonhard Reinhold (1757); another mathematician who I don’t understand Ferdinand Georg Frobenius (1849); Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran (1919); actor Bob Hoskins (71); terrible game show host Pat Sajak (67); Hillary Clinton (66); Bolivian President Evo Morales (54); and actor Cary Elwes (51).

The day, however, belongs to the great third baseman Judy Johnson who was born on this day in 1899. Two years ago, I became obsessed with him and to a lesser extent the Negro League. I wrote this at the time:

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.

Since I was reading about Johnson, this great video about him was posted on YouTube. It is really great to see:

Happy birthday Judy Johnson!

0 thoughts on “Judy Johnson and Baseball’s Checkered Past

  1. I just read a fun book about integrated semi-pro ("town ball," as we say in these parts) teams called "Color Line," by Tom Dunkel. Light stuff, but I need some light stuff after reading about nuke war near-misses and PTSD causing veterans to kill themselves and all the dark shit I usually look at.

    In the 1930s, a gambling addict/civic booster named Neal Churchill bet that he could make money hiring the best players available to Bismarck, North Dakota’s town team. (Churchill maybe broke even at best.) The characters assembled are given a lot of life by author Dunkel. Some were unreliable due to romantic peccadilloes. Others battled the bottle. The greatest and most colorful of them all, Satchel Paige, would sometimes skip games for sabbaticals fishing with the local Native population.

    The climax comes in a National Baseball Tournament of semi-pro teams held in Wichita. There are all-Japanese entries from California, several all-Black teams, even a few made up of all-brothers (from presumably very hale and hearty mothers; that’s a lot of kids!)

    There’s a showdown between Bismarck’s collection of ethnicities and flawed drifters versus the team of company ringers all employed by Duncan, Oklahoma’s Erle Halliburton. (Yep, THAT Halliburton.) Duncan avoids economic politics for the most part (as opposed to racist politics, where his focus is about how the talented players obstructed from Major League play felt about it) but he breaks form in describing Halliburton. I’ll quote a long passage; it’s the only one of its kind in the book, and it’s delightful.

    "’He was one of those self-made millionaires who are perhaps too self-made; who might have to think twice about pulling a drowning man from the water. Before committing himself to a rescue, Erle would want to know how a chap ever got himself into such a fix and, furthermore, whether he was really kicking as hard as he could to avoid going under. In late June 1935 Halliburton created a firestorm by publicly announcing a change in hiring policy. Henceforth, Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company wouldn’t touch any prospective employee who’d ever accepted a government relief check. "There is not now and never has been any excuse for the dole," Erle Halliburton grumbled [. . .] "We continue to tax those who do work for the benefit of those who do not work."’

    [Here’s the money passage.] "’Sacks of mail got dumped on Halliburton’s office desk. He insisted that letters of support "ran 8-to-1 ahead of the squawks." Of course, Erle was doing the counting."’

    Brilliant. Erle is, of course, still doing the counting.

    That’s the best thing in the book, there aren’t any other bits like it. If you dig baseball history, especially the fringes of the majors, and what being on the wrong side of the color line felt like to players, it’s good stuff. Nothing profound, just good on those subjects.

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