Remembering when only the ball was white . . .

September 01, 1995|By James H. Bready

QUESTION, as the population of baseball's Hall of Fame nears 250: Should the ambitious player settle for just one more Cooperstown plaque?

Or, to certify true glory, is not something larger and more visible in order -- the ballpark statue?

For presidents and generals, the statue is a 19th century notion. But for athletes, sculpture is a new vogue. Already at ballparks around the country, eight or 10 bronze artworks immortalize, more or less, the diamond stalwart. Consider, with all due awe, Babe Ruth, who since May has been standing larger than life, down by Camden Street.

But Ruth isn't the only 1995 baseball statue, or the only Marylander so honored. In April, the people of Delaware unveiled a likeness of William Julius Johnson, known as "Judy."

As statues go, it's a good one. Among the speakers that day was Buck O'Neil, a star of the Ken Burns baseball documentary last fall on PBS.

Doubling the effect, the park to which Judy Johnson welcomes you bears his name. Two-year-old Judy Johnson Field is home to the Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Carolina League.

(Outside town, the Brandywine River cuts through some granite with a bluish tint. Last year, the pre-Bowie Baysox used Judy Johnson Field, just off I-95, for some of their home games.)

Johnson (1900-1989) was born in Snow Hill on the Eastern Shore. His 21-year career as a Negro Leagues third baseman was spent principally with Hilldale of Darby, Pa. (i.e., Philadelphia) and the Crawford Giants (of Pittsburgh) -- outstanding clubs, both. But he grew up in Wilmington, and lived and died there afterward.

Delaware thinks of Judy Johnson -- he was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1975 -- as the first Delawarean to have made it to Cooperstown.

The Delaware Stadium Corporation paid for his statue, which is by a Philadelphia sculptor, Phil Sumpter; it shows Johnson not as a bulging-sinewed fence-buster but as a sure-handed fielder.

Judy Johnson also happens to have been the one and only native Marylander among the Negro Leagues' stars. (Leon Day grew up in Baltimore, and died here, but was born in Virginia.)

Thus, in Wilmington today, a bygone black player is a hero at a ballpark with mostly white players and spectators. Elsewhere, the tendency is for a pedestal player to have been white.

Delaware's statue is one more culmination in the quarter-century effort to accord Negro Leaguers the honor and respect refused them in their active years.

The effort began with a 1970 book, "Only the Ball Was White," by Robert Peterson. From that trickle, research and publication have turned into something of a river. Two 1995 books are of especial value: "The Negro Leagues Book," long on names and figures, edited by Dick Clark and Larry Lester; and "A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1995," by Mark Ribowsky, previously Satchel Paige's biographer.

Ribowsky is a master of crisp detail, but "complete" isn't the right word for a book that treats only briefly of Baltimore's Black Sox and Elite Giants -- the former, 1929's champions; the latter, 1939's and 1949's.

A 1974 master's thesis by advertising man Robert V. Leffler Jr., "History of Black Baseball in Baltimore From 1913 to 1951" (the latter half of it was published in Maryland Historical Magazine, summer 1992), is the best that anyone has done locally.

At the center of this continuing effort to reconstruct the lost (or never compiled) statistics of the several black leagues is the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and its 45-member Negro Leagues Committee, led in former years by John Holway and now by Dick Clark. Of the members, 40-plus are white. None is from Baltimore.

Mr. Clark, a Michigan businessman, says that only from two clubs, Hilldale and the Newark Eagles (of more than 30 in the Negro Leagues, at various times), are scorebooks and other documents known to survive in quantity.

In Baltimore, approaching 84, Richard D. Powell, formerly the team's business manager, is the grand old man of Elite Giant baseball. Mr. Powell knew Judy Johnson as a player: "a real gentleman." Today, Mr. Powell still has a few of the old office files. People keep wanting to buy them, for, he suspects, re-sale.

The No. 1 research source here is back issues of the Afro-American. The Evening Sun and the News-Post didn't cover Negro League games, but they did publish advance stories, to stimulate attendance. The Sun ignored black baseball.

Today, interest in the Negro Leagues has grown to the point where replica uniforms, caps and pennants commemorate individual teams, commercially. At what point will black historians come to the fore in interviewing, recording, researching? Already most of the star players have gone to their graves, their full stories untold.

By just being there, a statue is eloquent. But how nice it would have been to hear and read more of William J. "Judy" Johnson, the great third baseman of long ago, in his own words.

James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer, is the author of "The Home Team," a narrative of baseball in Baltimore.

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