"History Matters" digs into the Delaware Historical Society's archives each month to explore connections between key people, places, and events in history and present-day news.
This month, in recognition of Black History Month, "History Matters" examines the life and legacy of Wilmington baseball great Judy Johnson, who died in 1989.
History Matters: Judy Johnson
Delaware Public Media examines the life and legacy of Negro League great and Baseball Hall of Famer Judy Johnson, as well as the status of Judy Johnson's long-time Delaware home and the 1990s battle to name Wilmington's minor league stadium after Johnson.
(Producer/Videographer/Editor: Ben Szmidt):
Johnson—a long time Wilmington resident—was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975. He was the sixth Negro League player and first Delawarean to enter Cooperstown, following his election by the Negro Leagues Committee. Johnson batted over .300 for his career, but it was his defensive skills that led him to be called the top third baseman of his day in the Negro League. He won Negro League World Series titles with the Hilldale Daisies in 1925 and Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1935. After his playing days, Johnson was hired as a scout for the Philadelphia Athletics and was eventually offered a coaching position in 1954 becoming the first African American coach in the Major Leagues.
Johnson was elected to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in its inaugural 1976 class, and the Delaware Sports Museum features a major talking exhibit dedicated to Johnson. At Frawley Stadium, where the museum is housed and the minor league Wilmington Blue Rocks play, the field bears his name, as does a park at Second and DuPont Streets in Wilmington.
Still, Johnson's feats on the diamond and later work as a coach and scout for the Philadelphia Athletics and Phillies remain largely unknown to most Delawareans. Friends like James Knott, who served as the voice of Johnson in the Delaware Sports Museum exhibit, and Joe Mitchell, who established the Judy Johnson Foundation, strive to share Johnson's story—joining other individuals and organizations around the country working to preserve the history of the Negro Leagues. Approximately 100 men who played in the Negro Leagues are still alive today.
Preserving the legacy of Judy Johnson in Delaware has had challenges. Before Wilmington's minor league baseball stadium (now Frawley Stadium) was named in 1993, many fought to have it named in honor of Judy Johnson; instead, they settled on having the playing field there bear his name. In November 1995, Johnson's home in Marshallton was added to the Delaware Public Archives’ list of historically significant places in the First State, but today the historic home has gone through a series of owners and it has fallen into disrepair.