As winter rolls on my baseball withdrawal worsens. I search the internet for the latest hot stove moves. I surf for the most recent prospect highlights from the Caribbean, Mexico and Venezuela. I keep an eye on the Japanese Professional League whose season starts about the same time as ours. I have even been watching the Australian League scores and Jim Kaat’s work in New Zealand. My wife periodically asks me “How many days?”. I can usually give her the countdown to when pitchers and catchers report, opening day and this year the World Baseball Classic. Bonus!
But as I look forward to the coming season, I find myself looking back to my own playing days. No, you never heard of me. I was not a hot prospect. I was a good high school player with a plus glove and arm but only an average bat and little power or speed, although I was an excellent bunter. Those tools may get you a chance to walk on for a college team, but no one was handing me any offer letters. Thankfully, I have come to terms with my talent and I am definitely not one of those guys who’s past gets better as they get older. If I did that, by my age, I would be ready to enter the Hall of Fame.
When I mentioned I was looking back to my playing days, I am actually referring more to my early days. Specifically, to my inspirations in the beginning.
Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, I was located in a small miracle like area of sorts for the new sensation of cable television. We had stations from several major markets and I could see a ball game almost any time during the season. I had stations that were either from or broadcast games for Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Pittsburgh. In the 70’s and early 80’s I was truly the proverbial kid in a candy store.
For those not as obsessed as myself, let me give you a little run down of the teams in those markets. Pittsburgh was a powerhouse through the entire decade. Even after the loss of Roberto Clemente, the Pirates, led by Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and a solid pitching staff were rivaled only by the Reds in the first half of the decade. The Orioles had one of the greatest pitching staffs in the history of the game (only the second staff with four 20 game winners) and appeared in three series in the 70s and six in a seventeen-year span. The Mets had the miracle ’69 season and another Series a few years later but were beginning to fade as the decade progressed. The Yankees made three straight Series appearances and four in six years. These were the days of Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Catfish Hunter. The Phillies finally shook off twenty-five years in the doldrums with three straight division titles and their first ever world championship followed by another Series three years later.
Needless to say, I had great games to watch at all times. This was the fuel to my fire. The spark however, that was my father. My Dad grew up in Philadelphia, in the heart of the City. He was a diehard A’s fan idolizing Connie Mack, always hoping he would find a way to bring back a string of championships like he had twice in the past. It was not to be and the A’s joined the move west to Kansas City and eventually Oakland. My father remained an A’s fan until he passed away. Dad also loved the Phillies and knew every member of the Whiz Kids. He made me the baseball fan I am today. Even when I got older and we had our typical father son disagreements, we could always talk baseball. (Yeah, I know, it sounds sappy but it’s true.)
So, when I decided I wanted to start playing, dad asked me where I wanted to play. Well, that was the easiest answer of my entire youth. Third base, of course. When I looked around at the men playing third, I knew where I wanted to play. The Pirates had Bill Madlock and the Yankees had Graig Nettles. But then there were two Hall of Famers in the Phillies Mike Schmidt and the Orioles Brooks Robinson. Why look anywhere else?
When I started to play Little League, I begged the coach to play third and he gave me my chances, but he also moved me around to other positions. I gave each one my best, but I always wanted to go to “my spot”. Dad worked with me and the following year I moved up a division and my new coach put me at third and that is where I stayed for the next decade.
Then one day as he was working with me in the back yard he mentioned a new name to me. He told me about another third baseman who grew up in Philadelphia and became an All-Star playing in Philly. Judy Johnson. Now, at this point I was about ten years old and the name stuck in my head for two reasons. First, my father loved the game and he was telling me about an all-time great who came from and played in his hometown. Second, my mother’s name is Judy, and his name stuck with me for obvious reasons. He told me what he knew about him. He explained he played in the Negro Leagues and that he retired before he had the chance to see him. This prompted a whole new set of questions about the Negro Leagues and why these players could not play in the majors. At ten, this was as difficult to grasp as it is for me today. Dad even had an old book with two photos of Judy. I wish I had that book today but I can still see both photos. The next fall I went to the Library and found a book about the League and read it cover to cover. I learned names and read stories I never knew existed. A whole new part of game opened up for me. I soaked in all I could about Johnson, Robinson and Schmidt and wanted to be just like them.
To some extent I emulated the three of them. As I mentioned I had a plus glove and arm. I was very good in the field and could throw out anyone from deep behind the bag. Unfortunately, that never carried over to the bat. So, my professional career ended long before it started. Even though I never made the show, I do have a few memories of my playing days I will always cherish. As a twelve-year-old, I played in Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the home of Little League Baseball. I played third base that day. I went 4 for 5 with 4 doubles and 4 RBI. It was and still is my favorite day playing the game. Earlier that same year, I also had the chance to play on the home field of the Original League in Williamsport. This was not my home league, but the man who was my second father was an officer of the league and he made the arrangements. He also introduced me to Carl Stotz. A man I firmly believe belongs in Cooperstown. How many professional ball players would never have had the chance without Little League Baseball?
In the coming years, I would find new and better information about the trio who drove me. I learned that Judy Johnson was not actually from Philadelphia but nearby Wilmington, Delaware. Years later, I lived in Wilmington and was able to see how the city now appreciates and celebrates the man. Through events, I was able to meet and shake the hand of both Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson. I never had the opportunity with Judy Johnson. They say never meet your heroes. I met two of the three and I have to say I am glad for it. From everything I have read about the third, I would not have been disappointed.
Recently, I stumbled upon a gentleman on Twitter. He happens to be the president of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. After following him and seeing the wealth of information that he and his connections share, I was reminded of Judy Johnson. That is what brought back all of these memories. Thank you, Mr. Kendrick.
Judy Johnson played his first professional season 98 years ago. I am so glad my father introduced me to him so I could have the perfect man to round out the trio that I tried to emulate on the field.
If you are as obsessed with the game as I am and would like to discuss more about any facet of baseball history, please look me up on Twitter. I am @TWR_Individual. I may not have all the answers, but I will have a great time finding them with you. I would also like to hear about who your on the field influences were. Who did you want to play like?