‘Mex’ left impression with play, gentleness
BY CHRIS GIVENS
Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2005
It had been more than 60 years since Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe had last seen Byron "Mex" Johnson, but time didn’t distort Radcliffe’s memory. "Sure, I remember Mex," Radcliffe said when introduced to his former Negro League opponent a few years ago at a speaking engagement. "He’s the shortstop with the great arm."
Johnson, a Little Rock native who played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and for superstar pitcher Satchel Paige’s traveling team, died Saturday in Denver. He was 94.
Johnson had prostate cancer, his daughter, Jacquelyn Benton, said Tuesday.
Johnson made an impression wherever he went and will be remembered as a caring, kind man and a fierce competitor. The qualities weren’t in conflict with each other, said Jay Sanford, a baseball historian who was friends with Johnson for more than 20 years. "What a gentle person he was," Sanford said. "A very intelligent, gentle, person, but competitive. That may seem like a contradiction, but it wasn’t. He was a loving person, with a good heart and great mind, but extremely competitive, over cards or golf or anything. That carried over from his playing days."
Johnson played for the Monarchs in 1937-1938, when blacks were barred from the National and American leagues. He joined the traveling team of Paige in 1939 and stayed through 1940. Johnson was often assigned the duty of looking after Paige, who was known for his wild ways.
Johnson may have only played professional baseball for four years, but they were four impressive years of slick fielding that included a spot in the 1938 All-Star Game. "He was a competitor," said Buck O’Neil, 93, Johnson’s close friend since they were teammates on the Monarchs. "He was going to outhit you, outfield you, anything he had to do to be the best."
Johnson was born in Little Rock in a house on 16 th Street on Sept. 16, 1911.
He went on to be the star quarterback for state championship-winning teams at Dunbar High School, and he played quarterback for Hall of Fame Coach Fred "Pop" Long at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas.
But Johnson will be remembered most for his baseball skills, which were first on display while playing for Little Rock’s Dubisson Tigers, a semipro team which eventually led to him being discovered by the Monarchs.
Johnson also played for the Little Rock Stars in 1932, Arkansas’ only black professional team.
Johnson retired from professional baseball in 1940 because life on the road wasn’t conducive to having a family for Johnson and his wife of two years, Christine. "He doesn’t have any regrets, but he knew that his [baseball] prime was ahead of him," Sanford said. "That shows where his heart was. His wife was at home teaching school, and he decided to stay with her.
" He never complained about how hard it was being a black baseball player, and he was never bitter that he didn’t get to play in the majors. "
Johnson was drafted by the Army in 1941 and served in Europe until 1945. In 1958, the family moved to Denver, where he worked as a postal clerk and his wife taught school.
A main provocation for moving included the racism Johnson saw experienced by his niece, Carlotta Walls, who was one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Little Rock Central. Johnson would often walk with Walls to and from Central.
After moving to Denver, Johnson traveled with Sanford, giving speeches about black baseball. A biography of Johnson, Legacy of a Monarch by Jan Sumner, with a foreword from President Clinton, was published in April.
Johnson is survived by his daughter, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.