Obituary: Howie Judson (1925-2020)

RIP to Howie Judson, a pitcher for seven seasons in the major leagues in the 1940s and ’50s. He was also part of a family that was renowned for its high school heroics in northern Illinois. He died on August 18 at a nursing home in Winter Haven, Fla., at the age of 95. Judson played for the Chicago White Sox (1948-52) and Cincinnati Reds (1953-54).

(Note: Judson’s birth year has been listed as either 1925 or 1926. His family’s obituary lists him as being born in 1920, making him 95. I’m assuming they know best, so I have updated this post to reflect that date.)

Howard Kolls Judson was born on February 16, 1926, in Hebron, Ill. In announcing his death, the Northwest Herald called him one of the greatest athletes to come out of McHenry County. He was part of a pretty dominant Hebron Prep basketball team in the early 1940s and was a top scorer. He pitched on the baseball team too, but his pitching prowess was secondary to his skills on the court. Hebron won back-to-back basketball titles in 1941 and 1942, and Judson scored 21 of the team’s 34 points in the 1942 title game against Woodstock. The final score was 34-29, so Judson was a couple buckets shy of outscoring the opposition by himself!

During the summers, Judson’s skill as a pitcher made him in-demand for semipro teams in nearby Chicago, Rockford and Waukegan. His father Clarence, a carpenter by trade, would drive him throughout northern Illinois to play for one semipro team or another. More often than not, his fastball would lead his team to victory.

Judson in his high school days. Source: The Daily Sentinel (Woodstock, Ill.), July 23, 1946.

He wasn’t the only high school hero in his family, either. The Herald notes that his younger twin brothers, Paul and Phil, led the Alden-Hebron team to the Illinois state championships in 1952 — a significant achievement for a school that had an enrollment of fewer than 100 students.

Judson served in the armed forces briefly during World War II, but he spent his time at the Great Lakes Naval Station, relatively close to home. He was discharged due to an injury suffered during a high school basketball game. Judson had been struck in the eye by a wire staple shot from the stands by a fan with a slingshot. That eye injury kept him from any kind of extended military service. However, it also led to vision problems that bothered him the rest of his playing career.

Judson attended the University of Illinois and soon became known as one of the top pitchers in the Big 10 Conference. By 1946, a number of scouts were watching his games with great interest. Regrettably, Clarence Judson, never got to see much of the athletic success of his children. He died of a heart attack on July 22, 1945. Judson, as the oldest son, supported the rest of his family, including his mother, sister and younger brothers. Almost a year to the day after his father died, he traveled to Comiskey Park and signed his professional baseball contract in the office of team general manager Leslie O’Connor.

The Sox sent Judson to the Waterloo White Hawks of the Three-I League to get some experience. In limited action, he went 2-2 with a 3.98 ERA in 7 games in 1946. He then won 16 games for the Hawks in ’47, despite battling recurring vision problems from his eye injury. Counting the postseason, Judson put together a 13-game winning streak and pushed himself into the White Sox plans.

In spring training of 1948, Judson turned heads by holding both the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates hitless for 5 innings in starts. With that kind of performance, the White Sox couldn’t keep him in the minors any longer. The 22-year-old made his MLB debut on April 22, 1948, against the Tigers. Once again, he threw 5 no-hit innings before the Tigers’ offense broke through for two runs in the sixth inning. Judson suffered a 3-2 loss despite 7 innings of 4-hit, 3-run ball. He walked 5 and fanned 1. He appeared in a total of 40 games with the White Sox that year, but all but five of them came out of the bullpen. He did record 8 saves, which was good enough for fifth-best in the AL that year.

“Judson’s blazing speed can be depended upon to mow ’em down for at least four or five innings,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times.

Judson’s sophomore season of 1949 was the worst of his career, brought on by a combination of bad luck, control problems and being on a 91-loss team. He picked up a win in his very first appearance of the season, working 6-2/3 innings against the Detroit Tigers on April 21. He walked 5 and fanned 3 while allowing 2 runs (1 earned) in a 5-2 win. Judson then dropped his next 14 decisions. He ended up finishing the year with an .067 winning percentage and a 4.58 ERA in 26 appearances, 12 of which were starts. He was saved from a 20-loss season when he was moved to the bullpen, though he still lost a few ballgames there as well.

Despite the 1-14 record, Judson did have some good performances that were wasted by the team. Judson threw 10-2/3 innings of 2-run ball against Cleveland on May 28 but lost 3-2 when Mickey Vernon his a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 11th inning. He pitched 7 innings in each of his next two starts and allowed a total of 3 runs, but he lost both of them as well. Other times, Judson’s control deserted him, but White Sox manager Jack Onslow had him pitch deep into ballgames, despite walking 8 or more batters in a start twice. Judson walked a total of 70 batters in 108 innings.

Source: The Daily Sentinal, February 27, 1950.

Judson was moved to the pen full-time and lost his first decision of 1950 to extend the losing streak to 15 games. Onslow didn’t hold it against the pitcher, as Judson had become his most effective reliever, despite the losses.

“It’s the kind of thing that could only happen to a relief pitcher,” Judson said. “We usually get in there when the other club is on the upgrade. Once they tie you it takes a pretty good club to come back to win.” The White Sox, needless to say, were not a pretty good club.

Judson defeated the St. Louis Browns on consecutive days to end the futility streak, and he put together a pretty solid season as a reliever. He went 2-3 with a 3.94 ERA in 46 games, including 3 stats. He was moved back to a swingman role in 1951, starting 14 games and relieving in 13 others. All total, he had a 5-6 record and 3.77 ERA as the White Sox climbed above .500 for the first time in Judson’s time with the team. On May 15, 1951, Judson also gave up the 300th home run of Ted Williams’ career.

The White Sox had hired “Trader Frank” Lane as their general manager in 1950, and he was infamous for making flurries of trades. An influx of new pitchers left Judson as the odd man out in the pitching staff, and he appeared in just 21 games in 1952. On December 2, 1952, he was sent to the Cincinnati Reds as the player-to-be-named-later in a previous deal that brought the Sox outfielder Hank Edwards.

Reds manager Rogers Hornsby moved Judson back into the starting rotation, but he failed to pick up a win for his new team in 1953. He made 6 starts and 4 relief appearances and was 0-1 with a 5.59 ERA before he was sent to the minor leagues in June. At least he was able to pull off another lengthy winning streak, as he went 11-0 for the Tulsa Oilers.

Johnson spent one last season in the major leagues, going 5-7 for the Reds with a 3.95 ERA. He also let his guard down in an interview with syndicated sportswriter Milton Richman. The eye injury that he suffered back in high school had worsened and left him unable to read out of his left eye. He was also plagued with awful headaches from time to time, particularly on sunny days. “I’ve been to the Mayo Brothers Clinic and to some of the best doctors in the country but I guess there isn’t much they can do,” he said. “Yes, I know there’s a chance I may become blind but I don’t let it worry me to death. There are too many other things to think about, like helping the ball club win as many games as I can.”

Judson also said that he was helping to put his younger brothers through school at the University of Illinois, as well as support his mother. “I’ve never seen a person more self-sacrificing than Judson,” noted one teammate. “He doesn’t care for any pleasures in his life so long as he can help his family. Why he even deprives himself of an ordinary thing like a movie.”

“I’ve never met anyone finer than Judson,” added Reds coach Tom Ferrick. “There isn’t enough good you can say about him. And he’s no soft touch out there on the mound, either.”

“Judson’s assets won’t be found merely in any won-and-lost pitching record,” added his manager, Birdie Tebbetts.

In seven MLB seasons, Judson had a 17-37 record with a 4.29 ERA. He appeared in 207 games, with 48 starts. He threw 8 complete games and had 14 saves. Never a big strikeout pitcher, he fanned 204 batters in 615 innings while walking 319.

Howie Judson, center, celebrates with Charles Comiskey II and teammate Jim Busby after a White Sox win. Source: Green Bay Press Gazette, June 30, 1951.

The Reds sold Judson’s contract to the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League in 1955, thanks to a back injury that flared up in spring training. He pitched, mainly as a starter, in the minors through 1959, with stops in Portland, Ore.; Miami and Denver before retiring.

According to Judson’s SABR biography, he worked in the shipping department of Stulper Co. in Walworth, Wis., before retiring to Florida. In 1977, he was honored by the White Sox owner Bill Veeck in an “Unsung Heroes” old-timers’ game. Veeck eschewed the old familiar retired players of the era like Mantle, Spahn and DiMaggio and brought in former Sox players who were noteworthy — usually for the wrong reasons. Judson, thanks to his epic losing streak of 1949-50, joined the likes of Zeke Bonura, Willie Miranda, Al Smith, Smead Jolley, Paul LaPalme and Marv Rotblatt. It skewered the concept of the traditional old-timers’ games, but Veeck meant for it to be in good fun, and that’s how Judson took it. As it was noted earlier, there was much more to Howie Judson than a win-loss record.

For more information: Northwest Herald

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