Born: August 30, 1918
Died: June 20, 2006
William Russell Johnson was born August 30, 1918 in Montclair. A fine all-around athlete, he excelled as both a pitcher and hitter. Billy had a powerful, compact body. The Yankees signed him in the summer of 1936 and sent him to their Class-D farm team in Butler, Pennsylvania. He pitched in three games at the age of 17 at the tail end of the season. Billy returned to Butler as an outfielder in 1937 and batted .356 in 92 games. Despite his fine work at age 18, Billy did not reach the majors until he was 24, in 1943.
By then he was considered one of baseball’s top prospects. He replaced Red Rolfe as the everyday third baseman and was among the league leaders in games played, hits and RBIs. Had there been an official Rookie of the Year Award at the time, Billy would have been a shoo-in. As it was, he finished fourth in the MVP voting.
Like so many young major leaguers, Billy lost the next two years to military service. He returned to the Yankees in 1946 at the end of May and took up his post at third. In 1947, he was an All-Star and once again figured in the MVP voting. Billy helped the Yankees win pennants in 1947, 1949 and 1950. All told, he saw action in 18 World Series games for the Yankees and collected four championship rings.
In 1951, the Yankees decided they wanted to get Gil McDougald and Bobby Brown into the lineup more. They traded Billy, now 32, to the Cardinals in May. He played for St. Louis until early in the 1953 season, when he was demoted to the Cardinals’ Triple-A team in Columbus. He batted just .233 for the Red Birds in what would be his final season as a pro.
After baseball, Billy went to work for the Graniteville textile company in South Carolina as a shipping supervisor. He retired in the 1980s and moved to Georgia with his wife Louise. He died in 2006 at the age of 87.