This 'Peanut' Was a Crackerjack Ballplayer
WHEN Mamie (Peanut) Johnson first got into diamonds -
baseball diamonds - many women wore dresses, veiled hats and fine-stitched
gloves for such casual occasions as shopping, traveling and, yes, attending
At the ballpark, ladies often dressed "like they were going to church - sharp,"
says Johnson, who admits she "did that bit, too." But when it came to gloves,
she had an unusual preference.
"My favorite glove was that one right there," she says, pointing at a photo of
herself at age 19 in a uniform for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro
American League baseball team. "The one I got my hand in." A 105-pound pitcher
who learn- ed her curveball from Hall-of-Famer Leroy (Satchel) Paige - "he just
showed me how to grip the ball to keep from throwing my arm away, 'cause I was
so little" - Johnson had her hand in pro baseball for three seasons, 1953-55.
For two of them, Henry (Hank) Aaron was her teammate.
Once Paige taught her that curveball, she says, "I was damn good." Johson's
mother encouraged her "to do everything I wanted." She did just that as one of
only three women who played in the league, created when white baseball teams
rejected "coloreds." Johnson recalls how a white, Alexandria, Va.-based women's
team refused even to let her try out "because my skin was a different color.
I'm glad they turned me down," she says now with a shrug.
"Otherwise, I would have been just another woman who played woman's baseball."
On this day, Johnson, 63, is at work, greeting visitors to the Negro Leagues
Baseball Shops in Bowie, Md., one of two local stores specializing in
memorabilia and clothes honoring Negro leagues legends. The stores sell
Johnson's own souvenir T-shirt and trading card, autographed, for $10.
Lighting a cigarette, Johnson admits to having tried, and failed, to stop
smoking. But, she adds, "I don't do nothing else bad." What Johnson did good
was play, posting pitching records of 11-3, 10-1 and 12-4 in her three seasons.
She feels there are women talented enough to play for the majors today "if
given the chance." Recalling what it was like to get that chance, playing
before sellout crowds - "we would fill up Comiskey Park and Yankee Stadium when
the white players couldn't" - she gets a faraway look.
"To me, it was a thing like, 'Wow, look at me! I'm out here pitching in front
of 80,000 people. And I'm a girl.'" Being a ball-playing girl in those
"unenlightened" times wasn't so bad.
Harassment by her male teammates? Nonexistent, says Johnson.
Hanky-panky between male and female players? Please. "If you're out there doing
what you're supposed to be doing, your teammates ... give you the respect
you're due." Respect, Johnson says, is "the greatest thing in the world; it
will take you further than money." She got it in high school in Long Branch,
N.J., where she played boys' sports, including football, and at New York
University, where she studied engineering before joining the Clowns. She got it
after her retirement from baseball, too, in her nearly 30-year career as a
licensed practical nurse.
Johnson, who recently guest-coached a women's semipro team, seems vastly at
ease with herself and her "very good life." She has little to say about her
marriage and divorce, other than that baseball had nothing to do with either.
But she loves describing her most satisfying strikeout. "That would be Mr.
Barnes - the one who gave me my nickname," she says. "I don't remember his
first name, but he played for the Birmingham Black Barons. He said, 'How do you
expect to strike anybody out and you're not as big as a peanut?'" Her grin is
"And I struck him out."