‘Peanut’ pitching for Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Special to The Kansas City Star
A legend in baseball history — one of only three women to play in the Negro Leagues — is stepping up to the plate again to help her beloved game.
This time, however, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson will swing a golf club instead of a bat to raise money for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
The 74-year-old former pitcher with the Indianapolis Clowns tops the “celebrity leader board” in the 2010 Buck O’Neil Golf Classic on Monday at the Shoal Creek Golf Course.
“Buck was a good friend of mine, and now that he’s gone it’s an honor, I mean a great honor, to represent him in his golf tournament,” Johnson said during a recent telephone interview from her Washington, D.C., home. “There wasn’t a nicer gentleman than Buck and there’s no one I’m more proud to do this for.”
The Negro Leagues Museum is just as proud to have this right-hander, who refined her curveball while training with Satchel Paige, headline its annual golf tournament.
“We’re trying to raise the visibility of the other Negro League players, particularly the female players,” said Karen Boyd, the museum’s vice president of marketing. “With Mamie, we have an opportunity to do that this year because of her stature. There are about 175 Negro League players
still with us and Mamie is the only female still living.
“We’re also expanding our demographic reach to include women and families and we thought this was the perfect time to feature Mamie in that effort.”
Johnson’s celebrated baseball career started when she was a little girl in South Carolina. “I played with the boys every day,” she recalled. “I made my own baseballs (by wrapping tape around rocks) and bats (out of tree limbs), and it wasn’t a big thing for me to play with the boys.”
Some parents at that time might have discouraged their daughters from perfecting a slider or fastball, but Johnson said her mom and dad supported her baseball dreams. “They said whatever you think you can do, do it well. And that’s what I did.”
But segregation and prejudice during the 1950s prevented Johnson from playing in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
“I’m glad they didn’t let me play because I wouldn’t be who I am today if they did,” Johnson said. “If I would have played with the women, I would have missed out on the opportunity that I received, and I would have just been another player. But now, I’ve done something that makes me stand out a little bit.”
Don’t be fooled by that curveball.
Johnson, who pitched for the Clowns from 1953-1955, is part of an elite group of players who overcame gender and race to earn a place in baseball history.
•Johnson is the first female pitcher in the Negro Leagues. She had a 33-8 record with the Clowns, according to the Negro League Baseball Players Association. Her batting average ranged from .262 to .284.
•Johnson considers herself the first female major league pitcher — not Eri Yoshida, the 18-year-old Japanese “Knuckle Princess” with the Chico Outlaws.
•Johnson is one of only three women to play in the Negro Leagues. The two other female players are the late Toni Stone and Connie Morgan, who both played second base.
“Those were a wonderful three years,” Johnson said of her days in the Negro Leagues. “And it was awesome for the simple reason that I was with a group of gentlemen who helped me. I’ve got all the respect in the world for them. It made it so nice to be around such nice gentlemen.
“And to be good enough to be out there (with such baseball greats) made it even better.”
Some players, though, questioned Johnson’s pitching arm. On her first trip to the mound for the Clowns, one batter told the petite Johnson she wasn’t any bigger than a “peanut” and doubted she could strike him out.
The 115-pound Johnson sent that batter back to the dugout in three pitches. “That’s a true, great story,” Johnson said, adding it’s how she earned the nickname ‘Peanut.’ “And people today still call me Peanut.”
During her barnstorming days, many people also called Johnson and her teammate derogatory names and racial epithets.
“When somebody is ignorant, you ignore them,” she said. “And that’s what we did. If you’re ignorant than I ignore you — period. And I go on about my business and do what I’m supposed to do.”
Johnson still follows that credo today and encourages children — especially young girls — to heed that advice whether they’re playing baseball or pursing some other dream.
“Do whatever you want to do regardless of what anybody else says,” said Johnson, who is also a licensed nurse. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.”