Making pitch for women

Baseball: After breaking the gender barrier 40 years ago as a Negro Leagues pitcher, Mamie Johnson returns to the baseball world.

June 22, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

MITCHELLVILLE -- Mamie "Peanut" Johnson learned to play hardball with the big boys.

Fastball. Sneaky curve. The occasional beanball.

She did it more than 40 years ago on the diamonds of the Negro American League as one of three women to play professional ball with the men.

Toni Stone and Connie Morgan have passed away, leaving Johnson as the sole female link to that period of baseball history.

But don't call her a museum piece.

"Die? Honey, I'm not going anywhere. I'm just getting started," says Johnson, 63, who holds court five days a week at the Negro Leagues Baseball Shop on Route 301, just south of Bowie.

It is a happy coincidence that the former pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns is warming up just as baseball is finding her.

She has been featured in a Canadian film, was invited to a White House reception and participated in a Milwaukee Brewers tribute to the Negro leagues. An Internet memorabilia dealer is offering an action photo of Johnson for $90, more than baseballs signed by some better-known male stars of the league.

"People are just finding out about these wonderful women," says Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. "They are finally getting their due."

Johnson knows her role: "The more I talk, the more people will realize what we did."

`Good enough to be there'

The female players came along in the early 1950s, as the major leagues were signing away the young Negro League stars such as Hank Aaron. To bolster sagging attendance, the Clowns signed Stone to a $12,000 contract to play second base.

Johnson, a South Carolina native who grew up in New Jersey, wrangled a tryout with the Clowns. She and Morgan were signed in 1953, after the Clowns sold Stone's contract to the Kansas City Monarchs.

"People say Toni and Connie and I were gimmicks. Well, we weren't gimmicks, we were good enough to be there," Johnson says.

Doswell agrees. "It probably was a gimmick when it started. But those three held their own. They were extremely talented."

The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Leagues Baseball says Johnson played second base occasionally and "threw as hard as many male pitchers."

But, she confides, she wasn't known for her blazing fastball.

"Mr. Paige, he taught me how to perfect the curveball. When I got good with that, I was striking the fellas out left and right," she remembers.

That would be LeRoy "Satchel" Paige. Legend. Hall of Famer.

What about her nickname?

"I was pitching against the [Birmingham] Black Barons. This fella was riding me good, saying I wasn't as big as a peanut, how could I strike anybody out. I told him to step up to the plate," she says.

And?

"One, two, three. He sat down," she finishes, roaring with laughter.

Johnson doesn't hesitate when a visitor asks if she hit a batter. "Yes, I did and I did it on purpose. Sometimes, honey, you just get mad."

She rode the team bus from city to city. Made $300 a month and $2 a day in meal money. Endured racial slights and catcalls about her gender.

And, her baseball card says, compiled a three-year record of 33-8 and batted about .260.

"Oh, honey, those were the three best years of my life. Yes, indeed," she says. "It was a joy to be on the bus with the fellas. Most of all it was knowing I was good enough to be there."

A teammate from those days, Gordon "Hoppy" Hopkins of Hyattsville, says he was pleased to play second base on days when Johnson took the hill.

"We didn't clown around. It wasn't a show. Mamie could pitch. I ain't lying," he says.

Her playing days ended before the birth of her son.

Johnson went to nursing school and worked for 30 years at Sibley Hospital in Washington and at nursing homes.

But her baseball career wasn't over.

A couple of years ago, Johnson met a baseball memorabilia dealer at a Baltimore show where she was signing autographs. Brother Gary, as he calls himself, was opening a collectors' shop. Johnson agreed to help him run it.

Once again, she has become a drawing card.

Baseball fans from all over the country are finding their way to the shop, others call or write. The shop has become so successful that Gary has opened a second one in Capitol Heights.

Coaching youths

Johnson also is keeping her hand in the game she loves by coaching youngsters.

She has her eye on a field next to the shop, a dusty, cratered diamond with drooping, rotting dugouts and makeshift cinder block benches.

But donations from the business and civic community have been hard to come by. "They just hee-hawed me," she says. "It's because I'm a lady. If I was a man, the money would be rolling in."

But the woman who broke a gender barrier isn't giving up.

"We've got a whole lot of little Satchel Paiges, Josh Gibsons and Cool Papa Bells out there," she says, evoking the names of Negro league stars. "We'll find a way to bring them along."

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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