by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Mamie Johnson recalls ‘the game’ just as if it were played yesterday.
Before her first pitch, the batter from the opposing team stared in utter disbelief at what he saw on the mound. Not only was the pitcher small in stature—weighing less than 110 pounds, but ‘she’ was woman! In fact the first Black woman to pitch in the fabled Negro Leagues.
Mockingly, the batter shouted out to the mound: “What makes you think you can strike a man out? Why, you aren’t any larger than a peanut!”
Johnson didn’t show any emotion. Instead, she merely took the signal from the catcher and in three pitches accomplished the seemingly impossible—she stuck the batter out. The year was 1953, and Johnson’s pitching performance was a scenario she would repeat hundreds of times during her three-year career.
The nickname ‘Peanut’ stuck with her during her professional baseball career, as did her prominence on the mound. Before her short career was over, Peanut Johnson would accumulate a record of 33-8, playing against some of the best athletes in the Negro League. She also batted a respectable .278.
Most interestingly, Mamie Peanut Johnson made history, not only as one of the best pitchers in the Negro League, but also as its only female pitcher. And equally important, she said in a recent interview, she earned the respect of opposing players who may initially have underestimated her, but learned the hard way that gender and size are only limitations if you allow them to stand between you and success.
“Baseball is a thinking game,” she said recently. “Size and power are good to have, but you can compensate if you have the smarts.”
Her smarts, physical prowess and history making achievements were among the unique credentials that prompted her selection to this year’s Negro League Hall of Fame induction in Milwaukee this weekend. Along with Negro League great Porter Reed, Johnson will be the guest of honor when the Milwaukee Brewers play the Washington Nationals Saturday. Both legends will be available for a tailgate party preceding the 6 p.m. game and will sign autographs during the early evenings of the game.
The next day, they will be inducted into the Negro League Wall of Fame at Holy Redeemer C.O.G.I.C. at 130 p.m. The public is invited for the induction ceremony. A handful of tickets for Saturday’s game are still available.
The annual Milwaukee Brewers’ Negro League Tribute game has become a major Black social event, with several area churches scheduling fellowship outings around the game, and community organizations participating in special group sales and tailgating activities. This year, the African American Chamber of Commerce is hosting a major outing around the game.
Johnson’s love for baseball extends back to her early childhood in Ridgeway, South Caroline. By age 17, her love for the game and unique abilities prompted her to pursue a spot on the White Female Baseball League; even through she was attending nursing school in New York full time. But like Major League Baseball, the women’s league was segregated, and Mamie was rejected without a full tryout.
In retrospect, Johnson said her rejection was a blessing in disguise. “If I had played with the White girls, I would have been just another player. But now I am somebody who has done something that no other woman has done.”
In the spring of 1953, Bish Tyson, a former player with the Negro Leagues, observed Johnson practicing on a field in Washington, D.C. and was immediately taken aback by her obvious talent. He suggested Johnson try out with a Negro League team. She agreed and soon thereafter the manager of the Indianapolis Clowns gave her an audition. She was immediately signed to the team.
Johnson wasn’t thinking of becoming a history maker when she joined the Indianapolis Clowns. Instead, her focus centered on competition and the chance to play professional baseball, her lifetime dream.
Imagine, if you can, a Black women joining a male dominated Negro League team at mid-century. The Negro Leagues, according to some historians, got its start in 1897, when a team was formed in Galveston, Texas. The immediate challenges were not just in assembling talent, but also in acquiring fields to play on, traveling throughout the hostile south, and navigating Jim Crow, which wasn’t a team slogan.
Though it rarely talked about, Negro League players suffered unspeakable discrimination and hostility. In some cities—north and south—they were not allowed to eat, sleep or use public rest rooms. Players could find themselves beaten or worst if they ventured to the wrong side of town, or appeared to be uppity by virtue of their dress or demeanor.
It was into that dichotomous scenario that Peanut Johnson eagerly sought an opportunity. She pushed the hardships aside, and narrowed her sights solely on the opportunity to compete against Negro League players who are only now becoming accepted as some of the best ball players—of any race—in baseball history: Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson. Some of them became household names in America as major league baseball eventually opened its doors to ‘Negroes.’ But many were known and idolized only in the Black communities, and never received an opportunity to showcase their talents on the world stage. That’s the true tragedy of history, as Johnson notes. “These were some of the best ball players in history, period. And I got to complete against many of them in the latter stages of the Negro Leagues,
With that thought imbedded in her mind, Johnson said she never bragged or boosted, but instead thanked God every day for the unique opportunity given her.
“Nobody can ever say they ever heard me brag. I always felt if you could do it, do it. Be professionalism and be glad God gave you the talent to be able to do it,” she philosophized.
“Plus, I always felt blessed. Here I was a woman, but good enough to be there, playing among the greatest players of all time. That was truly a blessing.”
Johnson said her time on the road in what is now considered the dawn of the civil rights movement, was not a bed of roses, even though it was far better than what her predecessors endured 30 years before. In the 1950s, Negro League players still found themselves discriminated against and subject of racial scorn, even in northern cities like Chicago, New York and, yes, Milwaukee.
Like Black entertainers including Duke Ellington and Sammy Davis, Jr., they were not allowed to eat at many restaurants in the cities where they played, much less stay at top-flight hotels.
The female players in the Negro Leagues— Connie Morgan Toni Stone and Johnson—were afforded a few privileges that male players were not, including being chaperoned by local families while on the road. But beyond that perk, they were treated the same as the men.
But it was all worth it in the final analysis. Both in terms of having an opportunity to showcase their talents, but also in pushing open the doors of equality, even it were only a few inches.
“Those were the greatest three years of my life,” Johnson recalls today. “Not only playing with the best ball players in history—and that’s what they were—but earning their respect and love.
“There’s no doubt that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. And he took a liking to me. He gave me advice, pointers.
“There was the competition–and it was intense–but the Negro Leagues was also a fraternity; a large extended family.
The major leagues today don’t hold a candle to the Negro Leagues in many respects, she theorizes. “It’s business today. We played for the love of the game, to provide entertainment to our people. Baseball, Negro League games were an event back then.”
Johnson said she has always had a fondness for the Washington Nationals because it was in Washington, D.C. that she got her start. But she said she would be rooting for the Brewers this weekend, in part because her favorite player is Najer Morgan.
“He plays the game with passion. You can see to him its fun; he would have fit right in with the Negro League players of yesteryear.”
Johnson is cognizant that being a history maker, much of the media attention will be on her this weekend, but she said she is proud to share the spotlight with Porter Reed.
Reed played for eight different Negro League teams and alongside such stars as Robinson, Paige and Roy Campanella.
He played in his first professional game at age 15. While in the army during WWII, he was one of the top players with a military team. After the army he moved to Canada where he started his professional career with the Los Angeles Lincoln All Stars.
As a Negro Leaguer, he holds the record for most inside the park home runs and prided himself on never being tagged out while stealing a base.
Both Johnson and Reed are among two dozen Negro League players who have been inducted into the Negro League Wall of Fame, which was the brainchild of former Brewers’ owner, now MLB commissioner Bud Selig. The Wall of Fame was originally showcased at the old County Stadium. Holy Redeemer purchased the wall during the construction of Miller Park. The Milwaukee Brewers revived the annual tribute game several years ago, in conjunction with Yesterday’s Negro League, an non profit group started by Dennis Biddle, himself a former Negro Leaguer and historian who strives to keep alive the special pages of Black sports history that seem to be fading along with other major Black group endeavors that disproved racial stereotypes and opened the doors for a today’s generation.
“My short paragraph in the history book may not amount to much, but it’s important because it can open our eyes to another world, to the contributions of other unsung heroes, to an era that shaped America today.”