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Negro Leagues' Female Star Takes On D.C. Government

Mamie Johnson has played with superstars and met presidents. Now all she wants is a little dirt.

May 8, 2014

Mamie Johnson is not happy.

The Negro Leagues legend is sitting on a field named in her honor, blocks from the Northeast D.C. house where she grew up and still lives.

But Johnson—who talks about baseball the same way Billy Graham talks about Jesus—is sitting not on a baseball diamond, but on an artificial-turf field for football and soccer.


"Right now, I would be forming teams to play ball," says the 78-year-old, speaking of her yearly spring itch to teach kids the game she loves. But without a diamond, that ambition is on hold.

"I'm so pumped up about this dedication that I'm going to have," Johnson said, describing her reaction when she learned that the field would be named after her last April. "Then when I see what they did to it—and put my name on it. You give me a football field and a soccer field, and I'm a baseball player? I am so hurt, and I've never been so disappointed."

She's equally disappointed in the reaction from the powers that be. "When I said something to the mayor [Vincent Gray] about it, you know what he said? 'It's a football field.' But I'm a ballplayer. I'm a baseball player. (Read here for Johnson's thoughts on Bryce Harper, the designated hitter, and President Obama's throwing arm.)

But why is Johnson so intent on getting a diamond for neighborhood kids to play on? And how did she get a field named after her in the first place?

The answer starts some 61 years ago, when a 17-year-old Johnson was pitching in a local game—on that same plot on the corner of 17th and F Streets N.E. But in Johnson's day, a pair of baseball diamonds sat where the football field now lies.

The teenage Johnson was pitching when a scout for the Indianapolis Clowns—a Negro League club that had just lost star Hank Aaron to the recently integrated Major Leagues—saw her and offered her a spot in their lineup. Would she like to play for the Clowns? "Hell, yeah!" Johnson responded.

The next day, she was on a bus for spring training.

For a 5-foot-3 African-American woman in the 1950s, playing professional baseball was regarded as something on the far side of implausible. In fact, Johnson is the only woman to reach that level as a pitcher (the Clowns also had two female position players).

But was her signing just a publicity stunt? Well, a few batters may have thought that. But once Johnson started racking up wins, she quickly gained respect.

Over a three-year career, Johnson compiled a record of 33-8 and hit for a .257 average. "I felt like somewhere down the line I was gonna play pro ball somewhere," she said. "I became someone that no other woman has ever been, and that has been to pitch Major League Baseball with the fellas. Nobody else has done this. So that puts me in a category all of my own, and it makes me very proud."

Even her nickname, "Peanut," speaks to her defying-the-odds mentality. A rival batter, she says, asked how she expected to strike him out, given that she was "no bigger than a peanut." After strike three hit the catcher's mitt, Johnson laughed. "Well, the peanut's pretty good," she said.

Her best pitch? "All of them. Anything. Really. I had 'em all. All except the knuckleball—my hand was too little.… I had a fastball with a wrinkle."

Her best recollection? Making the All-Star team, then pitching three innings in a winning All-Star Game effort. "Just knowing that I was good enough to be there with some of the greatest ballplayers that you could ever think of. A whole lot of people don't realize it, but in the Negro Leagues, we had some of the best ballplayers that ever picked up a bat."

Johnson is all smiles when she talks about her career, her 30 years as a nurse in D.C., and her role in preserving the legacy of the Negro Leagues. And she doesn't shy away from a little name-dropping: legends Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Buck O'Neil.

"I know them very well.… I sit back now sometimes, and I think about, 'Wow, look at who you are. Look where you've been. Look at the people you've met.' The presidents. Eating at the White House. These are the things that baseball has done for me."

But her mood darkens when she talks about baseball in the District today.

As she's watched the sport lose popularity in her neighborhood, that decline has been reflected in the major leagues as well. Where African-Americans once made up 27 percent of all MLB players, this season that number stands at 8 percent—and falling. "We're working in a population where baseball hasn't been a popular sport for some time," said Tal Alter, who directs the Washington Nationals' new youth facility in Southeast D.C.

But while the Nationals have poured millions into the Southeast fields, Johnson wishes D.C. would show that kind of commitment to baseball in the rest of the city. It's not just important for kids to have the same opportunities she had, but for the city's history with baseball to be preserved.

She cited baseball's role in moving the country forward on civil rights—overcoming long-standing prejudices, as black players showed they could compete. "Baseball moved a whole lot of things, believe me," she said. "Baseball moved segregation a great deal. We've come a long ways, baby, but we've got a long ways to go."

To her, the field at 17th and F—where her story began—is a big part of that legacy. "I have a field that I came from," she said.

Johnson says she'll still find a way to coach local youth teams this summer, as she has for decades. But she wishes she could do so in the neighborhood where she's lived for nearly 70 years. "I could find the kids to come out here," she said. "If I had a place for them to come, I'd have kids on this field."

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