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

Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
May 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

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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