ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE   A-CD-GH-LM-RS-Z

Mamie "Peanut" Johnson
National Visionary

Born on September 27, 1935 in Ridgeway, South Carolina

Negro League era player with the Indianapolis Clowns, first woman pitcher in men's professional baseball









BIOGRAPHY
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson grew up with a passion and talent for playing baseball. But, as a black female, opportunities to play were limited. After being refused a try-out for the All-American Girls League, she turned that rejection into pure determination and became one of only three women to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, and the only female to pitch. Tiny, but tough, Mamie once struck out an opponent who said she looked like a "peanut" on the mound. After retiring from her athletic career, Mrs. Johnson became a nurse and coached youth baseball.


Mamie "Peanut" Johnson
as a young lady
Born Mamie Belton on September 27, 1935 in Ridgeway, South Carolina, she is the daughter of Della Belton Havelow and Gentry Harrison. Although her parents separated when she was very young, Belton kept in touch with her father and his children from another marriage.

Belton's early years were spent in Ridgeway, SC where she attended Thorntree School, a two-room schoolhouse. Belton lived with her maternal grandmother, Cendonia Belton, while her mother worked in Washington, DC. From about six years old, Belton loved to play baseball with her Uncle Leo "Bones" Belton. They were so close in age, she regarded him more as a brother than an uncle. They improvised bats out of tree limbs, bases out of pie plates and balls from rocks wrapped in tape. To strengthen her right arm, Belton threw rocks at crows sitting on the fence of her grandmother's farm. She developed a mean fastball.

Belton credits her grandmother with supporting her interest in playing ball and in giving her the confidence to always follow her heart. Around 1945, Cendonia Belton died from a stroke. Belton then moved to New Jersey where she lived with an aunt and uncle.

While in New Jersey, Belton began playing ball. She tried girls' softball at first, but quit in frustration. Belton was used to playing hardball with the boys and she knew she was good. She then tried out for an all-white boys' team, organized by the Long Branch Police Athletic Club (PAL). She became the only girl and only black on the team. Her indisputable talent overcame doubts as she helped carry Long Branch to two division championships. That experience helped Belton not only develop her strong right pitching arm, but also her capacity to outthink batters. She realized early on, it was especially easy to outsmart opponents who underestimated her.

In 1947, Belton moved to Washington, DC to live with her mother who had become a dietician at Freedman's Hospital (later Howard University Hospital.) About this time, Belton began playing semi-pro ball for two local black, male teams in a recreational 'sandlot' baseball league. Those teams were the Alexandria All-Stars and St. Cyprian's, which played on Banneker Field in Washington, DC near her mother's house.

After graduating from high school, Belton attempted to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She was not even allowed on the field. Belton left angered and more determined than ever to play ball. She continued to play Sunday games at St. Cyprian's.

Belton married Charles Johnson and had a son, Charlie. In 1953, she was working at an ice cream shop and playing baseball on the weekends. By this time, the Negro Leagues were in decline. The integration of major league baseball was drawing top talent and fans away from the black ball clubs, so they were looking for new talent and fresh ideas. A scout for the Indianapolis Clowns (of the National Negro Professional Baseball Leagues) , Bish Tyson, saw Johnson play and introduced her to club manager Buster Haywood. Haywood, in turn, introduced Johnson to their business manager, McKinley 'Bunny' Downs who arranged a tryout in DC. (The team had recently hired two other women players; Toni Stone and Connie Morgan.)

Johnson made the team and soon boarded a bus for spring training camp in Portsmouth, Virginia. Johnson has said stepping out on the pitcher's mound for her first game with the Clowns was a highlight of her life. She won that game, and the respect of her male teammates.

First season road games took the Clowns to Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Atlanta, Birmingham, Louisville, Kansas City, Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Often, Johnson's teammates slept on the bus while she and the other female athletes stayed with local families because hotels would not welcome them. Though Johnson 's primary motivation was simply to play ball, she also felt she was making a statement when her team played pickup games with white teams on the road. It was a way, she has said, to show their talent off to mixed raced crowds, including those who had never seen black baseball players before.

On the field, Johnson's greatest joy was striking out hitters. That was the case with Kansas City Monarchs third baseman Hank Bayliss, who taunted her by remarking that she looked like a peanut on the mound.

That first season, Johnson achieved her lifelong ambition, and though she was still hoping for a chance at the major leagues, she was also starting to think about a future beyond baseball. She began attending school outside of baseball season.

In April of 1954, and again in 1955, Johnson returned to play 150 games a season for the Clowns. One encounter with Satchell Paige, who had returned to his old team--the Kansas City Monarchs--after retiring from the majors, included advice that helped Johnson perfect her curve ball. Johnson learned well; in three seasons she won 33 games and lost only eight, with a batting average of 270. That made her one of the top pitchers in league history.

But playing baseball in the Negro Leagues did not always pay well. Johnson earned between $400 and $700 a month. Flagging ticket sales, dimming hopes of breaking into the majors, and the desire to raise her son, led Johnson to retire from baseball at the end of the 1955 season. She then graduated from college and became a licensed practical nurse.

During her 30-year nursing career, Johnson often coached youth league baseball teams. After she retired, she worked in a Negro League Baseball memorabilia shop that her son owned in Capitol Heights, MD.

Among the honors she has received, President and Mrs. Clinton honored Johnson at the White House as a female baseball legend. She also received the Mary McLeod Bethune Continuing the Legacy Award. In 2003, a book about Johnson 's life story, "A Strong Right Arm," was released. In 2005, a one woman theatrical show about her life, "Change Up," premiered at Brown University. Also in 2005, Johnson joined DC mayor Anthony Williams at the first game of the Washington Nationals.

Johnson remains close to her son Charles, to her mother Della, and to her Uncle "Bones" who lives in Connecticut.

VIDEO CLIPS


EXTERNAL LINKS
Mamie Johnson's Wikipedia Page

RELATED LINKS
Ernie Banks's Visionary Page (Major League Ballplayer)
John "Buck" O'Neil's Visionary Page (First African American coach in Major League Baseball)

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/johnsonmamie

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ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE   A-CD-GH-LM-RS-Z