Mamie "Peanut" Johnson: The Last Female Voice of the Negro Leagues. (Oral History)

Article excerpt

You want to know what it's like

Being colored?

Well,

It's like going to bat

With two strikes

Already called on you

Waring Cuney, quoted in Harold Seymour, Baseball: The People's Game

Jackie Robinson lived those lines ten years later, coming to bat with two metaphorical strikes--call them racial prejudice and the weight of tradition--against him. History has testified to his character and endurance in securing a place in Major League Baseball. Yet as Robinson and the black players who followed him into white baseball succeeded, black fans were abandoning the Negro Leagues, which had been a source of pride and a cultural rallying place in black communities. During their struggle to survive in the early 1950s, the Leagues resorted to many types of marketing strategies. Which is how, six years after Robinson's history-making appearance, a skinny second baseman broke the gender line in the Negro Leagues. In 1953, the Indianapolis Clowns signed second baseman Toni--that's Toni with an "i"--Stone for $12,000. (In 1947, Jackie Robinson's first contract in Brooklyn was $5,000, the minimum Major League salary). (1) And when the Kansas City Monarchs signed Stone away for the 1954 season, the Clowns signed two more women: Connie Morgan, who replaced Stone at second base, and a utility fielder/right-handed pitcher of Bobby Shantzian stature (five feet four inches, 120 pounds) named Mamie "Peanut" Johnson. Of this sorority of three, only Johnson survives.

I met Johnson during Labor Day weekend 1999 at a women's amateur baseball tournament in Bethesda, Maryland, where she had been invited to coach first base, and I followed up with a lengthier interview at the Negro Leagues Gift Shop in Mitchellville, Maryland, where she then worked. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues reports that Johnson played one year with the Clowns, compiling a 10-1 record. However, other sources give her a three-year career, with a record of 11-3 in 1953 and 12-4 in 1955. Eric Enders, of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, points out that the Negro Leagues records for these years are incomplete and that it's quite possible she did play three years. Johnson herself claims three years. At any rate, some fans view Mamie "Peanut" Johnson's career as an interesting footnote to the waning years of the Negro Leagues. Yet the stories of such players who fought for a place on the game's margins add richness and texture to baseball history and insights into the culture o f the times. To place Johnson's career in context, some background on black women's baseball is helpful.

BLACK WOMEN PLAYED, TOO

Nearly a hundred years ago, to aspire as a black female to play the national pastime was akin to trying to enter the game with three strikes against you -- if you could even find such a woman. "There are very few women, especially colored women, who even understand a game of baseball when they see it played, to say nothing of taking part in a game," reported a dispatch in 1908 from Louisville to the black newspaper the Freeman. (2) Thus women such as Mrs. Henry Newboy, who worked as the secretary for her husband's ball club, were a novelty: "Mrs. Newboy is an expert at the game and practices with the club," reported the Freeman with some wonder "[She] understands and can play baseball and enjoys the diamond dust."

Some forward thinkers in the black community wanted more Mrs. Newboys. As the Freeman editorialized in the same issue:

Our neighbors' wives and daughters (white) take interest in athletics, and why not those of our race? Athletics are not copyrighted; they are at the disposal of each and every one.... Push it along. Take up athletics, girls; take physical exercises; get interested in the games of the field, diamonds, and in other pastimes of the like. Enjoy life as it is; don't make it what it isn't or what it should not be.

The year 1908 also saw a black girls' team organized in Springfield, Ohio, with plans under way to play teams from other cities in Ohio and Indiana. …