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Remembering Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson, the First Woman to Take the Mound as a Major-League Pitcher

The Negro Leagues trailblazer has died at 82. Barred from trying out for a segregated female league, she made her mark playing alongside men

Mami Johnson photographed on February 14, 1998, at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Khue Bui)
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Mamie Johnson, one of three women to play in the Negro League, and the only woman to take the mound as pitcher, has died at the age of 82. The history-making ballplayer died on December 18 at a hospital in Washington. D.C. The cause of death was a “heart ailment,” Johnson’s stepdaughter, Yvonne Livingston, told Matt Schudel of the Washington Post.

Johnson, nicknamed “Peanut” for her tiny stature, was born in Ridgeway, South Carolina, in 1935. She started playing ball at an early age, improvising with makeshift baseballs fashioned from rocks, masking tape and twine. “I played with the fellows most of the time because the girls did what the boys did, because there was nothing else to do," Johnson told the Associated Press in a 1998 interview. "You got a chance to do just about anything you wanted to do, and pitching was my thing."

Johnson continued playing with the “fellows” when she settled in Washington, D.C., at the end of the 1940s, participating in church and semi-professional teams for men. When she turned 17, she decided to go to Alexandria, Virginia, in the hopes of securing a spot for herself on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. But though Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Johnson was turned away from the women's professional league, not allowed to even try out because of her skin color.

That didn't stop her from playing, and in 1953, she got her big break when a scout for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, heard about Johnson and offered her a tryout. She made an impression and was offered a spot on the team, joining infielder Toni Stone, the first woman to play baseball on a professional men’s team. A third woman, Constance "Connie" Morgan was recruited to the Clowns in 1954.

Johnson was dubbed “Peanut” because, as her Clowns teammate Gordon Hopkins once put it, "She maybe weighed 98 pounds wet.” But as Hopkins told the Washington Post in 1999 interview, small stature aside, Johnson could play some serious ball. “It was no joke. It was no show … Mamie, she was good,” Hopkins said.

Johnson only played with the Clowns for three seasons, between 1953 and 1955, according to Ashley Young of WUSA. During this time, she went 33-8 as a pitcher; she also held a .270 average as a batter, ESPN reports.

After she left baseball to care for her young son, Johnson began a three-decade career as a nurse, and then went on to run a Negro League memorabilia shop in Maryland. She received many accolades during her lifetime, including one from former President Bill Clinton and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who honoured Johnson as a female baseball legend in 1996. In 2008, Major League Baseball recognized former African American players who had been excluded from major leagues by ceremoniously drafting them to existing teams. Johnson was drafted by her local team: the Washington Nationals.

In an interview with Lisa Wade McCormick of the Kansas City Star in 2010, Johnson said she was proud of her legacy as one of the only women to play on the Indianapolis Clowns. 

Reflecting back on her rejection from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League all those years ago, she told McCormick that the moment shaped her in an important way. “I’m glad they didn’t let me play because I wouldn’t be who I am today if they did,” she said. “If I would have played with the women, I would have missed out on the opportunity that I received, and I would have just been another player. But now, I’ve done something that makes me stand out a little bit.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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