Fans Seek to Name D.C. Ballfield After Mamie 'Peanut' Johnson of Negro Leagues

Jerome Gray, right, is helping lead an effort to name the field at Rosedale Recreation Center after pioneering player Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, left.
Jerome Gray, right, is helping lead an effort to name the field at Rosedale Recreation Center after pioneering player Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, left. (By Joel Richardson For The Washington Post)
By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

The game-changing moment in Mamie "Peanut" Johnson's life occurred one summer afternoon in 1953.

Johnson was playing recreation league baseball at the District's Rosedale Recreation Center, its ballfield three blocks from the house where she lived with her mother. She did not know that former Negro leagues player Bisch Tyson was watching the game and that he was captivated by her powerful right-handed pitching.

"He asked me afterwards if I wanted to play pro baseball," Johnson said recently. "I said, 'Yes, indeed!' "

The next day, she was introduced to Bunny Downs, manager of the Indianapolis Clowns, who signed her to a contract after tryouts that afternoon. Forty-eight hours after being spotted on a field in Northeast near Capitol Hill, the 18-year-old was on a bus to Richmond for spring training.

Johnson, now 73, became one of only three women to play in professional Negro leagues baseball. She was also the leagues' first female pitcher. She played three seasons for the Clowns, winning 33 games and losing eight. Her success in professional competition was more than just a personal accomplishment.

"She showed that females can compete and win in an otherwise male-dominated profession," said Robert Clayton, 58, a lawyer and native Washingtonian.

Clayton is one of the men leading an effort to honor Johnson's achievement by naming the Rosedale Recreation Center's field after her. He described Johnson's story as "undertold" and said he thinks that calling attention to her at the field on which she was discovered can inspire today's youths.

"Mamie Johnson's story makes all things possible for young African American women who are aspiring to be respected in a male-dominated world," Clayton said.

Clayton is joined in his campaign by Jerome Gray, 61, who has been friends with Johnson since meeting her at an autograph-signing event 15 years ago. He said he hopes Johnson's story will stir kids into falling in love with a sport he "played from sunup to sundown" as a child.

"We used to play baseball at Rosedale and at ballfields where RFK Stadium is now," said Gray, who is retired after working for 26 years for the D.C. police. "Every alley had kids playing baseball back then. I walk through some now, and I can remember where home plate was."

Growing up, Gray did not know anything of Johnson or much at all about the Negro leagues. But now, Gray can recite details and dates from Johnson's life. And no matter how many times he has heard it, he is still eager for Johnson to tell a new acquaintance how she acquired the nickname "Peanut."

She said that during the first game she pitched for the Clowns, a batter from the opposing team teased her about her physique -- she weighed not quite 100 pounds.

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