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.
"He yelled, 'How do you think you're going to strike anybody out? You're as big as a peanut!' " Johnson said. "I just looked at him and went on to do what I was supposed to do.
"I struck him out."
The pitcher's mound at a professional league game was a world away from Johnson's baseball beginnings. Born in rural South Carolina in 1935, she said, she knew by age 7 that the sport was "my thing." She helped fashion handmade baseballs and bats; her family's pie plates and flowerpots often served as bases.
After several years living with her aunt in New Jersey, she moved to the District in 1947 to be with her mother. Their house was down the street from the Rosedale Recreation Center, which opened that year. Johnson, who worked for 30 years as a nurse at Sibley Memorial Hospital, still lives in the house with her mother, now 94.
"It's fabulous!" she exclaimed when asked about the possibility of her name hanging over the Rosedale field. "I hope if the good Lord lets me stay around, that my name will be on it and I will be able to move around on it."
Clayton and Gray are tying the name change to the renovation of the recreation center. The design process for the new 1,600-square-foot facility begins this summer. They hope that when the new Rosedale Recreation Center opens in two years, its field will bear the name of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson.
In the past year the two have met with the staffs of Vincent C. Gray (D), chairman of the D.C. Council, and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). In April they made a presentation to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area where the field is, and they have had discussions with members of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Traditionally, the District has been reluctant to name public spaces after individuals who are living. But the field at the Banneker Recreation Center was recently renamed after living major league player Maury Wills, who was born in the District. Clayton and Gray cite that as a precedent supporting their naming request. They have received favorable receptions from officials with whom they have spoken.
Johnson got a different response when she was 17 and went with a friend to tryouts for the all-white All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
"They totally ignored us. It was, 'What are you doing here?' " Johnson said.
But her skills were proven a year later when she was playing professional baseball with the guys.
"This is the way I am: If there is something I want to do, you can't do it better than me, because I am going to try harder to do it. Even now, I am old and can't do much, but if I set my mind to it, I am going to do it."