December 21, 2017 at 5:28 PM
In the 1950s, several years after Jackie Robinson became the first black player to take the field in a major league game in the 20th century, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson made baseball history of her own.
She may have been slight, at 5-foot-4 and less than 120 pounds, but she had a strong right arm and a competitive spirit that took her from the sandlots of Washington into professional baseball, with the Indianapolis Clowns of the old Negro leagues.
Ms. Johnson stood out in a world of hardened men, grueling travel and low pay as one of three women to play in the Negro leagues and the only one who was a pitcher.
Her achievements have been honored at the White House, at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., in a play and a book, and at a neighborhood ballpark near her home in Northeast Washington.
She died Dec. 18 at a Washington hospital at 82. The cause was a heart ailment, said a stepdaughter, Yvonne Livingston.
Ms. Johnson's brief professional baseball career ended before her 20th birthday, but in that time she amassed a lifetime of colorful tales about a bygone era of baseball born of segregation.
"Those were some of the most enjoyable years of my life," she told the Associated Press in 1998. "Striking out the fellows made me happy."
She began playing the game in her native South Carolina, making baseballs out of rocks, twine and tape.
"I threw anything that had to be thrown," she told the New York Post in 2001. "I was knocking birds off the fence with rocks, honey."
She played alongside boys, preferring the faster, rougher game of baseball to softball, typically played by girls. While living in New Jersey, Ms. Johnson recalled, she was the only girl and only African American on her team. Later, after settling in the District, she played on otherwise all-male church and semipro teams.
She was 17 when she and another young woman went to a tryout in Alexandria, Va., for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was portrayed in the 1992 film "A League of Their Own." Although major league baseball was integrated by then, the women's league was all white.
"They looked at us like we were crazy," Ms. Johnson recalled in 1998. "They wouldn't even let us try out, and that's the same discrimination that some of the other black ballplayers had before Mr. Robinson broke the barrier."
A different opportunity arrived in 1953, after a scout saw Ms. Johnson dominate a lineup of men while playing for a team sponsored by St. Cyprian's Catholic Church in Washington. She was invited to try out for the Indianapolis Clowns, the Negro-leagues team that launched the career of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.
As African American players began to fill big-league rosters, teams in the Negro leagues struggled with attendance and quality of play. Before Ms. Johnson joined the Clowns, the team already had the first woman in professional baseball, infielder Toni Stone. A third woman, Connie Morgan, later joined them.
"Mamie could pitch, and Toni could hit," onetime teammate Gordon Hopkins told The Washington Post in 1999. "It was no joke. It was no show. Somebody hit the ball down to Toni, Toni threw you out. Mamie, she was good."
Ms. Johnson's nickname came from an opposing player's derisive comment that, when she stood on the mound, she looked no bigger than a peanut. Ms. Johnson struck him out, she recalled.
"I worked just as hard as the fellas," she told The Post. "I pitched nine innings just like everybody else. Some fellas acted ugly, but when they found out I was a ballplayer instead of some gimmick, they accepted us."
Records from the Negro leagues are incomplete, and it is impossible to verify Ms. Johnson's statistics with the Clowns. She claimed to have won 33 games and lost eight from 1953 to 1955, when she returned to Washington to care for her young son.
Her earlier rejection by the women's league, she said, was a blessing in disguise.
"If I would have played with the women," she told the Kansas City Star in 2010, "I would have missed out on the opportunity that I received, and I would have just been another player."
Mamie Lee Belton was born Sept. 27, 1935, in Ridgeway, S.C. She grew up with her grandparents after her mother moved to Washington to find work. She later lived with relatives in Long Branch, N.J., before settling in Washington in the late 1940s.
After her baseball career, Ms. Johnson studied nursing at North Carolina A&T; State University and worked at Sibley Memorial Hospital for 30 years. She later operated a Negro-leagues memorabilia shop in Capitol Heights, Md.
Her first marriage, to Charles Johnson, ended in divorce. Their son, Charles Johnson Jr., died in 2016. She was later married to Edwardo Goodman.
Survivors include her husband of 12 years, Emanuel Livingston of Washington; six stepchildren; several siblings; 19 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A baseball field at the Rosedale Recreation Center in Northeast Washington was named in Ms. Johnson's honor in 2013. A year earlier, she met Mo'ne Davis, a Philadelphia girl who pitched her team to the Little League World Series in 2014.
"She reminds me of me," Ms. Johnson said. "I wasn't no baby doll. No girlie girl. Baseball was all I knew. And I loved it."
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