When Mamie "Peanut" Johnson first got into diamonds--baseball diamonds--many women wore dresses, veiled hats and fine-stitched gloves for such casual occasions as shopping, traveling and, yes, attending baseball games.
At the ballpark, ladies often dressed "like they were going to church--sharp," says Johnson, who admits she "did that bit, too." But when it came to gloves, she had an unusual preference.
"My favorite glove was that one right there," she says, pointing at a photo of herself at age 19 in a uniform for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League baseball team. "The one I got my hand in."
A 105-pound pitcher who learned her curveball from Hall-of-Famer Leroy "Satchel" Paige--"he just showed me how to grip the ball to keep from throwing my arm away, 'cause I was so little"--Johnson had her hand in pro baseball for three seasons, 1953-55. For two of them, Henry "Hank" Aaron was her teammate.
Sure, some frowned on this South Carolina-born tomboy's profession at a time when the kitchen was considered a real woman's field of dreams. "But it didn't make me no difference what nobody said," says Johnson, 63. All that mattered was that she was good.
Once Paige taught her that curveball, she says, "I was damn good."
As the playoff races heat up and Sosa and McGwire reprise their home run pas de deux, America is again following baseball. So is Johnson, whose mother encouraged her "to do everything I wanted." She did just that as one of only three women who played in the league, created when white baseball teams rejected "coloreds."
Johnson recalls how a white, Alexandria-based women's team refused even to let her try out "because my skin was a different color. I'm glad they turned me down," she says now with a shrug. "Otherwise, I would have been just another woman who played woman's baseball."
These days, her favorite player is Ken Griffey Jr., "a gentleman who reminds me of the old ballplayers," she says. Johnson "wouldn't dare to fix my mouth" to pick a favorite from her own playing days. "Cool Papa Bell was a good runner," she says. "Josh Gibson was a good hitter."
Even the peerless Paige, whom she remembers for "his big, long feet," was a good pitcher, according to Johnson, "but others were just as good. You had to be good, to stay in the league."
On this day, Johnson is at work, greeting visitors to the Negro Leagues Baseball Shop in Mitchellville, one of a pair of Prince George's County stores (the other is in Capitol Heights) specializing in hats, memorabilia and clothes honoring Negro leagues legends. The stores sell Johnson's own souvenir T-shirt and trading card, autographed, for $10.
Lighting a cigarette, Johnsons admits to having tried, and failed, to stop smoking. But, she adds, "I don't do nothing else bad."
What Johnson did good was play, posting pitching records of 11-3, 10-1 and 12-4 in her three seasons. She feels there are women talented enough to play for the majors today "if given the chance." Recalling what it was like to get that chance, playing before sellout crowds--"we would fill up Comiskey Park and Yankee Stadium when the white players couldn't"--she gets a faraway look.
"To me, it was a thing like, 'Wow, look at me! I'm out here pitching in front of 80,000 people. And I'm a girl.' "
Being a ball-playing girl in those "unenlightened" times wasn't so bad. Harassment by her male teammates? Nonexistent, says Johnson. Hanky-panky between male and female players? Please. "If you're out there doing what you're supposed to be doing, your teammates . . . give you the respect you're due."
Respect, Johnson says, is "the greatest thing in the world; it will take you farther than money." She got it in high school in Long Branch, N.J., where she played boys sports, including football, and at New York University, where she studied engineering before joining the Clowns. She got it after her retirement from baseball, too, in her nearly 30-year career as a licensed practical nurse.
Speaking of respect, among the Negro leagues' formidable batters, of whom was she most wary? "I wasn't scared to pitch to nobody; that was my job," counters Johnson. "If I was scared, I wasn't letting anybody know it."
Johnson, who recently guest-coached a women's semipro team, seems vastly at ease with herself and her "very good life." She has little to say about her marriage and divorce, other than that baseball had nothing to do with either. Her son, 46, is an engineer in Kansas; she has three grandchildren.
But she loves describing her most satisfying strikeout. "That would be Mr. Barnes--the one who gave me my nickname," she says. "I don't remember his first name, but he played for the Birmingham Black Barons. He said, 'How do you expect to strike anybody out and you're not as big as a peanut?' "
Her grin is wicked.
"And I struck him out."
CAPTION: Johnson, 63, now works in a Prince George's shop that sells Negro leagues' memorabilia.
CAPTION: Mamie "Peanut" Johnson's trading card from the Indianapolis Clowns.