A photo in the Nov. 17 Prince George's Extra of two boys speaking with Negro leagues player Mamie "Peanut" Johnson should have identified the boys as Cameron Sanders, left, and Brandon Sanders, both of Bowie. (Published 11/25/99)
They came from Cheverly, Crofton and Capitol Heights to the shop on U.S. 301 to meet seven unsung "living legends," who had themselves come from places such as Hyattsville, Landover and Silver Spring to bask belatedly in the limelight.
The stars were six men--and one woman, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, the last living of three women who played in the Negro leagues. Johnson compiled a 33-8 record as a pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953, 1954 and 1955.
At last they were getting their due, modestly cashing in on growing nostalgia for the segregated baseball leagues in which they excelled at a time when blacks were barred from the majors. Some of them played during the Negro leagues' closing years, when the majors were integrating but slowly.
Johnson, 64, a retired practical nurse who lives in Northeast Washington, has a nearly full-time job now as baseball icon and manager of the Negro leagues memorabilia and apparel shop, at 2100 N. Crain Hwy. (Route 301) in Mitchellville. She was billed as "host" of Saturday's event, but she was as much a player as the rest of them.
Besides Johnson, who had her own table with autographed baseballs, photographs in color and black and white, and "Peanut" Johnson cards, plain or encased, for sale, were six other baseball greats signing autographs and telling tales.
"I enjoy this so much," said Gordon "Hoppy" Hopkins, 64, who was second baseman for the Clowns from 1952 to 1954 and now lives in Hyattsville. "We were up in New York last weekend, on Long Island, signing autographs. We covered our expenses and had a little change left over. We had a good time and met a lot of nice people."
The feeling of the fans is mutual. "It's a true pleasure," said Kathy Blagburn, 34, of Upper Marlboro, who was there with fellow fan Dian Sujono, 31, and a Negro leagues T-shirt on which she has collected 27 signatures. "I'm going to frame it, with glass on both sides, one day," she said.
Seated with Hopkins were Jim "Fire Ball" Cohen, 81, who pitched for the Clowns from 1946 to 1952; Cuban-born Pedro Sierra, 60, with the Clowns and the Detroit Stars in the 1950s; Al Burrows, 67, with the Clowns from 1955 to 1962; Lacy Ellerbe, 80, with the Baltimore Elite Giants and the New York Black Yankees, from 1936 to 1956; and Thomas Revell, 52, who played for the Clowns in their final years in 1966 and 1967, and went on to coach baseball at Bowie State University.
These men who made $150 a month as players collected almost as much in a single afternoon of signing autographs and selling their player cards. They charged $5 for an autograph, $10 for an autographed card.
Snapshots, taken by many of the steady stream of fans, were free. So were the stories. The former players were full of them and eager to share.
"I could tell you something," Ellerbe confided. "If you heard it, stop me." He then related how Negro leagues players found, recruited and trained Jackie Robinson--whose sport wasn't originally baseball and who had just passed a civil service test for a post office job--to break the major leagues color barrier.
The black players, Ellerbe said, told Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, "If you got nerve enough, we'll find you a man." Ellerbe himself, it turns out, was a pathfinder in another arena, integrating the National Zoo police force in 1957.
The audience for such stories was mostly, but not all, male and African American. There were a few whites, including Ben Pauwels, 28, stationed at Bolling Air Force Base. He wasn't after autographs; he just wanted to chat with his heroes.
"It's sad a lot of people don't know the history," he said. "It's great when people get to meet these guys."
Porter Wynn, 52, of Mitchellville, had dragged son Julian, 15, along with him, though the younger Wynn is into basketball.
"My father always told me about the Negro leagues," said the elder Wynn. "The only way I can relive it is through collecting memorabilia and making sure the legacy lives on."
CAPTION: Negro leagues player Mamie "Peanut" Johnson signs a poster for Brandon Sanders.