Major League Baseball has convened a brain trust of corporate executives, university administrators and team owners to figure out how to get more African Americans to play baseball.
The District? It has Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.
In 1953, Johnson made history when she became the first female pitcher in an all-male professional baseball league. As a player with the Indianapolis Clowns during the final seasons of the Negro Leagues, she had her own uniform, a fan base, a trading card. But before all that, she was just a tiny teenage girl striking out grown men on a playground in Northeast Washington, which is where a retired pro first discovered her unusual talent.
Back then, as now, she had no doubts about her ability.
“I was a 10, honey,” she said. “I was pitching better than most of the men.”
But as for the number she’d use to measure interest in baseball now among young African Americans in the District? Try a big, fat zero.
This month, the field where Johnson played as a youth was named in her honor. But there’s no mound, no home plate, no dugout. Mamie “Peanut” Johnson Field at Rosedale Recreation Center is used for football. There’s just not the demand for baseball anymore.
Johnson remembers another time. When she was a child in South Carolina, neighborhood kids were so eager to play that they would make their own balls from stones and twine and use a pie dish as home plate. Johnson found the same passion for the game when she moved to the District when she was 10.
In the 1980s and through the mid-’90s, nearly one in every five major league players was African American, according to the Society of American Baseball Research.
But over the past couple of decades, football and basketball have climbed to stratospheric popularity among young
African Americans, while interest in baseball has plummeted. According to MLB’s 2013 diversity survey, 8 percent of pro players are African American. Similar trends have been noticed in Little Leagues all over the country, including in the District.
Just how, or why, African Americans lost their fervor for the sport has confounded those who believe that America’s pastime should be reflective of America at all levels of play. There are several theories, from baseball being too slow for a generation that grew up with basketball, to recruiters targeting Latin American players who grew up immersed in the game, to absent black fathers not being there to play catch with their sons.
In the District, which once boasted one of the best Negro League teams in the Washington Grays, there are only two African Americans — Ian Desmond and Denard Span — on the Nationals’ active roster.
The team has been working to broaden its fan base by developing more black players, said Lara Potter, the Nationals’ spokeswoman. Next school year, the team is planning a Youth Baseball Academy. And Nationals officials hope the movie “42,” about Jackie Robinson breaking the major league color line, will do for black kids and baseball what “The Hunger Games” has done for ’tween girls and archery.
The District’s parks department thinks it has another powerful lure: Peanut.
Johnson was in a similar position before. As the Negro Leagues struggled to find new players and attract crowds after the integration of major league baseball, historian Larry Lester said, the teams looked to break the gender line to attract fans.
“And for a while,” Lester said. “It worked.” At least three women played in the Negro Leagues.
In 1953, a former Negro Leagues player noticed Johnson, barely 100 pounds, her hair pinned up under her baseball cap, playing with St. Cyprian’s church squad team at the Rosedale Community Center. He invited her to try out for the big time.
Over the next three years, she traveled from Kansas to Alabama.
Her career lasted only three seasons. Back in the District, her son “was getting to that age when he started to notice while I was gone.” She quit baseball, took up nursing and began to take care of her son. Her dream was pushed aside.
“I regretted being a mother,’’ Johnson remembered. “Not that I don’t love my son, but I had to make a choice to not play ball. And I did what I had to do.”
The last Negro League dissolved in 1960. With it went the chance to ever reclaim the game she loved. She worked as a nurse but craved the life that baseball had afforded.
She ran a Negro Leagues memorabilia store in Capitol Heights but had to give it up a few years ago because of crime. She was planning on attending the opening of “42” in Kansas City, Mo., site of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — until she learned that the District was dedicating the field to her.
“What a beautiful thing,’’ she said.
Her knees are so bad nowadays that she uses a cane. She can’t wind up to throw a baseball, but her mind and her will remain as effective as her curveball was.
“Can I bring baseball back? Of course! Why wouldn’t I? Didn’t I say I could?” Johnson said, seemingly unable to fathom why a woman her age recruiting young baseball players might seem curious. Then again, the best part of her life was all about defiance.
As Johnson looked over her field, a girl in a navy blue school uniform approached her. The girl had heard the woman was the one whose name was on the football scoreboard.
“I always wondered who the person on that scoreboard was,” said Chamari Haggins, 10. “How’d you get it?”
“I got it because I was doing what I love to do, and that was playing baseball.”
“Baseball? With the boys?”
“Baseball can be for girls, too,’’ Johnson said.
Johnson then asked Chamari what sort of sport she was interested in.
She said she loved cheerleading.
“But now,” Chamari said, “maybe I’ll try baseball.”
Peanut nodded. After all these years, another successful pitch.
James Wagner contributed to this report.