Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Josh Gibson, two baseball legends with D.C. ties, are featured on a new mural unveiled Thursday in the alley between Ben’s Chili Bowl and Lincoln Theatre. The colorful display, which was dedicated before a small crowd that included Little League World Series legend Mo’ne Davis and Gibson’s great grandson, Sean Gibson, was painted by D.C. artist Aniekan Udofia for Major League Baseball’s all-star week festivities.
Johnson, who died in December at age 82 and has a field dedicated to her at Rosedale Recreation Center in Northeast, was the first female pitcher in the Negro Leagues. Gibson was the greatest power hitter in Negro League history and spent most of his career with the Homestead Grays, who played home games at D.C.’s Griffith Stadium. The Hall of Famer is inducted in the Nationals’ Ring of Honor and is celebrated with a statue outside of Nationals Park.
As a 17-year-old in 1953, Johnson was living in D.C. and playing for the semipro Alexandria All-Stars when she and a fellow African American friend, Rita Clark, attended a tryout for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
“But when we got there, they looked at us as if we were crazy, as if to say, ‘What do you want?'” Johnson, whose nickname derived from her 5-foot-3 frame, recalled in 1998. “I never really knew what prejudice was until then.”
Later that year, a scout watched Johnson dominate a lineup of men while pitching for a team sponsored by St. Cyprian’s Catholic Church in D.C. and invited her to try out for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns. Johnson made the team and compiled a 33-8 record over her three-year career before leaving baseball and returning to Washington to care for her young son.
Johnson was an inspiration to Davis, the female pitcher who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated while leading her Philadelphia-based baseball team to the Little League World Series in 2014. Davis’s longtime coach, Steve Bandura, encouraged her to read a book about Johnson in 2012. When she takes the mound, the 17-year-old Davis said Thursday, she always remembers the best advice Johnson gave her: never throw the ball over the heart of the plate.
“I got to spend some time with her,” said Davis, whose Anderson Monarchs youth league team is participating in this weekend’s inaugural Commissioner’s Cup baseball tournament in D.C. “My mom would talk to her son, and they would always check up on me and see how I was doing. She saw me pitch when I was 11, she came up to Williamsport when I was playing in the Little League World Series, and she came up to Cooperstown when my jersey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Sean Gibson, who runs the Pittsburgh-based Josh Gibson Foundation, expressed hope that Udofia’s latest mural, which is located directly across the alley from his mural featuring the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince and Muhammad Ali on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl, inspires others to learn about Johnson, Gibson and the Negro Leagues.
“One thing I always teach is we have to keep our history alive,” Gibson said before the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Thursday’s event, which was conceived and orchestrated by MLB to kick off the festivities leading up to Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Nationals Park. “That’s what Ben’s Chili Bowl is doing. They’re keeping our history alive for these young people right here to understand the importance of the Negro Leagues. Not just about the baseball aspect, but the social aspect and the civil rights movement as well.”
“The artist did a great job, and I just think it’s one of the coolest things ever,” Davis said.
Davis, a two-sport standout who hopes to play basketball in college after she graduates high school next year, was wearing a boot on her right foot and said she’ll be unable to put Johnson’s pitching advice to use this weekend.
“I’ll be the biggest cheerleader on the team, rooting for my teammates,” she said. “I know they’ll do well.”
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