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Mamie Johnson Proves Bigger Than Moniker

Negro League Hero Feted at White House

Stacy M. Brown | 8/21/2013, noon
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a photo of former Negro League star Mamie Johnson on the ...
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson (Courtesy of the Baseball Hall of Fame)

“Back then, we would use a bucket as home plate and the balls were rocks that we wrapped in tape,” she said, adding that she and her friends also created bats out of sturdy tree limbs. Soon after her mother moved to the Nation’s Capital, Johnson joined her and began looking for an opportunity to play baseball.

“One of the things I knew I had going for me if I were ever going to be successful was that I could outsmart a batter,” Johnson said. After Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Johnson and a friend attempted to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which later was immortalized in the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own,” starring Madonna.

“They looked at us like we were crazy, as if to say, ‘What do you want here?’” Johnson said. “We stood there for a long time and we didn’t say anything and neither did they. So we left,” she said. However, six years after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Johnson was hired by the Clowns. Many thought it was a publicity stunt because the Negro Leagues were on the decline and many African Americans started to play in the majors.

Johnson said that talk didn’t bother her and neither did the rejection by the other league.

“The fact that the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League turned me down became such a blessing,” Johnson said. “It led me to the Negro Leagues and to know that I was good enough to be with these great gentlemen made me the proudest lady in the world.” It also gave Johnson the right to say that she did something in baseball that no other woman had achieved.

“I got a chance to play with people like Satchel Paige,” she said. Johnson eventually left baseball and went to college. She started a second career as a nurse and, after 30 years, she retired. Still, baseball has continued to embrace her.

Every major league baseball team symbolically drafted a surviving member of the Negro Leagues on June 5, 2008. The hometown Washington Nationals drafted Johnson, making her an honorary member of the team.

“They told me I was now part of the Nationals’ family,” Johnson said. “I’m still thrilled, although I don’t get to the park as often as I’d like.” Going into the 2013 season, Johnson said she planned to attend some Nats games because she was optimistic about their chances of winning a championship. Today, Johnson remains busy making the rounds as a motivational speaker, advising young people not to give up on their dreams.

“If there’s anything you want to do, do it, especially the young ladies. You can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it and work hard,” she said. “I played when they said I couldn’t. No, it wasn’t the major leagues, but it was the black major leagues and I can say, ‘I made it.’”