Playing Ball with the Fellas

Playing Ball with the Fellas

Mamie 'Peanut' Johnson, former pro baseball player, visits Hunt Valley.

Answering their many questions with an old-fashioned “honey” or “baby,” Mamie “Peanut” Johnson gave students at Hunt Valley elementary a look back into history last week, telling them stories about her days as one of three women who played baseball in the Negro League.

Johnson, now 72, played for three seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953 until the League disbanded in 1955. She was turned away from playing for the White Female Baseball League at just 17 years old, something she said turned out for the best.

“I’m glad I didn’t make the girls’ team,” Johnson said, smiling at the children. “It gave me an opportunity to play with the fellas. I got to do something that they couldn’t do then and can’t do now.”

Johnson, who began playing baseball at 5 or 6 with her uncle, whom she refers to as "Bones," faced some problems along the way.

During one game, Johnson was heckled by a player on an opposing team who said she’d never strike him out because “I was no bigger than a peanut,” Johnson said. When she struck him out, the crowd went wild, giving her her nickname.

As a little girl living with her grandmother in South Carolina, Johnson said she’d play baseball after school because she had nothing else to do. Once she realized she loved it, she wanted to play all the time, she told the students.

When one girl asked Johnson if she was ever tormented for playing ball with the boys, Johnson told her it did not matter.

“Baby, when you want to do something, regardless of how much you’re tormented, you continue to do what you want,” Johnson said. “Eventually, you get it done.”

Looking to Jackie Robinson as both a hero and a role model, Johnson said he was her favorite player, regardless of the team on which he played.

While playing, however, she wasn’t always a nice girl. When a student asked if she ever spiked a player, meaning did she ever slide into home plate and hit the catcher with the spikes on the bottom of her shoes, she smiled.

“I might’ve done that a time or two,” she said.

She also admitted to hitting a player with a pitch if he was too close to the plate.

“I was mean,” Johnson laughed.

WITH AN OVERALL record of 33 wins and eight losses, Johnson retired from baseball when the League dissolved in 1955. She was a member of the championship team in 1954, the year she met Jackie Robinson and was a member of the All Pro team during its first game in Richmond.

These days, Johnson is a manager of the Negro Baseball League Memorabilia Shop in Prince George’s County, Md., where she began work after retiring from 30 years as a nurse. She and her husband, Emanuel Livingston, live in Washington, D.C. and make several trips each year to schools to tell students her story.

“I am history,” she said as the second group of students began to fill the library. “I’m quite sure there were women before me who were just as good or better but they didn’t have the chance to play professional ball. This is something the children need to know about.”

During her presentations, Johnson said she urges the children to think about segregation and hatred, reminding them that they should try to “learn to play and live and enjoy each other.”

Bill Annette, a parent of a fifth grader at Hunt Valley, found Johnson in Maryland after reading a book written about her.

“My daughter Katie was very impressed with her,” he said. “Kids complain about reading books because it’s hard for them to relate to it," he said. "How often do they get to meet someone who’s had a book written about them?"

Johnson made quite an impression on the students as well.

“I like that she played baseball for five years,” said second grade student Austin Veal.

Johnson was “pretty cool,” said second grader Haley Hopkins. “I was surprised she played for a really long time. The most interesting thing was that she went to the championship game.”

Fifth graders Jae Jeong and Ethan McClellan enjoyed the presentation as well.

“She played every day after school,” Jae said. “I was surprised that she had an 87 mile-per-hour pitch.”

Ethan said he learned a lot from Johnson, including “if you want to live your dream, you’ve got to keep going with it.”

Hunt Valley librarian Anne Calabrese said she was thrilled to have the chance for Johnson to speak to the students.

“This teaches the students that you don’t have to give up your dreams, you can reach them with hard work,” Calabrese said. “For the girls especially, I think they needed to hear that they can go out and do anything. It’s good for the boys to hear that too.”