You’ve probably never heard of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, but if we lived in a different world, you would have.
Mamie Johnson was a black female baseball player in the 1950s, the first female pitcher in the Negro Leagues. She played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953-1955, right after the team sent Hank Aaron to the MLB.
Johnson was one of three female players signed to the Clowns, but only after she went to try out for the All-American Girls League. Unfortunately for Johnson, even though the Majors had been integrated by Jackie Robinson more than half a decade before, the All-American Girls League had no black players. She wasn’t even allowed to try out. It’s ironic: the Majors broke the racial barrier, and the Negro Leagues broke the gender barrier, but the white women who weren’t allowed to play Major League baseball wouldn’t break the racial barrier in the league to which they were relegated. History will remember the Negro Leagues as the only inclusive, equal-opportunity league of the three, even though they only existed because of lack of opportunity.
But Johnson has said for decades that she’s glad the All-American Girls turned her away. She was proud to have been the first female pitcher in the Negro Leagues. Like Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani, she was a two-way player, a pitcher and solid hitter. She also played second base when she wasn’t pitching. In her three seasons, she posted a win-loss record of 33-8 and a .262 career batting average. For reference, last season, only five members of the Red Sox had higher batting averages than Mamie Johnson.
“I’m so glad to this day that they turned me down… To know that I was good enough to be with these gentlemen made me the proudest lady in the world.” – Mamie Johnson to the New York Times in 2010
At only 5″3, Johnson was particularly small. In her first game, Kansas City Monarch’s third baseman Hank Bayliss was the first batter she faced. He teased her for her size, saying she was “no bigger than a peanut.” She responded by striking him out, and she kept the nickname.
Peanut had a screwball, circle change, fastball, and slider in her repertoire. She said the legendary Satchel Paige helped her perfect her curveball. And her performance stands out because she played on a male team for sold-out crowds. Her race and gender, the two things that prevented her from getting where she could’ve gone, are the reasons she’s an icon today.
During the off-seasons, Johnson took classes at NYU. After retiring from baseball, she went to nursing school and worked as a nurse for thirty years. She later ran a Negro Leagues memorabilia shop, and coached youth baseball.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson has a baseball field named after her, but you’ve probably never heard of her. There’s a book written about her that you probably haven’t read. There’s a statue of her in a museum in Kansas City, Missouri, but you probably haven’t been there. And that’s a shame, because the world needs to know about women like Mamie Johnson and Jackie Mitchell. Little girls need to know that others fought to live their dreams, and they should fight for them, too.
Rest in peace, Peanut. Thank you.