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Johnson, Mamie "Peanut" (9/27/1935 - 12/18/2017)

By Daniel E. Slotnik

Mamie "Peanut" JohnsonMamie "Peanut" Johnson, one of a handful of women to play in baseball’s Negro leagues in the early 1950s — and the only one known to pitch — died on Monday in a Washington hospital. She was 82.

She had been admitted to the hospital because of problems with her pacemaker, her stepdaughter Yvonne Livingston said. Johnson lived in Washington.

The Negro leagues were waning when Johnson joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. Jackie Robinson had integrated the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and the most talented black players were being recruited by major league teams.

But Negro league teams still cultivated talented players. (Hank Aaron played for the Clowns some years before Johnson joined the team.) And the Clowns were open to signing women: Two others, Toni Stone and Connie Morgan, also played for the team in the early 1950s, both as infielders.

Johnson, who stood about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed about 120 pounds during her playing days — hence the nickname Peanut — was initially signed largely as a novelty. Besides serious baseball, the Clowns and other teams in the Negro leagues also staged comedy routines and barnstormed playing exhibition games to supplement what they earned from competitive play.

But Johnson could pitch. She said she had acquired her nickname while playing for the Clowns when an opposing player derided her as looking like a peanut on the mound. She then struck him out.

She soon found a regular spot in the Clowns’ rotation. A deceptively hard-throwing right-hander, she threw a fastball, slider, circle change, screwball and curveball, for which she received pointers from the Negro leagues great Satchel Paige, she told The New York Times in 2010.

Statistics from the Negro leagues in those years are spotty at best, but her record with the Clowns was said to be an impressive 33-8 during her three years on the team.

Johnson may have owed her chance to excel in a man’s league in part to racism. In the late 1940s, before she was recruited to play for the Clowns, she wanted to try out for a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which inspired the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” but she was not allowed to.

“I’m so glad to this day that they turned me down,” Johnson told The Times. “To know that I was good enough to be with these gentlemen made me the proudest lady in the world. Now I can say that I’ve done something that no other woman has ever done.”

She was born on Sept. 27, 1935, in Ridgeway, S.C. Her mother, Della Belton Havelow, a dietitian, and her father, Gentry Harrison, separated when she was young. An uncle, Leo Belton, who was near her age and more like a brother, taught her how to play baseball starting when she was about 6.

“There was nothing else to do,” Johnson said in a video interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project. “We didn’t have basketball, we didn’t have football, we didn’t have tennis. We didn’t have that; all we knew was baseball.”

She grew up playing with the boys, using balls made out of rocks wrapped in twine, and honed her accuracy by throwing at birds perched on fences. She later moved to New Jersey, where she played on a boys’ Police Athletic League team, and then to Washington, where she played on semiprofessional men’s sandlot teams before she joined the Clowns.

She married Charles Johnson and had a son, Charles, shortly before she started playing with the Clowns. She last played for the team in 1955, leaving to become a nurse and to spend more time caring for her son. She also coached youth league baseball teams and worked in a store that sold Negro leagues merchandise.

After the end of her first marriage she married Emanuel Livingston, who survives her. In addition to him and her stepdaughter Yvonne Livingston, her survivors include four other stepdaughters, Gretchen Hall, Zonia Haskins and Theresa and Angela Livingston; one stepson, Emanuel; her uncle, Leo; several siblings; two grandsons; and many step-grandchildren. Her son died in 2016.

Johnson may not have participated in the league that inspired “A League of Their Own,” but she did inspire a league of her own. The Mamie “Peanut” Johnson Little League was formed in 2015 in Washington, for both boys and girls.

Contributed by: Carol Sheldon
Submitted on: 12/28/2017
Copyright: New York Times 12/20/2017

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