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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

No league of their own
Barred from all-white leagues, three women found a place to play
By Dan Silverman
MLB.com


According to James Riley's The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, Toni Stone batted a respectable .243 during her first season, which included a hit off legendary pitcher Satchel Paige.
There's a scene in the movie, A League of Their Own, about the birth of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II, when the ball gets away from the players on the field. It stops near an African-American woman, who was not participating in the action. She picks it up and whips it back in, the ball popping impressively into the mitt of one of the players.

The moment was a poignant reminder, during an otherwise uplifting story, that this unique opportunity was not available for African-Americans. Not that the league, which lasted from 1943-54, had any written rules against it.

"The people I've spoken to didn't blame the absence of black players on prejudice," said Bill Madden, author of The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Record Book. "More than one person I interviewed told me they just weren't up to speed. They said black women at the time weren't really involved in softball, which is where they got most of their players."

"We had a few blacks try out, but they just weren't as good," said Carl Winsch, manager of the league's South Bend Blue Sox from 1951-54. But after some consideration, he admitted, "If the league tried harder, shook the bushes more, as we used to say, we might've come up with someone."

That someone could've been Mamie "Peanut" Johnson. In fact, the black woman in the movie was intended to represent Johnson, who attended a league tryout in Alexandria, Virginia in the early 50s.

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"I showed up with a friend of mine, Rita Jones," said Johnson. "They looked at me like I was crazy. They never even let me try out."

Instead, Johnson would go on to play in the Negro Leagues -- with the men. She was actually one of three known women of the era to play in the League, along with Toni Stone and Connie Morgan.

Stone was the first of the three to make it. After barnstorming with minor league teams in the late 1940s, she was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 to replace a second baseman named Hank Aaron, who had left to play in the Major Leagues. As Aaron and some of the other black superstars trickled into the Majors, the Negro Leagues were forced to look for new gate attractions.

"Truly, the incentive was to get fans," said Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. "But it's not like they could get just anyone off the street. They found a real athlete in Toni Stone."

Negro League statistics were not as efficiently compiled as were those of the Major Leagues, but according to James Riley's The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, Stone batted a respectable .243 her first season, which included a hit off legendary pitcher Satchel Paige.

"[Paige] was so good that he'd ask batters where they wanted it, just so they'd have a chance," said Stone before she died in 1996. "So I get up there and he says, 'Hey, T, how do you like it?' And I said, 'It doesn't matter, just don't hurt me.' When he wound up -- he had these big old feet -- all you could see was his shoe. I stood there shaking, but I got a hit. Right out over second base. Happiest moment in my life."

Stone was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs after 50 games, and was replaced by another woman, 19-year-old Connie Morgan.

"Morgan was another great athlete," said Doswell. "She played several sports, including basketball, in the offseason."

But the ace of this trio had to be Johnson. While Stone and Morgan both played second base, Johnson, who joined the Clowns as a starting pitcher in 1953, was part of the regular rotation.

"I pitched every six days or so," said Johnson. "Sometimes I went nine innings, other times six or seven."

And how did she do?

"I struck out my share."

One victim, who played for the Birmingham Black Barons, was particularly memorable.

"He said I wasn't as big as a peanut, how'd I expect to strike anyone out," said Johnson. And how did he fare against her? "Oh I struck him out."

Though the nickname "Peanut" stuck, resentment toward Johnson did not. For the most part, the rest of the players wholeheartedly accepted her.

"The men I played with were complete gentlemen," emphasized Johnson.

Says Doswell, who has witnessed firsthand how Johnson is received during Negro League reunions, "Mamie Johnson is just like one of the guys."

That fact was quite evident last year in Queens, New York, during a Negro League Conference at LaGuardia Community College. Johnson took her place at the dais with other former Negro League players: Bob Scott, Jim Robinson and Lionel Evelyn. She fit right in, reminiscing with the fellas about playing ball as a kid, talking about her favorite baseball memories, bemoaning the modern player's lack of a sense of history.

But among the audience, Johnson clearly stood out. Few people were familiar with former Negro Leaguers beyond a handful of superstars. Even fewer were aware that women played -- and held their own -- alongside some of these legends of the game. But there sat Peanut Johnson, a living testament to a fascinating piece of baseball history.

A typical "Peanut" moment came when Bruce Brooks, the moderator of the event and a professor at LaGuardia (as well as a professional baseball fan) asked about a well-known story that claims Satchel Paige taught Johnson how to throw a curveball. Johnson, however, showed mock indignation at the suggestion that she needed such advice. "He didn't teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it," corrected Johnson. "I knew how to throw it."

And throw it she did. During three seasons, some records show Johnson with an overall 33-8 mark.

While she has nothing but positive memories about her playing days -- "Have you ever won a million dollars?" she responded to a question about how she looks back on her time in the Negro Leagues -- Johnson does have some strong opinions about today's players.

"I don't think they realize, or understand, that if it weren't for these gentlemen," said Johnson, referring to her fellow panel members, "for Mr. Robinson, for Mr. Banks, Mr. Aaron, Mr. Mays, then they wouldn't be where they are today."

Johnson left the Negro Leagues in 1955 -- "I had a young son, and it was time for me to come home" -- and pursued a career in nursing for more than 30 years. But she has never really left the game. She runs the Negro League Baseball Shop with her son, Gary, in Maryland.

Clearly, baseball has remained a part of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson's soul.

"Those were the three best years of my life," said Johnson. "Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me.

"If they didn't let me play, I wouldn't be who I am today, and I'm very proud of that."

Dan Silverman is a writer/producer for MLB.com.