SC native, baseball pioneer Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson dies

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson lived a baseball life.

The Ridgeway, S.C. native defied the odds and prejudice on her way to becoming a professional baseball player.

She emerged from the small town in Fairfield County and was one of three women to play in the Negro Leagues.

Although the then 17-year-old pitcher was rejected from trying out for a professional women’s baseball team because of her race, later in life she was honored for her achievements, and her story was immortalized in a book.

The final chapter has been written. The 82-year-old Johnson died, according to Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

“It’s a sad day for all of us,” Kendrick said Tuesday. “We lost a member of our family. She was truly a pioneer.”

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Mamie “Peanut” Johnson Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Born in 1935, Johnson had a passion for pitching since she was 7, when she chose playing baseball over helping with crops.

Though Johnson left South Carolina when she was 9, she used the skills she honed throwing to uncle Leo “Bones” Belton – and chucking rocks at crows perched on her grandparents’ fence – to become the only woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues.

“It’s what people do in the country,” Johnson told The State in 2010. “You use what you had.”

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson playing for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

After being shunned by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, an all-white league, Johnson played three seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues.

“They didn’t let us try out,” Johnson told npr.org in 2003. “They just looked at us like we were crazy as if to say, ‘What do you want?’ 

But Johnson said that rejection spurred her on to play in the Negro Leagues, a men’s baseball league.

“It’s representative of the inclusive nature of the Negro Leagues, that it created an opportunity for women to do things that they weren’t allowed to do in the rest of the country,” Kendrick said.

In 1953, Johnson was recruited to play with the Indianapolis Clowns, the team that Hank Aaron played for before joining Major League Baseball.

“Hank was banging the ball even then,” Johnson told The State in 1999, also mentioning the Negro Leagues most famous alum Jackie Robinson, who broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947. “I wasn’t around when Jackie Robinson went up, but the fellas were always real proud of him. And when Hank went up, we all rooted for him.”

Johnson played for the Clowns from 1953-55, and posted a 33-8 record in addition to a .270 batting average. That’s also where she picked up her nickname.

Johnson was mocked by Hank Bayliss, the Kansas City Monarchs’ third baseman. Bayliss taunted the 5-foot-3, 115-pound right-handed pitcher, saying she was “no bigger than a peanut.”

Johnson struck him out, and the name stuck.

During her playing career, Johnson said she met the legendary Satchel Paige, whom she says helped her perfect her curveball.

“Tell you the truth, I didn’t know of his greatness that much. He was just another ballplayer to me at that particular time,” Johnson said to The State. “Later on, I found out exactly who he was.”

In her interview with npr.org, Johnson added “I got to meet and be with some of the best baseball players that ever picked up a bat, so I’m very proud about that.”

During the offseasons, Johnson attended New York University and received a nursing degree from North Carolina A&T. When her playing days were over, she raised her son, Charles, and worked in nursing for 30 years.

Over the years, as historians have learned about her story, Johnson was hailed as a pioneer. Once rejected because of her race, now she was honored for her achievements.

Johnson appeared at the White House in 1999. She was a guest lecturer at a Library of Congress symposium in 2009.

Johnson is part of two exhibits at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. One dedicated to the Negro Leagues and another on women in baseball.

Johnson received a proclamation from then Columbia mayor Bob Coble in 1999.

In 2010, in Ridgeway, Johnson was presented with a key to the town where she was born and a street was named after her.

In 2008, Johnson and other living players from the Negro League Era were drafted by major league franchises. She was selected by the Washington Nationals, her hometown as an adult.

Her story was recounted in the 2002 book, “A Strong Right Arm,” by Michelle Y. Green.

The painting “Beauty of the Game,” by Veronica Sublett. It is of Mamie Johnson (left), Toni Stone (center) & Connie Morgan (right). Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Johnson was the last living woman to have played in the Negro Leagues. Her teammates in Indianapolis, Toni Stone and Connie Morgan, both died in 1996.

So with Johnson’s death, a connection to history is departing as well.

“We lost a voice with her passing, but her legacy plays on at the Negro Leagues Museum,” Kendrick said. “Her’s is a story of hope, a story of perseverance and an example of how to overcome adversity and achieve your dreams.”