The Negro Leagues' only female pitcher
By: Sarah Langs | @SlangsOnSports
When you think about players who pioneered the concept of a two-way player, Babe Ruth probably comes to mind. But another name that should be equally prominent, for many barrier-breaking reasons, is Mamie Johnson. Johnson was the first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues, and was a two-way player, too.
Her career came at the tail end of the Negro Leagues’ existence, beginning after the Negro National League had already disbanded. She pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953-55. She had initially attempted to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but was barred due to race.
We’ll never know what Johnson could have done playing in the Majors, or with more time playing professionally elsewhere, but her legend lives on through stories, photos, stats and accolades.
Here are some key points to know about Johnson.
- Her nickname was ‘Peanut’ due to her small size – just five feet and three inches tall during her playing days. According to legend, Hank Bayliss, an opposing Negro Leagues hitter, once asked her how she expected to strike anyone out given that she was no bigger than a peanut.
“I struck him out, and the name stuck,” Johnson said of the moment in 2015.
- Johnson was one of just three women to play in the Negro Leagues, but she was the only one who pitched. She’s believed to have compiled a 33-8 record on the mound in her three seasons pitching for the Clowns.
As noted above, though, she hit, too – the reports vary, but all place her within the range of .260 to .285 for her career batting average.
- Johnson’s path to professional baseball went through the sandlot. While playing on sandlots, Bish Tyson, a former Negro Leagues player, saw her play and suggested that she had the talent to go pro. That led to a tryout with Clowns manager Bunny Downs, and she joined the team a day later.
Later in life, she credited the rejection from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League as a positive, and something that helped turn her into a barrier-breaker.
- As for her pitch selection, Johnson had a number of pitches according to legend. She learned her curveball from none other than Satchel Paige.
“Tell you the truth, I didn’t know of his greatness that much. He was just another ballplayer to me at that particular time. Later on, I found out exactly who he was,” Johnson once told a South Carolina newspaper.
- In 2010, a Japanese woman named Eri Yoshida joined the ranks of women to have pitched in professional baseball, appearing for an independent league team in California. Johnson made it clear at the time where she saw herself in the history and fabric of women in professional baseball.
“I was already the only woman to be a major league pitcher,” she said at the time. “No one else was white, black, blue or green. No one. And I have.”
- Johnson’s story was intertwined with that of Mo’ne Davis as Davis made headlines at the 2014 Little League World Series.
The two first met in 2012. “Well at the time I just thought it was cool that she was a pitcher,” Davis said of that first meeting. “And then basically she was one of the only females and that I was a girl and that I was a pitcher. I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
The two crossed paths a number of times – with Johnson going to Williamsport in 2014 and getting the chance to see Davis pitch in person at the LLWS. The following year, Davis’ team made a cross-country trip to play games and played another game with Johnson in attendance.
"I would always remember everything she told me, [like] ‘Never throw it over the heart of the plate,’” Davis said of Johnson at the unveiling of a Negro Leagues mural that included a tribute to Johnson in the D.C. area in 2018, surrounding All-Star festivities. “So every time I pitch, that’s what I think about. She inspired me, and she’s one of the greats that I’ve modeled my pitching after.”
- Johnson stopped playing after the 1955 season, becoming a nurse, the occupation that she’d have for the rest of her working career. Living in Washington, D.C., she rooted for the Nationals later in life and was drafted to the club in a 2008 draft, where living Negro Leagues players were drafted to current Major League teams.
Johnson died in December 2017 after a lengthy illness.