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Negro Leagues pioneer 'Peanut' Johnson dies

Two-way player was one of three women to compete, only one to pitch
MLB.com @ladsonbill24

An opposing hitter once asked Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, who was all of 5-foot-3, how she expected to strike out anyone when she was no bigger than a peanut.

"I struck him out, and the name stuck," Johnson said in 2015.

An opposing hitter once asked Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, who was all of 5-foot-3, how she expected to strike out anyone when she was no bigger than a peanut.

"I struck him out, and the name stuck," Johnson said in 2015.

Johnson, who passed away after a lengthy illness at the age of 82 on Tuesday, was one of three women to play in the Negro Leagues, and the only one to pitch. Toni Stone and Connie Morgan, both of whom died in 1996, were the other players. 

"She could play," said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "She had a strong right arm."

Video: Johnson talks Negro Leagues, her experiences

Johnson played for the Indianapolis Clowns and proved to be a successful two-way player. She was 33-8 as a pitcher in three years with the Clowns, and said she learned to be an accurate thrower "by knocking birds off the fence" as a kid. Johnson also compiled a .273 career batting average.

"I played sandlot ball for quite a while, and there was a gentleman who saw me play quite often," Johnson said. "He approached me and asked if I wanted to play pro baseball, and I told him, 'Yeah.'"

Johnson was born Sept. 27, 1935, in Ridgeway, S.C. Despite being denied an opportunity to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which did not allow black players, Johnson did not abandon her dream of playing pro baseball, and eventually caught the attention of the Negro Leagues.

According to the NLBM, it was Bish Tyson, a former Negro Leagues player, who discovered Johnson in the Washington, D.C., area and told her she had the talent to play pro baseball. Enter Clowns manager Bunny Downs, who was so impressed with Johnson after one tryout that he added her to the team the following day. She debuted with the Clowns in 1953 at the age of 17 and recalls feeling supported and respected by her teammates.

"I learned a great deal from some of the nicest gentlemen [who ever] picked up a ball," said Johnson. "It was a wonderful thing. They were gentlemen. I was pleased to be treated like a lady at all times. I can say I had 26 brothers, and they were so nice."

Johnson's career on the diamond was not forgotten after she left the game and embarked upon a 30-year career as a nurse. In June 2008, she was selected by the Washington Nationals as part of an MLB commemoration in which teams drafted living players from the Negro Leagues Era before that year's Draft.

"She was proud," Kendrick said about Johnson being picked by the Nationals. "I owe it to my good friends, Dave Winfield and Jimmie Lee Solomon [then executive vice president of baseball operations]. They orchestrated this great idea of creating a draft for players from the Negro Leagues. All who participated, including Mamie, were proud of the symbolism that they had an opportunity to be a Major Leaguer for a day."

In November 2016, a bronze bust was made of Johnson for display at the NLBM. It will become part of a larger exhibit, titled Beauty of the Game, which will celebrate the women of the Negro Leagues. The exhibit is expected to open in late January or early February. Busts of Stone and Morgan also are on display.

The NLBM, located in Kansas City, hosted Johnson for the unveiling of the busts.

"It warmed my heart that we were able to get Mamie to Kansas City one last time, so she could get the adulation that she so richly deserves and she could speak on behalf of her sisters, Toni Stone and Connie Morgan," Kendrick said.

Bill Ladson has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2002 and does a podcast, Newsmakers. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats.