Peanut Battle

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson broke barriers in Negro Leagues

March 12, 2013
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson featured in a 1954 Kansas City Monarchs vs Indianapolis Clowns program. (NBHOF Library)

In March, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates Women's History Month with a look at women who changed baseball history.

The game-changing moment in Mamie “Peanut” Johnson's life occurred one summer afternoon in 1953. A scout for the Indianapolis Clowns (of the Negro American League) saw the 19-year-old Johnson play. “He asked me afterwards if I wanted to play pro baseball,” Johnson recalls. "I said, ‘Yes, indeed!’” 

Born in rural South Carolina, Mamie Johnson had always dreamed of becoming a baseball player. As a child, she and her friends improvised bats out of tree limbs, bases out of pie plates, and balls from rocks wrapped in tape. When her family moved first to New Jersey and then to Washington, D.C., she sought out opportunities to play ball whenever she could. She strengthened her pitching arm and learned to outthink batters. She found out that it was easy to outsmart opponents who underestimated her. 

In the late 1940s, she wanted to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and assumed that because Jackie Robinson had broken barriers in the major leagues, the AAGPBL would welcome black players too. The AAGPBL refused to let her try out, but Johnson came away more determined than ever to play ball. 

By 1953, the Negro Leagues were in decline. The integration of Major League Baseball drew top talent and fans away from the black ball clubs, so team owners sought new talent and fresh ideas. Mamie Johnson, along with Connie Morgan and Toni Stone, were hired by the Indianapolis Clowns as a publicity stunt to draw fans. 

Though she may have been hired as a gimmick, Johnson quickly proved her talent on the field. Tiny, but tough, she was a force to be reckoned with on the mound. An opposing player found that out the hard way when he sniped, “How are you going to strike anyone out? You’re no bigger than a peanut!” Johnson struck him out, earning herself the nickname “Peanut” as a result.

During her three seasons with the Clowns (1953-1955), Johnson played with several Negro Leagues stars, including Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige. In fact, she credited Paige with helping her improve her curveball. Johnson ultimately finished her career with 33 wins and only 8 losses; one of the best pitching records in the Negro Leagues.

After baseball, Johnson went to college and began a 30-year nursing career. She always maintained a soft spot for baseball though, and coached youth teams for many years. Today, she still enjoys speaking to groups about the Negro Leagues, and her own unique place in history.

Celebrate Women's History Month with the Museum's Girls Got Game features. Subjects include Alta Weiss, Ila Borders, Mamie Johnson, Nicole McFadyen, Eliza Green, Kim Ng, Nancy Faust and Penny Marshall.

Emily Voss is the Manager of On-site Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum