Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, circa 1953.
Jamila Bey, NPR News
Johnson, during a recent visit to NPR, sports a jacket commemorating her role in the Negro Leagues.
She wasn't quite in a league of her own, but 50 years ago Mamie "Peanut" Johnson was among just a handful of women to play in the Negro Leagues of baseball. At 17, Johnson tried out for a spot on a professional women's team, but was rejected because of her race.
"They didn't let us try out," Johnson recalls, in a Morning Edition interview with NPR's Bob Edwards. "They just looked at us like we were crazy as if to say, 'What do you want?'"
But Johnson insists it's the best thing that could have happened to her career. The rejection led her to a spot in the men's Negro Leagues, which featured legends such as Satchel Paige, whom she says helped her perfect her curveball. "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."
In 1953, Johnson was recruited to play with the Indianapolis Clowns, where she became the league's first female pitcher. Her story is recounted in a new book, A Strong Right Arm by Michelle Y. Green.
Edwards asks Johnson how she got along with male ballplayers, who tend to be a "rowdy" bunch. Johnson replies with a laugh: "Well, I can get rowdy, too. That's no problem. I met some of the nicest gentlemen I could ever meet and I got the highest respect in the world from all of them."
But, she adds, "you've got your gentlemen, and then you've got your men." Some of the "men" don't know how to act, she says, "but after you prove yourself as to what you came there for, then you don't have any problem out of them, either. After you strike three or four of them out and, you know, it's alright."
She struck many of them out. In the year she played, her record was 33-8, but Johnson was quick to praise her teammates for helping her achieve it.
Playing major league baseball was a "beautiful" experience, she says. "When you learn to do something and do it well, you begin to enjoy it."