Ralph Bowlding, Mamie Johnson's brother, reflects on his memories of her at a mural dedicated to Johnson on U Street.
Just outside of Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street there's a two-story mural of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson.
On a cool winter day in January, Ralph Bowlding stares up at the image of Johnson, which depicts her wearing a bright blue Indianapolis Clowns uniform and ball cap. Bowlding is wearing a Clowns hat, too.
Johnson is one of the city's Negro League legends.
On Thursday, the Negro Leagues will mark their 100th anniversary with a centennial celebration. Washington's connection to the Negro Leagues is profound. The Washington Homestead Grays were once a dominant force in the city, and before 2019, the Grays were the last professional baseball team from D.C. to win a World Series.
And while the leagues gave us notable baseball names like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, many people don't know that the Negro Leagues also allowed women to play. One of them was Johnson, a feisty right-hander who called the District home for most of her adult life.
'I Wasn't Sandlot Anymore'
Johnson lived in the city until her death in 2017 and in many ways her legacy is kept alive here. There's a Little League team named for her as well as a sports field at Rosedale Recreation Center in the Kingman Park neighborhood.
Growing up in South Carolina, all Johnson dreamed of was playing professional baseball. She spent most of her young life trying to accomplish that dream despite segregation and gender conformity. Johnson played sandlot baseball with boys. When she was old enough, she and a friend attempted to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but the two were turned away because of their race. Johnson called the rejection a blessing in disguise.
In 1953, at age 18, Johnson was scouted by an official with the Clowns, a Negro Leagues team.
"All I knew [was] that I was playing professionally. I wasn't sandlot anymore," Johnson said. "And then I began to learn about the Negro Leagues."
Johnson's nickname, "Peanut," came from an opponent who tried to intimidate her by saying she looked like a peanut on the mound. At just 5 foot, 3 inches tall, the name seemed to fit. In 2003, Johnson told NPR that her small stature was often taken for granted. "But after you prove yourself, as to what you came there for then you don't have any problem out of them. After you strike three or four of them out," she said.
Johnson was one of three women — along with Toni Stone and Connie Morgan — to play in this professional men's baseball league.
However, the women came along during the Negro Leagues' demise. The integration of organized baseball in 1947 was the beginning of the end. Major League Baseball owners had begun raiding the Negro Leagues of its best talent. Some Negro Leagues owners began scouting female talent in an effort to drum up business again. It worked for awhile, but the leagues folded for good in the early 1960s.
This life-size cutout of Mamie Johnson is the first thing people see as they exit the elevator on the second floor of the Owings Mills Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. The library is home to the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball.
Star Power On And Off The Field
Johnson quit the Negro Leagues in 1955 and moved to Washington D.C. She worked as a nurse, but baseball continued to play a major part in her life. She spent the rest of her life educating adults and children about her time as a ballplayer in the Negro Leagues.
In 2008, then Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and other MLB officials arranged a Negro Leagues Draft in which all the surviving Negro Leagues players — many of whom were in their 80s and 90s — were drafted to MLB teams.
The idea was that the selected individuals would represent all the African American ballplayers who, due to the color of their skin, never got the chance to play in the Majors.
Johnson was drafted to the Washington Nationals.
Those who knew Johnson said she had star power. If you ended up in her orbit, you stayed there. This was especially true for people she came across later in her life in D.C.
Johnson's mother, Della Havelow, was also a life-long resident of the District. Johnson never spoke of her father and he's almost never mentioned in any biographies, stories or interviews. Her New York Times obituary names her father as Gentry Harrison and says her parents split when Johnson was young. Some family members in D.C. say they were told a different story.
One of Johnson's favorite pastimes was signing baseballs and giving them to people she met. This one belongs to Ralph Bowlding.
Bowlding, standing outside of Ben's Chili Bowl with a Clowns baseball cap, says he's one of Johnson's long-lost brothers and that his father — Benjamin Bowlding — used to tell him and his siblings that they had an older sister who once played professional baseball.
In 2015, just two years before Johnson's death, Bowlding says he connected with her through a mutual acquaintance.
"She named my father and [said], 'Yeah, that's my dad. When can we meet?' And I rounded up the family and we went over to her house. And everybody came in and hugged her and met her and we became family," Bowlding says.
The only people who could've confirmed whether Johnson is, in fact, the daughter of Benjamin Bowlding have all passed on. But many say Johnson didn't need to be related by blood to consider you family.
Johnson had one biological son who, according to news reports, died in 2016. But there were several people who came into her life that she considered "adopted children." Michelle Y. Green, author of "A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie 'Peanut' Johnson" was one of them.
Green met Johnson just like many others did in the now-shuttered Negro Leagues Baseball shop in Maryland, where Johnson spent a lot her free time. Green spent several years with Johnson in the late 1990s and early 2000s doing research for her biographical children's book. The two became close during that time, and Green says in her book that Johnson always told people she was her daughter.
Courtesy of/Ralph Bowlding
Johnson and some of her family members.
Courtesy of/Ralph Bowlding
Green says she tried several times to get Johnson to read the manuscript before it was published, but Johnson refused to read the book.
"That scared the heck out of me," Green laughs. "She wouldn't read the manuscript until the book was in her hand. That's when she read it for the first time and cried. We both cried."
Smack dab in the middle of a narrow, one-way street just off Maryland Avenue Northeast sits a tiny, unassuming rowhouse. The neighborhood, near the H Street Corridor, is quickly transforming, and houses like this one are being scooped up, redeveloped and sold almost daily.
Johnson's mother bought this house decades ago. When her mother passed, Johnson lived in it with her second husband, Emanuel Livingston.
Terrance Flowers knows this house well. He also met Johnson in the Negro Leagues Baseball shop decades ago and was immediately drawn to her. Flowers was probably the closest person to Johnson. He says she called him her son. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the house on 14th Street NE, Flowers honors Johnson by wearing a T-shirt with her name and image on the front while sporting a Clowns baseball cap.
"This is home," Flowers says as he looks up at the window where Johnson used to sit and look out over the street. "I'd spend time [here] whenever I wanted to come. Sometimes I didn't call. I'd just show up and knock on the door. Look up there because that was her room."
Johnson only played three seasons in the Negro Leagues, but she spent the rest of her life basking in that memory — collecting as many keepsakes as she could. Flowers says the memorabilia covered nearly every square inch of her house. The house was sold in December 2019, and it's unclear where the memorabilia is now.
Terrance Flowers in front of the house on 14th Street NE. Once full of Negro Leagues memorabilia that Johnson collected throughout her life, the house was recently purchased by a development company and is currently being fixed up to sell.
WAMU made several attempts to contact Livingston about Johnson's memorabilia. Phone calls to a family member's home were never returned.
Flowers says he's saddened by the situation and, even though the house is no longer what it once was, it's still a special place.
"I know what was held inside those four walls. And you can never take that," he says. "It would be nice if there was something to say, OK, this was the house [that belonged to] one of the women who played in the Negro Leagues. But I can always have that. That's something I can always keep alive."
'She Was Just Always There'
Sharing her story and the history of the Negro Leagues with the children she met was an essential part of Johnson's life after baseball. One young Little Leaguer with a strong right arm just like Johnson's had a particularly memorable encounter with her in the summer of 2012.
"Well at the time I just thought it was cool that she was a pitcher," says Mo'Ne Davis, who stunned the world when she became the first young woman to pitch a shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series. "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."
Johnson was a fixture in Davis' life after that first meeting, and she even attended the ceremony when Davis' Little League jersey was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Davis — now a softball player at Hampton University — says she's thankful for that support and hopes to carry on Johnson's legacy.
"She was just always there," Davis said. "No matter where I turned, she was kind of there at something big that I was having. So, I always say thank you. It's one thing that I'll probably keep thinking about and later on in life try to do the same thing for another girl or even girls that are coming up."
Mo'Ne Davis stunned the world when she became the first young woman to win a Little League World Series and pitch a shutout. She met Johnson in 2012 and the two became very close.