As you drive down Fort Place, SE, you are struck by a building with an architectural structure unlike all the others – the Anacostia Community Museum. The mission of the Anacostia Community Museum is “to challenge perceptions, broaden perspectives, generate new knowledge, and deepen understanding about the ever-changing concepts and realities of ‘community’”. The Museum offers a variety of programs and activities, including exhibitions, research, tours, lectures, performances, and demonstrations. The current exhibit “Jubilee: African American Celebration”, highlights three centuries of African American celebrations. Another exhibit on permanent display is “Separate and Unequaled”, a history of Washington DC’s African Americans in baseball featuring a focus on the Negro Baseball League.
The Negro Baseball League was born out of segregation and rejection of African American players. Since African Americans were largely not able to play the major and minor baseball leagues, they formed their own teams. The Negro Baseball League was formalized in 1920.
A little known fact is that the League had 3 female players, amongst them Mamie Johnson (formerly Belton). Ms. Johnson moved to Washington, DC as a teenage and grew up with a passion and talent for playing baseball. She began playing semi-pro ball for two local DC African American male teams in a recreational ‘sandlot’ baseball league. She realized fairly quickly that she could outsmart opponents on the field because they underestimated her because she was a woman.
Johnson practiced and played in a Rosedale neighborhood park in Northeast Washington, DC, where she was discovered in 1953 by a Negro League scout. By this time, the Negro League teams were in decline due to the integration of major league baseball which was drawing top talent and fans away from the black ball clubs. The Negro Leagues were looking for new talent and ways to revitalize the teams and garner greater game attendance. It was thought that Ms. Johnson might be one way to accomplish this. She subsequently played in the men’s Negro Major League for the Indianapolis Clowns.
At 120 pounds and 5-foot 4-inches, she gained the nickname “Peanuts”. She was the only female pitcher. During her career she won 33 games and lost only eight with a batting average of 270. She was one of the top pitchers in League’s history. Ms. Johnson played professional baseball for three seasons from 1953 to 1955.
Johnson retired from baseball at the end of the 1955 season to return to her husband and son, recognizing the Negro League was on the decline and concluding that her goal to make it into major league was slim. During her off season she had attended college. She graduated and became a licensed practical nurse.
During her 30-year nursing career, Johnson often coached youth league baseball teams. After she retired, she worked in a Negro League memorabilia shop that her son owned in Capitol Heights, MD. At the age of 77, she still lives in the row house in Northeast D.C. that she has lived in for decades.
The last Negro League teams folded in the early 1960s, but their legacy lives on through the surviving players, like Mamie Johnson. Go to the Anacostia Community Museum to learn more about the Negro Baseball League.