Saturday, June 13, 2009

Swing time: Three women played professional baseball in Negro League

Deborah Voorhees

Mamie "Peanuts" Johnson just wants folks to know that three women played professional ball in the men's Negro Baseball League.

"We were there all right, " says Ms. Johnson. "Not too many people know about us now."
But in their day, they drew crowds for the Indianapolis Clowns. Their names and images were on posters tacked up in barber shops and grocery stores.

"Everyone was curious about the girls playing, " says Gordon "Hoppy" Hopkins, a former teammate who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. "They had never seen women play before and they wanted a firsthand look."

The first woman to break the "gender barrier" was 32-year-old Toni Stone, who played second base for the 1952-53 season. Her real name was Marcenia Lyle Alberga, but she thought that was too cute, so she changed it.

The next year, the Clowns recruited second baseman Connie Morgan. And pitcher Mamie Johnson, who will be at the African American Museum in Dallas Saturday as part of an event commemorating the Negro League. She is the only one of the three women still living.

"Some say it was done strictly as a gate attraction, " says Larry Lester, an independent Negro League researcher. "But these women could hold their own on the ball field. When there was a collision on second base, they were able to brush themselves off and go back to the dugout. They were athletes first."

Ms. Johnson's training started on her South Carolina farm, where their home had a fireplace in every room and a big wrap-around porch. By age 7, she and the neighborhood kids regularly put games together, and when no one could play, her Uncle Leo tossed balls to her.

"There was nothing else to do where I come from, " says Ms. Johnson, 63. "This wasn't the city. The houses were about a mile apart, but everyone knew by the end of school where we were going to meet to play ball after chores were done."

By age 11, pitching became her specialty - a skill that would eventually earn her a spot on a men's team, the Alexandria All-Stars, which played in the Washington, D.C., area. Her dream was to play for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was chronicled in the movie "A League of Their Own." But Ms. Johnson's attempts to try out were blocked. She heard the same story many black men had heard before Jackie Robinson broke the major leagues' color barrier in 1947: No blacks allowed.

All was not lost for "Peanuts, " a nickname she got for being so tiny: 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds. In 1953, the Clowns saw Ms. Johnson play at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., and asked her to come to a city park to try out. Her pitching landed her the job. "I was overjoyed because it gave me the opportunity to do just what I wanted, " she says.

Her specialty pitch was the curve ball. She learned it during a game with the Kansas City Monarchs. The great Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige came over to her. "I was so little, he said he'd teach me something to keep me from throwing my arm away." That curve became her "ace in the hole." She struck out a lot of players with that pitch. "If you struck out any of those men, you were good, " she says.

The man responsible for bringing the three women into the Negro League was McKinley "Bunny" Downs, a former player and the Clowns' business manager. "Bunny used to tell us, "The girls are the moneymakers here. I want you to treat them like ladies or you can be replaced. If anyone messes up, I'll walk you to the bus station and buy you a ticket home, ' " says Mr. Hopkins.

Ironically, the women's big drawing power improved the men's salaries, he says. "One time, Toni got hurt, " says Mr. Hopkins. "Her right arm was in a sling. But they had posters out saying she was playing. Bunny said she had to put on her uniform and play anyway." And she did. For most games, she'd come out for the first three or four innings, and then one of the other players would take over, says Mr. Hopkins. When asked why she didn't play the whole game, he just says, "You don't have to give folks a whole hog for them to know they're eating pork."

For the 1954 season, Ms. Stone was traded to the Monarchs, who paid her $400 a month plus a $200 bonus, and the Clowns recruited Ms. Johnson and Ms. Morgan.

The women took to the road - side by side with the men. For nine months, they played seven nights a week, sometimes two games a day. Ms. Johnson pitched every five or six days. The players usually slept on the bus, as they often had to drive all day and night to reach the next game. When they did stop for rest, Mr. Downs always made sure the women had separate accommodations, says Mr. Hopkins. "He took real good care of them."

"Quite often the women were underestimated, " says Layton Revel, director for the Center for Negro League Baseball Research in Dallas. "When Mamie was pitching, they'd think, "Oh, anyone could get a hit off this "girl." ' The next thing the batter knew, he was walking back to the dugout with his bat in his hand 'cause he just got struck out."

Ms. Johnson says she never heard a bad word from any of her fellow players. "Back then, men were gentlemen, " she says from her home in the U.S. capital. "Even if they didn't like you, they wouldn't say something bad."

Things were different for Ms. Stone, who clocked in at 11 seconds in the 100-yard dash. She set the tone for the other women. "I still remember a story Toni used to tell, " says Mr. Revel. "When she was signed, she was asked to wear shorts, but she wouldn't have anything to do with that. She told them she was a ballplayer and was going to play like everyone else."

At times, the guys gave her trouble in the dugouts, too. Mr. Lester quoted Ms. Stone saying to him in an interview: "They give me a fit when they started bench jockeying. They tell me to go home and fix my husband some biscuits, or anything. And they didn't spare me because of my sex. But I've heard so much cursing in my life and have been called so many bad names that now it doesn't upset me at all."

Ms. Stone was cut from a different cloth, says Mr. Lester. "She walked with the strut of a man, had unmanicured fingernails and had a rough appearance. Connie and Mamie could have been beauty contestants. But all three were excellent athletes."

When Ms. Stone signed her contract with the Indianapolis Clowns, she agreed to play for $350 a month.
Her biggest moment came one Easter Sunday during a game in Omaha, Neb. She stepped up to the plate with Satchel Paige on the pitcher's mound.

"That was the happiest moment of my life, " she told Mr. Lester. "I got the only hit we had against him that day."

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