Mamie Johnson, Trailblazer in the Negro Leagues, Dies at 82

She soon found a regular spot in the Clowns’ rotation. A deceptively hard-throwing right-hander, she threw a fastball, slider, circle change, screwball and curveball, for which she received pointers from the Negro leagues great Satchel Paige, she told The New York Times in 2010.

Statistics from the Negro leagues in those years are spotty at best, but her record with the Clowns was said to be an impressive 33-8 during her three years on the team.

Johnson may have owed her chance to excel in a man’s league in part to racism. In the late 1940s, before she was recruited to play for the Clowns, she wanted to try out for a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which inspired the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” but she was not allowed to.

“I’m so glad to this day that they turned me down,” Johnson told The Times. “To know that I was good enough to be with these gentlemen made me the proudest lady in the world. Now I can say that I’ve done something that no other woman has ever done.”

Photo

Johnson collected memorabilia, like this plate commemorating her years with the Indianapolis Clowns.

Credit
Eli Meir Kaplan for The New York Times

She was born on Sept. 27, 1935, in Ridgeway, S.C. Her mother, Della Belton Havelow, a dietitian, and her father, Gentry Harrison, separated when she was young. An uncle, Leo Belton, who was near her age and more like a brother, taught her how to play baseball starting when she was about 6.

“There was nothing else to do,” Johnson said in a video interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project. “We didn’t have basketball, we didn’t have football, we didn’t have tennis. We didn’t have that; all we knew was baseball.”