Sometimes I think I know a lot about baseball history.
Sometimes I’m embarrassed by what I don’t know.
I was excited when I heard the Detroit Tigers would be honoring Negro League players by wearing Detroit Stars uniforms for a July 8, 1995 game. They were playing the Kansas City Royals, who would be wearing the Kansas City Monarchs road grays, modeled below by Wally Joyner. The team is playing a similar tribute game this weekend.
And I was even more excited that some of the Negro League stars would be on hand to sign autographs. Historic uniforms and free autographs – that’s all good. I have a lot of respect for these players. I never will be able to imagine how frustrating and hurtful it must have been to be prevented from playing in the Major Leagues because of their race.
Will and I arrived early and hopped on the line where Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, Lester Lockett and Dennis Biddle were signing; all were in good spirits and sharing stories about their playing days.
There was a woman sitting behind the table, too. Some people were asking for her autograph, which I thought was strange. I didn’t know if she was a player’s wife or an assistant. We made polite small talk while waiting my turn to pass a ball to the next player.
Signatures secured, we slipped down to the field to watch batting practice and snap some photos of the players in their Negro League uniforms. One of things I enjoyed most about old Tiger Stadium was that you could get right down near the field.
Before long, “Double Duty” was brought on to the field for some television interviews. He was 93 then, and celebrated his 103rd birthday in July and passed away Aug. 11.
Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe interviewed before the game. He passed away Aug. 11.
Before the game, the Tigers brought each of the Negro Leaguers out on the field, and I noticed the woman walked out with the rest.
The Tigers announcer introduced her as Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, one of three women to play in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s.
Will looked over and said “Oops!”
I was deeply embarrassed, exposed as both ignorant and sexist in one swoop.
Later I did the research. Johnson -- a right-handed pitcher -- and teammates Toni Stone and Connie Morgan played for the Indianapolis Clowns. Johnson posted a 33-8 record and credits Satchell Paige with helping her with her curve ball.
She was called "Peanut" after Monarchs third baseman Hank Bayliss came to bat against her and called out “You're nothing but a peanut!” Johnson struck him out and the name stuck.
Remember that scene in “A League of Their Own” when the black woman picks up and overthrown ball and whips it back on to the field? That’s homage to Johnson, who was turned away from a tryout when All American Girls Professional Baseball League would not allow black women to play in the all-white league.
Johnson taught me a lesson that day, and she’s still teaching, speaking about Negro League history around the country.
The other players I met that day also have interesting stories. Radcliffe got his nickname in the 1932 Negro League World Series, when he caught Satchel Paige in the first game of a doubleheader, then pitched a shutout in the second game.
Biddle, who pitched for the Chicago American Giants, tied Bob Feller’s record of winning five games as a 17-year-old in 1953, turned 18 and won 10 more. He injured his arm and was out of the game by 19. Today he is an executive with the Helmar Brewing Company.
Lockett played during the 1930s and 1940s with the Birmingham Black Barons, Philadelphia Stars, Cincinnati Clowns, Chicago American Giants and the Baltimore Elite Giants, hitting more than .400 twice.
I humbly apologize to Mrs. Johnson, and if I ever have the opportunity I’d be honored to have her sign my Negro leagues ball.
In Other Words...
Greg at the always interesting Faith and Fear in Flushing site has a great article about how he is finally thinking about Tom Glavine as a Met and not some former Brave parading in a Mets uniform, almost forgiving him for his Atlanta misdeeds. You can read it here.