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Five awesome baseball women who ought to be way more famous

May 11, 2013

peanut johnson

Happy Mother’s Day, when all of Major League Baseball turns a sickly shade of Pepto-Bismol pink and fans everywhere are made aware that women have breasts and breasts get cancer sometimes! Sorry, sorry—I get cynical about the ways baseball (and society) codes femininity and commodifies breast cancer, but this year, I’m going to set aside my cynicism (with some help from Shelby Miller and Adam Wainwright—thanks, guys!) and devote the day to honoring five of the many, many women, past and present, who deserve to be better known than they are, not just for their role in the game, but for their honesty and candor about what it meant, and means, to be a woman in a man’s sport.

1) Mamie “Peanut” Johnson: No big deal—all Peanut Johnson did was go 33-8 in three seasons as a pitcher in the Negro Leagues, where she found a home after the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League rejected her due to her race. She picked up her nickname during her very first start for the Indianapolis Clowns, when an opposing hitter teased her for her slight build by yelling “How do you think you’re going to strike anybody out? You’re as big as a peanut!” Johnson wasn’t bothered….especially after she struck him out. She left baseball to spend more time with her small son (and said later, interestingly, “I regretted being a mother….Not that I don’t love my son, but I had to make a choice to not play ball”), then spent 30 years working as a nurse. Last month, the Rosedale Recreation Center, which now occupies the spot where Johnson played as a child, named a field in her honor. She missed the opening of 42 to be at the dedication, of which she said, “What a beautiful thing.” [Bonus: Check out another famous Indianapolis Clown, Toni Stone, who was the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues.]

2) Jackie Mitchell: When Mitchell became the first woman to pitch in a professional baseball game, she did it with style. As a short-term member of the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, she took the mound in a spring training game against the vaunted New York Yankees in April 1931, and proceeded to strike out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession, before walking Tony Lazzeri and being pulled from the game. Was it all a publicity stunt? Maybe, but especially given Ruth’s well-publicized comments about the unsuitability of the female constitution for the game of baseball, it’s tough to imagine he’d have willingly accepted the K and the ego bruise. Sadly, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract and ended her chances at a big-league career, and she spent the next six years as an unhappy side show for a semi-pro team. Uninterested in being treated as a circus freak rather than a serious athlete, she left the baseball world behind and opted for office work instead. She died in 1987.

3) Effa Manley: I’ve written about her before, but Manley, the first woman elected to Cooperstown, was an entrepreneur and a visionary like few we’ve seen since. In her role as co-owner and manager of the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles from 1936 to 1948, Manley displayed an uncanny knack for weaving together shrewd marketing and important social-justice work. The Eagles were a top-flight team on the diamond and a model of fair and respectful labor practices, and Manley made sure they were a force for civil rights in the community, too: They spearheaded boycotts of local businesses that discriminated against blacks, and held an Anti-Lynching Day promotion. Manley died in 1981, and enjoyed reminiscing about her baseball days to the end. “People say, ‘Don’t live in the past,'” she once said. “But I guess it depends on how interesting your past is.”

4) Susan Slusser: You may have seen her name in the sports news the other day, as she was the writer who cornered Angel Hernandez after his latest blown call, the home-run-that-wasn’t in the Oakland-Cleveland game earlier this week. But did you know that Slusser, an 18-year veteran of the MLB beat and a 14-year San Francisco Chronicle reporter covering the Oakland A’s, became the first female president in the 105-year history of the Baseball Writers’ Association of American when she was elected almost unanimously to the post last October? Happily, she reports that she’s experienced precious few gender-related challenges in the field, though, she says, “I did have a pitching coach ask me my first day on the job if I knew anything about baseball, and I assured him that a major metropolitan newspaper seldom hires baseball writers who don’t actually follow baseball.” Just for fun and awwws, check out this brief interview by a very young male blogger, to whom Slusser cites Dallas Braden’s Mother’s-Day perfect game as the number-one highlight of her years covering the A’s.

5) Sue Falsone: Dodger fans have seen more of Falsone this year than they probably would have liked. She’s been the team’s head trainer since the start of the 2012 season, and the first woman ever to hold that post in the big leagues. Falsone credits her mother with giving her the strength to do a tough job, says her friends understand that she won’t be attending any of their June weddings for the foreseeable future, and can’t figure out why they aren’t more women in positions like hers, since there are so many studying and working in the field of physical therapy. Here’s a neat interview with her, in which she bemoans LA traffic, talks about how the team made her dress up like a cat for her new-kid hazing, and politely declines to throw any especially Dodgers under the bus.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t add an honorary number 6—not for Stan Musial, but for my own mother, who made sure that I knew from a very young age who Stan Musial was, what squeeze plays and double switches were, how to calculate ERA, and why Brock-for-Broglio was basically the best thing ever to happen in St. Louis. She took me to meet Bob Feller and Bob Forsch, tapped Matt Morris’s shoulder on an airplane to get me his autograph, and named her dog after the greatest Cardinal of them all. Happy Mother’s Day to her and to all the moms and mom-types who so effortlessly transcend the pink.


One Comment leave one →
  1. May 12, 2013 9:44 am

    Awesome post! Thanks for the history lesson!

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