More than the site of a world-famous automobile race, Indianapolis is a Midwestern bedrock of popular culture. Its benchmarks include being the hometown for David Letterman, the site of Elvis Presley’s last concert, and the setting for the CBS situation comedy One Day at a Time.
Additionally, Indianapolis enjoys prominence in baseball history as the home of the Clowns, a Negro League team perhaps best known as a starting point for Hank Aaron’s career; Aaron spent a few months with the Clowns in 1952 before the Boston Braves organization signed him. A day at Bush Stadium, the home field for the Clowns, provided entertainment beyond good baseball. In the biography The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, Howard Bryant wrote, “The Clowns were a legendary Negro League team, known for being the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The team featured good ballplayers but also high circus-style entertainment. Toni Stone, a woman, played second base. King Tut, an enormous man with a round belly, served as a mascot, wearing nothing but a grass skirt.”
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson played for the Clowns; she was the first female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues. In addition to Johnson and Stone, Connie Morgan also wore a Clowns uniform; with three women, the Indianapolis Clowns predated the women’s liberation movement by a decade.
With her height of 5’3″ inspiring her “Peanut” moniker, Johnson lured fans to the ballpark by being a solid ballplayer. In the article “Breaking Gender Barriers in the Negro Leagues in the June 12, 2010 edition of the New York Times, Alan Schwarz quotes Arthur Hamilton, the Clowns catcher: “She was a drawing card, I have to say. She didn’t have that much of a fastball, but she could put the ball over the plate. She’d get out of the inning. A lot of guys hit her, but she got a lot of guys out, too. The Kansas City Monarchs and the Birmingham Black Barons loved to play the Clowns, because we’d have a big crowd.”
Johnson’s story symbolizes perseverance, certainly, in an era that saw America take its first steps, albeit tentatively, toward equality, no matter one’s race or gender. “In the face of ‘no,’ she pursued her passion. You can get derailed by people who don’t believe in you. Her legacy is not well-known because we lose our heroes. Today, there are instant stars because short attention spans impact how information is packaged and, consequently, how we consume it. But Mamie Johnson represented a time that gave us the heart and soul of the game,” says Yvette Miley, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of MSNBC.
Bush Stadium stands today, decades after its prime as a Negro League fixture. Partially, anyway. Real estate developers demolished part of the stadium, renovated the remaining part for lofts, and preserved stadium icons, including Art Deco columns and iron turnstiles at the main entrance. Further, the developers preserved the infield diamond, a lure for any baseball fan wanting to look out the living room window and imagine the Clowns playing one more time.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 6, 2015.