Toni Stone led the way for women in professional baseball (Negro Leagues series 3)

Negro Leagues Series, Part 3

Baseball was the game that mattered most to American sandlot youngsters like Toni Stone in the first half of the 20th century. So Toni was not so different in that way from other second-baseman-wannabes who nursed the dream of becoming a big-leaguer.

Normal odds of making it aside, however, Toni had two strikes against her. Toni was a she, not a he, and she was African-American at a time when the major leagues enforced a strict color line banning blacks from mainstream pro ball.

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Toni Stone, given name Marcenia Lyle Stone, was born in St. Paul, Minn. in 1921, blessed and cursed with a passion for baseball that would not be extinguished. She grew to a sturdy 5-foot-8 and 148 pounds, calling herself “a big, sassy girl.” Through long-term, steady determination she became one of three women, and the most prominent, who out-dueled discrimination, jealousy and sexism to compete in the Negro Leagues.

In school, Stone was called crazy for wanting to play a boys game. She was ridiculed for not being ladylike. She fended off unwanted sexual advances on traveling teams, once by wielding a bat. She changed into uniform in the umpires’ room and was last to shower after the hot water ran out. She ignored demeaning taunts from the stands. But Stone persevered on the long bus rides while eating the same meager meals as scornful teammates who felt she did not belong.

The Indianapolis Clowns billed her as a gate attraction in 1953, as a “girl” player, but Stone refused to play in a skirt and reminded all she was no sideshow, standing her ground when men came into second spikes high.

“Maybe I’ll be the first woman to play Major League baseball,” Stone said. “At least I may be the one who opens the doors for others. There’s got to be a first in everything. Before 1946, nobody thought Negroes would be in the big leagues. But we got ‘em in there today. A woman might have a chance also. Maybe it will be me.”

Women were on the outside

Beginning in 1920 and spanning the decades until a last-gasp existence in the 1950s, the Negro National League, the Negro American League, the Eastern Colored League and other shorter-lived outfits responded to segregation with a parallel universe of baseball.

Stone, Mamie Johnson, and Connie Morgan represented a tiny sub-group on the fluid rosters as the only women to play black baseball. All three were affiliated with the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s.

Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, was a major figure in the Negro Leagues and was an exception to the men’s club of ownership. Manley is the only woman enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Indianapolis owner Sydney Pollock viewed the female players mostly as gimmicks to entice fans during the fading cycle of black baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“This girl is no freak,” Pollock said of Stone, his first female signee.

There was assuredly a dose of Barnum & Bailey, as well as Bill Veeck (who batted a midget for the St. Louis Browns) in Pollock’s DNA, but Stone was no frivolous damsel. She was a hard-nosed player with an excellent glove, a solid arm, savvy about the game’s intricacies and hit at a typical middle-infielder levels.

Stone had her baseball supporters, including Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs before becoming a star for the Chicago Cubs.

“I didn’t see all of her struggle,” Banks said, “but I saw some of it. She stood tall, didn’t give up and was very determined. It was rugged for her. Young people, especially women of all races, could learn something from her, from her self-esteem and self-worth.”

What most fans know about women in baseball stems from the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own,” starring Geena Davis, Madonna and Tom Hanks. The film is based on the true story of the All-American Professional Girls Baseball League, established in 1943 and lasting until 1954.

There has been a smaller audience for “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, The First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League,” a book by Martha Ackmann.

When Stone learned of the women’s pro league, she wrote letters to team executives asking for tryouts. No one wrote her back. The new league were as pale as the men’s majors.

Stone’s journey spanned decades. As a kid, her nickname was “Tomboy.” A local priest directed her to a boys team to sate her baseball desire, but it never waned. She was more enthralled by baseball statistics than schooling involving math.

Softball wasn’t challenging enough, so she hustled herself onto semi-pro teams. Stone was gifted baseball shoes by 1930s Major League manager Gabby Street after finagling her way into his baseball school. She toured first with the Twin City Colored Giants. Opponents did not even always know Stone was a woman with her dark hair tucked beneath her baseball cap.

Even Negro Leagues games were not always accurately charted, and barns-torming teams’ stats were less well-documented, so empirical evidence about her many years with semi-pro clubs and traveling team mean Stone’s performances were only sporadically recorded.

In 1953, Stone apparently batted .243 in league games for the Clowns. She was paid $350 a month, then a year later, $400 monthly for the Kansas City Monarchs, the most famous black baseball team.

One iffy stat publicly attached to Stone was her age. She had played for clubs in San Francisco and New Orleans and was already 32 when billed as 22 in Indianapolis. That was her choice, to be viewed as a more appealing prospect by scouts.

Another try

Not as ambitious as the All-American girls league was an effort to provide women playing softball with a vehicle to play baseball in 1994.

The plan for the Colorado Silver Bullets was to find the best female players available and enter the team in a minor league. Only the founders were rebuffed by every league they approached.

Instead, in the spirit of the discriminated-against Negro Leagues teams, the Silver Bullets became full-time barnstormers. Managed by Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro during their four-year existence, the Silver Bullets recruited accomplished softball players.

The Silver Bullets played men’s teams of all stripes, though they did not post a winning season until their final year, capturing their last game to finish 23-22.

Niekro, a knuckleball specialist who won 318 games, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 and among his supporters were the women he managed. He gave the Silver Bullets a shout-out in his acceptance speech.

“This is the America,” he said. “This is the land of the free and the home of the brave and all (they) want is a chance to play baseball and an opportunity. And I figure that’s what this country can give them.”

Stone would have said, “Amen.”

There never has been a female Major League baseball player. Only at the end of her peak days was Stone joined in the Negro Leagues by other women.

Johnson and Morgan

Mamie Johnson was 14 years younger than Stone, someone who also played baseball with boys growing up in South Carolina and with a semi-pro team in Virginia. An uncle taught her pitching and she made her own ball out of a rock wrapped in twine and masking tape.

Johnson attended an AAGPBL tryout, but shied away when she and a friend realized all the other players were white.

“They looked at me like I was crazy,” Johnson said of those running the camp.

Johnson did not have the same level of seasoning as Stone. But it worked out. Being 5-foot-3, Johnson was nicknamed “Peanut.” She was credited with a 33-8 pitching mark with the Clowns, ending in 1955. Most of her pitching repertoire featured slow stuff the knuckleball variety. Johnson died at 82 in 2017.

The third woman to play in the Negro Leagues, and for Indianapolis, was Connie Morgan. Morgan, 19, an infielder, read a story about Stone in “Ebony” magazine and wrote to the Clowns for a tryout, which was granted.

Morgan, an Indianapolis player in 1954 and 1955, who stood 5-4, became Stone’s replacement at second when Stone signed with the Monarchs. Morgan said, playing third base was thought by team officials to be “too hot a corner for me.”

By the mid-1950s, it was over for official Negro Leagues baseball except for barnstorming. By then, the Clowns were as renowned for their comedy than their quality of play.

Stone’s last days

Stone returned to her home full-time in Oakland, Calif. where she lived with her husband, Aurelious Alberga, played recreational baseball into her 50s and coached high-school aged players.

Of the trio of women who spent time with the Clowns, Stone attained the highest level of pioneer status. She started earlier, played longer, and struggled the most. Mostly, she was overlooked or ignored, only later publicized by the Clowns, but barely accepted. Then she felt excluded and snubbed by the Monarchs for being a woman.

“It was hell,” Stone said once.

Stone, 75 when she died in 1996, did receive recognition as a barrier breaker during her lifetime. She was inducted into the Women’s Sports Foundation International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

In March of 1990, St. Paul, her birth place, observed “Toni Stone Day.”

In a society more attuned to racial justice and inspired by stories of grit and defying the odds, Stone’s story touched an appropriately named playwright, Lydia Diamond. A stage production of “Toni Stone” was playing in San Francisco when the coronavirus shut down the country in March.

Such trumpeting of her life story would have pleased Toni Stone, as would the New York Times headline above her Nov. 19, 1996 obituary: “Toni Stone, 75, First Woman To Play Big-League Baseball.”

Big-league. That’s the way she always wanted the world to see her.