Curveball: Toni Stone's Challenge to Baseball and America

Illustration by John MusgroveIllustration by John Musgrove
The Radcliffe Quarterly
July 1, 2009
By Deborah Blagg

When she was well into her sixties, Toni Stone still enjoyed riding a bicycle around her Oakland, California, neighborhood, often stopping at schoolyards along the way when a baseball game was in progress. If a fellow spectator engaged her in conversation, she might talk about the day when she batted—and got a base hit—against the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige. Of course, no one believed the thin African American woman with gray hair and a peculiarly high-pitched voice. They thought she was making it up.

But it was true.

Toni Stone throwing. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball MuseumToni Stone throwing. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball MuseumIn 1953, at a time when the few women’s baseball teams in existence were “white only,” Toni Stone (born Marcenia Lyle Stone) was hired to play second base for the Negro League’s Indianapolis Clowns, stepping in when Hank Aaron left the team to go to the majors. “After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the Negro League began losing many of its stars to the majors, along with its fan base,” says Martha Ackmann RI ’09, a journalist and author who is spending her Radcliffe fellowship year researching and writing a book about Stone, the woman some sports historians have called “the best baseball player you’ve never heard of.”

Some of the Negro League teams had already started to fold in the early 1950s, Ackmann says, and the ones that remained were very conscious that baseball was entertainment as well as a sport. “When Hank Aaron left the Clowns, Toni was hired to bring back the fans. A woman playing baseball with men? She became the league’s main attraction.”

Ackmann, who is the Augustus Anson Whitney Scholar at Radcliffe and teaches in the gender studies department at Mount Holyoke College, says that Stone was well aware she had been hired more as a curiosity than for her considerable playing ability. “She knew she was being exploited,” Ackmann says. “One of the questions I want to explore in this book is what happens when life hands you one imperfect chance to pursue your dreams.”

Starting Out in the Catholic League

Toni Stone at mirror. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball MuseumToni Stone at mirror. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball MuseumStone’s dream of playing baseball began when she was a young girl growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where her father was a barber and her mother operated a beauty shop. Both parents placed a high value on education for their four children, but Toni, a natural athlete, was less academically inclined than her siblings. As a teenager in the 1930s, she confessed to a local priest that she was thinking of running away to find a baseball team that would allow a girl to play. The priest offered to let her join the boys’ parish team. That was the start of Stone’s twenty-year baseball career, first in the Catholic League, then on the barnstorming circuit with the Twin City Colored Giants and the San Francisco Sea Lions, next to a semipro team called the New Orleans Creoles, and finally in the Negro League, with the Clowns and with the Kansas City Monarchs, Jackie Robinson’s old team.

“By that time, the Negro League was really almost a feeder system for Major League Baseball, and I think Toni believed she could be the first woman in the majors—the female Jackie Robinson,” Ackmann says. Although she never met Stone, who died in 1996, Ackmann has pursued her life story through news reports, recorded interviews, and conversations with Stone’s surviving relatives and friends. “She was very serious about what she was doing; she carried the Negro League on her back while she played for those teams,” Ackmann says. “Ernie Banks was one of the last men to move from the Negro League to the majors, and he had great respect for her.”

But many other players—even those who wouldn’t have had a paycheck without Stone’s ability to draw crowds—resented her and made her life as difficult as possible, both on and off the field. At 5’7” and 148 pounds, Stone was a fast runner with a batting average of around .270. Despite her obvious ability, she endured catcalls from spectators and opposing players and even became a target for members of her own team, who were known to throw the ball to second in such a way that in trying to catch it, she would almost certainly be spiked by the oncoming base runner. “After one such incident,” Ackmann says, “the team’s business manager took the players aside and told them if they did it again, they would be let go with nothing but a bus ticket home.”

Staying at Brothels

Toni Stone. Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame and MuseumToni Stone. Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame and MuseumMost of the time, however, Stone was left to fend for herself. When she complained to a manager about being sexually harassed by another player, the manager told her she had to handle it. “Toni was a tough woman,” Ackmann says. “She went after the offender with a baseball bat.” Traveling by bus through the Jim Crow South, Stone endured racial slurs and, along with her teammates, was often denied lodging at white-only hotels. Because she was the only woman traveling on a bus full of men, some people assumed she was a prostitute, an assumption her teammates did little to correct. “In an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them move,” Ackmann says, Stone began to stay in brothels in a number of southern towns, where she was given a hot meal, a safe place to sleep, and a chance to launder her clothes. “The prostitutes started following the sports pages so they would know how she was doing,” Ackmann says. “It was remarkable.”

Although Stone never realized her dream of playing in the majors, Ackmann, an avid baseball fan, is “awed” by what she did accomplish. “Can you imagine the sight—even today—of a woman playing professional baseball at Yankee Stadium?” she muses. “That’s what Stone did.” Using a unique sports career as a lens for looking at Jim Crow and the early days of the civil-rights movement, Ackmann hopes to draw attention to the importance of those who are able to “bend history.”

“That’s a phrase Robert Kennedy used,” she explains. “In this country, our notion of success usually includes only those who change history. Toni is one of those invisible contributors whose energy and passion overcame all the societal cards that were stacked against her. At the end of her life, she really believed that her struggle would matter to future generations. It’s important that more Americans—especially young women—know about her.”

 

Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.

Other Forgotten Trailblazers: The Thirteen Women Who Secretly Trained to be Astronauts

Martha Ackman's book-in-progress, Curveball, to be published by the Chicago Review Press in 2011, is not her first foray into writing about women who changed America. In The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight (Random House, 2003), Ackmann documents the story of the accomplished pilots who were selected in 1961 to be the first women in space. Sadly, the women's quest was halted by bureaucratic infighting and by Vice President Lyndon Johnson's opposition. The Societ Union launched a woman into space in 1963, twenty years before the United States sent Sally Ride off in the Challenger.

 

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