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1953 - Toni Stone joined the Negro League

There’s always got to be a first in everything,” Toni Stone told Ebony in 1953. She knew what she was talking about. By that point, Stone had been the first in a lot of things: the first girl on her church’s baseball team; the first on a traveling barnstorming team; and, now, she had just become the first woman to play Negro League baseball, breaking the gender line at the same time Major League Baseball was making strides with racial integration. Stone felt the sting of both racism and sexism in her journey to becoming a professional in the sport she’d loved since childhood.

Stone was born Marcenia Lyle Stone in 1921, in Bluefield, West Virginia, though she spent much of her life in St. Paul, Minnesota. Neighborhood kids nicknamed her “Tomboy” when she started proving herself as an athlete, particularly in baseball. “[Baseball] was like a drug,” Stone told an interviewer in 1991. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy.”

Stone’s love for the game wasn’t enough to convince her parents that it was something that a girl should be doing. Not only did it fly in the face of traditional gender conventions, but, more practically, it offered no future. “My parents thought the idea of a little girl playing baseball was sinful.” Stone prayed for forgiveness, even going so far as to confess her sin to a local priest. Rather than condemn her for playing a game she loved, he convinced her parents to allow her to play in a church league, which, until Stone arrived, had been boys-only.

Even though her parents had agreed to let her play, they weren’t going to encourage her with financial support. She did odd jobs around the neighborhood in order to be able to buy a glove from Goodwill. Stone was on her own — in every possible way. She was the only girl on the field, and although there was no well-worn path for her to walk, she still dreamed of being a professional athlete: “I didn’t concern myself that there weren’t any women in the game.” Her next step toward becoming a professional player came in the form of a minor league manager named Gabby Street.

Street managed the St. Paul Saints, the city’s minor league team, and was a former minor league player himself. More important, he was the director of a local baseball school for boys. Stone would watch him while he coached at a park near her house, taking closer and closer steps toward the field, straining to hear his instruction. One day, she approached him and asked to join his program. He said no. She came back. He said no. She came back. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he recalled. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Street eventually let her join, telling her, as Stone recalled to Ebony, to get on the field “and show those boys up.”

What the persistent teenager didn’t know was that not only was Street’s program intentionally all-boys — it was also intentionally all-white. Street belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and had a well-documented history of racism throughout his career. As Martha Ackmann writes in Curveball, her biography of Stone, Street’s acceptance of Stone wasn’t necessarily at odds with his racism: “He could make an exception for one black girl who seemed obsessed with baseball without re-evaluating his own racist attitudes toward all black citizens.”

Armed with improved skills, fifteen-year-old Stone was ready for the next step. She wanted to get more serious about baseball. The Catholic league was fine, but she knew it wasn’t the best she could do. She’d been working as a ball girl for a local pickup league, and the league’s organizer recognized that she could do more than just shag fly balls. He also managed the Twin City Colored Giants and asked Stone if she would be interested in joining the team’s youth traveling squad. The team traveled on weekends — and 16-year-old Stone was the team’s only girl.

Stone, who in 1943 renamed herself Toni, then brought her talent to other barnstorming and independent teams: first the San Francisco Sea Lions (after finding out she was being paid less than the men, she left) and then the New Orleans Creoles. She played for the Creoles until 1950, when she married a man who asked her to put her baseball ambitions on hold. She spent a year away from the game before she realized it was too much a part of who she was to push aside. Her marriage and her baseball passion were at odds, but Stone was determined to have them both. She got her way — the couple stayed married, and she returned to baseball when the Indianapolis Clowns came calling. “He would have stopped me if he could have,” Stone said, “but he couldn’t.”

The Clowns had recently lost their star player, a young shortstop named Henry “Hank” Aaron, who eventually made his way to the major leagues, a move many Negro League players made as the league gradually integrated. The Clowns needed not just someone who was good, but someone who could bring in the fans. In April of 1953, at the age of 32, Toni Stone reported to the team and officially became the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues, as a second baseman. It may have been a publicity stunt, but her talent was undeniable. “They weren’t going to put any slouches out there,” Ray Doswell, vice president of curatorial services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, tells Timeline. “She had to be capable and play the game.”

Stone wanted her abilities to be the main attraction, so when Clowns owner Syd Pollock suggested that she wear a skirt instead of a regulation uniform, she told him she’d quit first. “I wasn’t going to wear no shorts,” Stone told an interviewer. “This is professional baseball.” Stone’s playing thrust her into the spotlight, filling stands and newspaper columns as everyone became eager to see her in action. As Ackmann notes in Curveball, the black media was buzzing. Norfolk’s Journal and Guide called her a “badly needed shot in the arm” for the Negro Leagues, and the Kansas City Call praised her “fine baseball mind.” Praise wasn’t reserved for the sports pages or black media, though. Nationally syndicated entertainment columnist Dorothy Kilgallen also praised her: “She belts home runs as easily as most girls catch stitches in their knitting, and the sports boys are goggle-eyed.”

She stayed with the Clowns until 1954, but by then she wasn’t the only woman on the team. Two others — Mamie Johnson and Connie Morgan — had also been signed. With two new, younger women players on a team that would allow only one woman in the lineup at a time, Stone knew her time with the team was ending. She left the Clowns to join the Kansas City Monarchs, where she’d end her professional baseball career in 1955. But she’d made history and opened doors.

Like all of the great Negro League players, Stone played despite knowing that she might never make it to the major leagues. “[They] had to endure the injustice of not being able to compete. Many did cross over, but some never got that chance. The times dictated that this was the way things were,” Doswell says. “The love of the game kept them going. Toni Stone really had to love baseball to do what she did. She persevered.”


#blackfirsts #1950s

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