Nearly 70 years after pro baseball debut, Toni Stone's story continues to inspire fans
Stone, who died in 1996, was the first Black female player on a pro men's team in the U.S.
For many baseball players, batting an average of .364 in season would be impressive enough. But for Toni Stone, who at one point averaged that mark in the 1953 Negro League baseball season, the achievement was all the sweeter given she was the first woman — and Black woman — in professional baseball.
"She was known as a very good second baseman. Good on the pivot, good on the double play. She was fast. She had a strong arm," said Martha Ackmann, author of Curveball, a book about Stone's career and life.
Stone only spent two seasons in the league, but her influence has lasted decades — particularly with female fans.
"She had women, in particular, waiting for her outside the fields, just wanting to see her, wanting to touch her, Toni said, to see if she was real," Ackmann said.
Stone died on Nov. 2, 1996, but her story is just starting to be honoured by professional baseball.
Last month, the MLB Minnesota Twins and their Triple-A affiliate, the St. Paul Saints, partnered with girls baseball organization Baseball For All to hold the BFA Toni Stone Invitational.
The invitational is believed to be Minnesota's first-ever girls baseball tournament.
Ahead of what would have been Stone's 101st birthday on July 17, Ackmann spoke to Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho about Stone's career and her place in baseball lore. Here's part of their conversation.
Batter up! ⚾️<br><br>In honor of U.S. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BlackHistoryMonth?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BlackHistoryMonth</a>, today's <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/GoogleDoodle?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#GoogleDoodle</a> celebrates the life & legacy of baseball phenom Marcenia "Toni" Stone—the 1st woman to play as a regular in a major men's professional baseball league<br><br>🎨 Guest artist <a href="https://twitter.com/moniwray?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@moniwray</a> → <a href="https://t.co/I2lc4TUEI2">https://t.co/I2lc4TUEI2</a> <a href="https://t.co/TiUJjM8G4U">pic.twitter.com/TiUJjM8G4U</a>—@GoogleDoodles
You have covered so much of [Toni Stone's] life story, but I'm really curious about how she got her break to play professional baseball in the Negro American League.
Well, she had been knocking around in all sorts of different levels of playing baseball for a number of years. She grew up in Saint Paul, Minn., and played for what was called a barnstorming team then. That was just a team [that] kind of drove around and would play any comers for, you know, a ham sandwich.
But in the '40s, she went out to San Francisco. She kind of felt that she had used up all of her opportunities that she had in Minneapolis [and] Saint Paul. And there she began to play in semi-pro league. She played for a team called the San Francisco Sea Lions. Always Black teams, always teams with men, never played softball.
WATCH: The story of Toni Stone, pro baseball's first Black female player
She ended up with the New Orleans Creoles in the '50s, and it was at that point that she got a call from Syd Pollack, who was the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the teams in the Negro Leagues.
He had just lost his hot shot second baseman Henry Aaron, who was moving to the major leagues after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947.
She knew that she was being hired as a gate attraction. The Negro Leagues were beginning to go downhill. They had lost their fan base as more and more fans turned to the majors and watching Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. But she also knew this was one imperfect chance to live her dream, so she took it.
How was she treated as the first woman to play in the league?
There were some fans who were just dazzled to see her, so eager to see her. Syd Pollock … knew that if she wasn't good, people would come for one time to see this kind of novelty and they wouldn't come again. But they kept coming.
Other fans ... would jeer her. They didn't think women should be playing. They'd yell, "Why don't you go home and fix your husband some biscuits?" Newspaper columnists said that she should be run out of baseball on a softly padded rail.
Even some of her own teammates tried to sabotage her play, throwing the ball to second [base] in a way that she could be injured…. So there were both good reactions and there were some not-so-good reactions.
It crushed Toni that her teammates did not stand up for her and say, 'That's our second baseman. Wherever we stay, she stays as well.'-Martha Ackmann, author of Curveball
These teams would have travelled together to all their games by bus. A lot of the time they would have been sharing rooms and boarding houses. The environment that you're describing is not one I'd necessarily want to be in. So how did that work for Toni as the only female player?
It was very difficult. There were times when the team would be travelling on a bus in the Jim Crow South and there were laws that forced them to be off the road by a certain time. Sometimes the whole team would end up sleeping in fields.
But it affected her in a very profound and degrading way, when the team would roll up to a boarding house in the South, and 28 men would get off the bus and the boarding house proprietor would get one look at Toni and assume she was a prostitute travelling with the team.
It crushed Toni that her teammates did not stand up for her and say, "That's our second baseman. Wherever we stay, she stays as well."
One night this happened, a boarding house proprietor pointed his finger down the road and said, "There's a brothel down there. You can stay down there."
She said there she found "good girls" — that's what she called them. She said [the] women gave her a good place to stay, a hot meal, even padding into the lining of her shirt so that she could take hard throws to the chest.
Pretty soon, Toni turned that humiliating experience into something almost positive. She ended up staying in kind of a network of brothels throughout the South, and there were even occasions when a car would meet her and women who worked in the brothels would read the sports page and know when she was coming into town.
Toni's story ... has been largely untold over the course of sports history, mainly because she was a woman, because she was Black. Was she ever bitter about the way that she was treated?
Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to interview Toni for the book. She had died before I began working on it. But of course, I uncovered a lot of audio interviews with her, some television interviews she did, and never did there seem to be any bitterness.
I also found this audiotape at the Baseball Hall of Fame from an occasion they had in 1991 where they honoured Negro Leaguers. And there was Toni, the only woman amongst all those men. She made it to Cooperstown for the festivities.
In the tape, she rises at the end of a keynote in question-answer session, and she talks about being grateful for the opportunity that she was given.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Laurie Allan. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.