Toni Stone is the American hero many people may not know.
She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1930s, where the Ku Klux Klan still had influence, and in the decade before owned three newspapers. Yet the biting racism and devaluing of women failed to stifle something Stone loved which was baseball.
In 1953 she signed with the Indianapolis Clowns, replacing Hank Aaron at second base after he went to the Atlanta Braves, and was the first of three Black women to play professional baseball in the previously male-only Negro League. The others were Connie Morgan and Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, also signed by the Clowns.
Stone refused to wear a skirt because it was impractical since baseball players slide. She resisted efforts by team ownership to turn her into a circus act. She fought misogyny from men outside the team and even from some teammates. Still nothing stopped her as she spent a decade playing for the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro Baseball League, the New Orleans Creoles of the Negro Southern League, the Clowns and finally the Kansas City Monarchs.
As we continue to absorb the remarkable news of baseball officially including Negro League players from 1920-1948 into its record books, ending what was both a tragic and transformational 2020 in race and sports, Stone, Morgan and Johnson are three players who should never be forgotten.
They were just as historic, and important, to baseball history as their male counterparts even if they aren't as remembered.
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Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc. (Photo: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc.)
"In popular culture, we know about the white women's league," said actor April Matthis, who played Stone in the 2019 off-Broadway play Toni Stone. The 1992 movie A League of Their Own was a fictionalized version of the segregated All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
"But we don't know nearly as much about these Black women," Matthis said, "as these were marginalized people in a marginalized group. She was like a lot of Black women at the time. A lot of people didn't know how to treat them and see them as human beings. She overcame all of that."
The story of Stone, Morgan and Johnson are important as the story of Negro League baseball takes center stage in ways it hasn't in decades.
Mainly, the three women declined to accept the boxes many wanted to put them in.
"When you finish high school, they tell a boy to go out and see the world," Stone is quoted as saying in the book Curveball by Martha Ackmann. "What do they tell a girl? They tell her to go next door and marry the boy that their family's picked out.
"A woman has her dreams, too."
Morgan replaced Stone at second base in 1954. While Morgan is perhaps the least known of the trio, she was probably the most talented. She started her baseball career with the North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, an all-Black woman semi-pro team, and averaged hitting .338 in five years with the team.
When Morgan's signing with the Clowns was announced, it was covered by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper on March 27, 1954. Above the story was a split-screen picture of Morgan in a baseball uniform on the left, and wearing a dress on the right. The caption read: "The baseball player and the lady."
Johnson pitched for the Clowns from 1953-1955 earning a 33-8 record, and a .270 batting average. She got her nickname after a hitter said she was no bigger than a peanut.
She was a mentee of Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, who helped Johnson develop her curveball into a major weapon.
“Tell you the truth, I didn’t know of his greatness that much. He was just another ballplayer to me at that particular time,” Johnson told The State (Columbia, South Carolina). “Later on, I found out exactly who he was."
“I got to meet and be with some of the best baseball players that ever picked up a bat, so I’m very proud about that,” Johnson said in an NPR interview.
The recognition for the three pioneers has come slowly, but it's there. Stone's life was chronicled with that off-Broadway play, but she's getting recognition in another way. One of the teams Stone played for was the Sea Lions. In December it was announced San Francisco is naming a street after her.
Matthis said something that was one of the great truisms about Stone.
"You can't call yourself a baseball fan," said Matthis, "if you don't know Toni Stone's story."
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