“… there’s no reason to shrink from the period where Toni Stone became known and did most of her work in this sport. You can’t take Jim Crow out of the story, and there’s no reason to sanitize it. We had to embrace the tenacity, joy and love – like dogged love – that she had for the game, that she was willing to do it under any circumstances.”
~ April Matthis, lead actress in play, Toni Stone
On July 17, 1921, in Bluefield, West Virginia, Boykin and Willa (née Maynard) Stone welcomed Marcenia Lyle Stone into the world. In 1931, the Stone family moved to live in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. As a child and teen, Stone, against her parents wishes, primarily engaged in activities and sports, including baseball, with the local boys. Her engagement was to the extent that she was called “Toni Tomboy”. During this time, Stone played with the HiLex girls’ softball team and became the first girl to play on the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church boys’ baseball team, encouraged by her mentor and priest, Father Charles Keith. Stone also played on the St. Paul Men’s Meat Packing League baseball team.
In 1936, she convinced Gabby Street to allow her to try out for his baseball school. Street, a former catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, also managed the Cardinals in the 1930s as well as a minor league baseball team, the St. Paul Saints. Impressed with her ability, Street overlooked her race and gender and allowed her admittance. The following year, Stone, at the age of sixteen years old, joined the barnstorming, semi-professional team, the Twin City Colored Giants. Having started out shagging baseballs for the team, Stone pitched for the Colored Giants as they traveled throughout the Midwest and Canada. In the biography of Stone featured in Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley, journalist Jimmy Lee, in the July 30, 1937 Minneapolis Spokesman, said, “The team has the distinction of having a girl pitcher on its roster. No other team in the Northwest can boast the same. Miss Marcenia Stone, 16-year-old girl athlete, has been doing much to amuse the fans with her great catcher [sic] and wonder hitting power.”
Stone traveled with the Twin Cities Colored Giants until 1943, when she moved to San Francisco, California to be near her sister, Bernous, who had been ill. Settling into the predominately Black community of Fillmore, sometimes referred to as “The Harlem of the West”, Stone performed menial labor while planning her next step. She would meet Allroyd Love, who was the manager of the Wall Post American Legion team. During this time, she met Aurelious Pescia Alberga at a nightclub. Thirty-seven years her senior, Alberga would court Stone and they married in 1950; he was sixty-six years old and she was twenty-nine years old.
While some accounts differ regarding the extent of Alberga’s support for Stone to play baseball, it is agreed that at the suggestion of her husband, Stone applied to play American Legion baseball. To get around the Legion’s age restriction, which required players to be no older than seventeen, she falsified her true age, decreasing it by ten years, and would maintain the charade throughout her career. She was successful in her deception and played for Love’s Legion team. Following that, Stone played for three months with another barnstorming, semi-professional team, the San Francisco Sea Lions. Both the Legion and Sea Lion baseball teams were integrated. In 1949, Toni Stone was signed to join the New Orleans Creoles, a Negro Minor League team. During the spring and summer playing season, she traveled the United States, playing baseball and lived in her new home city of Oakland when the season was over.
Toni Stone made sports history in 1953 when she signed a seasonal contract with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League. She actually played the position of the second-base that had been vacated by Hank Aaron the previous year when he joined the Milwaukee Braves. While many know that history was made when, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, history and time has not been as kind to Stone.
As the first woman to play baseball in the organized Negro Leagues, many tried to capitalize on this accomplishment. Aside from racial discrimination, Stone faced gender discrimination. She was either shunned or verbally attacked and in one instance, a runner purposely dug his spiked foot into her left hand, leaving scars on her wrist.
Her inclusion in the League definitely brought attention, positive and negative. Stone’s athletic skills were questioned and if she did not perform well, which was highly possible considering how little playing time she actually got, her abilities were dismissed. When she did perform well, it was attributed to the players taking her gender into consideration and that they were accommodating her because she was a woman.
Aside from harassment from opposing team players, her own teammates and critics, Stone had to deal with the media’s exploitation of her gender in order to maintain and/or increase interest in the all-Black baseball league. With Robinson’s history-making entry into the major league, the days of segregated baseball were numbered. Although she was an asset to the Indianapolis Clowns, her hire was more a marketing ploy to increase public interest, which translated to greater sales of tickets and merchandise.
The publicists for the Clowns created a fictitious biography of Toni Stone, that included she attended a university and, in some accounts, that she even had a master’s degree. In reality, Stone had never graduated from high school. It was reported that she earned a seasonal salary of $12,000 when, by her own admission, was actually paid approximately $400 per month, $100 more monthly than she was paid when she played infield for the New Orleans Creoles, which was a member team to the Negro Minor League.
Building upon her uniqueness, publications, such as Ebony, the most popular magazine read by African-Americans, emphasized that Stone was woman in a man’s sport. An example of this can be found in the Thornley biography on Stone when he referenced an issue of the magazine, commenting, “Some had to do with her baseball skills, but much of it focused on her feminine side. A set of pictures – one showing her in a dress getting out of a car and the other in her Clowns uniform getting off the team bus – in the July 1953 Ebony is accompanied by the caption, “Dressed in street clothes, Toni Stone is an attractive young lady who could be someone’s secretary, but once in uniform she is all ball player.” The magazine did comment on Stone’s immense professionalism, adding, “… While most sports fans were sure that the Clowns signed Toni merely as an extra box-office attraction, the young lady has surprised everybody by turning in a businesslike job at both second base and at the plate. In her first game against a semipro team in Elizabeth, N. C., she walked and then drove in two runs with a sharp single.” Because she considered herself a professional baseball player, like the men, Stone refused to play in a skirt when asked by Syd Pollack, the owner of the Clowns. She exhibited professionalism despite others’ expectations for and limitations imposed upon her.
While playing for the Indianapolis Clowns, Stone achieved a batting average of .364, the fourth highest in their league for 1953. She would spend only one season playing with the Clowns. Toni Stone was one of the first three women to play in the Negro League; she was followed by Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, who became the first woman pitcher in the Negro League, and Connie Morgan. Johnson, also signed by the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953, played with the team from 1953 to 1955. Johnson, who would have a 33–8 win-loss record, replaced Stone in 1954. Morgan played with the Indianapolis Clowns for two years. Prior, she played for five seasons with the North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, an all-women baseball team.
In 1954, Toni Stone played with the Kansas City Monarchs. Stone referred to her time with the Monarchs as hellish and, tired of being exploited and receiving very little playing time, quit playing professionally after the season ended. Retiring, her two-year (1953 and 54 seasons) batting average in the Negro Leagues is estimated at .243. Stone returned home to Oakland, California, where she then worked as a nurse and cared for her husband, who passed away in 1987 at the age of 103 years old. Her passion for baseball never waned and she continued to coach and play semi-professional ball well into her sixties.
In 1991, Stone was one of seventy-three Negro League players honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1992, she was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. On November 2, 1996, Toni Stone passed away in a nursing home in Alameda, California; she was seventy-five years old.
Sadly, the contributions and sacrifices of Toni Stone to the sport of baseball were primarily unrecognized upon her retirement. She is memorialized in the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1990, her childhood home city, St. Paul, celebrated her accomplishments and named March 6, as “Toni Stone Day”. The city also named a neighborhood ball park, “Toni Stone Field”, in her honor. Dedicated at the Dunning Field Complex, the field is part of the Rondo neighborhood in which she was reared.
Before Stone passed away in 1996, a play about her life was being created. In 1997, the Great American History Theatre in St. Paul premiered its production, Tomboy Stone, which details the life of Stone. In 2019, the play Toni Stone premiered off-Broadway, at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre in New York City. The play is based upon the book, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League, written by Martha Ackmann. Adapted by acclaimed playwright, Lydia Diamond, Toni Stone presents the life of Stone, significantly the trials and triumphs she experienced as a Black woman, in her all-too brief professional baseball career.
“A woman has her dreams, too … When you finish high school, they tell a boy to go out and see the world. What do they tell a girl? They tell her to go next door and marry the boy that their families picked for her. It wasn’t right. A woman can do many things.”
~ Toni Stone