With major league baseball currently in spring training and Women’s History Month nearing its end for this year, we throw the spotlight on Toni Stone, the first woman to ever play in a men’s professional league.
One of Stone’s career highlights was a plate appearance against the immortal pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige. She singled sharply off one of Paige’s patented fastballs, slapped her hands and received an appreciative nod from the pitcher.
That recognition and appreciation was often not shared by her other opponents, and like Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league’s color line in 1947, she was jeered by fans who resisted the idea of a woman on the field with men.
Opposition was something with which Stone had grown familiar. Even before she reached the diamond, her parents did their best to block her from aspiring to become a baseball player, preferring she pursue something more typical of her race and gender.
Born Marcenia Lyle Stone July 17, 1921—although in James Riley’s “Encyclopedia of Negro Baseball Leagues,” he lists 1931 as the year of her birth—in St. Paul, Minn., she was one of the four children. Their parents carefully nurtured them to be good students and to get the best education possible. As early as 10 years of age, Stone began expressing another desire that didn’t include a lot of book learning, unless it was studying how to excel in baseball.
She not only demonstrated a remarkable talent in baseball, mainly softball at the time, she was also a very good ice skater and competed well in track and field events. Stone was totally devoted to perfecting her skills as a hitter, fielder and base runner and would spend endless hours on the sandlots improving her game.
Her parents, unable to curb her enthusiasm, called on a local priest to discourage Stone’s ambitions. The priest became so convinced of her talent that rather than talk her out of the game, he asked her to play on his team in the Catholic Midget League.
Soon, her reputation was all over town, and by the time she was 15, a scout from the Twin City Colored Giants, a traveling men’s team, sought her out to play in the men’s meatpacking league.
In 1940, when Stone was in her early 20s, she moved to San Francisco to help take care of a sick sister. Arriving with very little money, she immediately found work in a cafeteria and driving a hi-lo or forklift truck in a shipyard.
By this time, she was no longer known as Marcenia Stone and changed her name to Toni and chopped 10 years off her age to appeal to an all-male baseball club. In 1949, she became a member of the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro League. Earning $200 a month was quite reasonable during these post-war years, but even more significant was the exposure she was receiving because of her breakthrough status. Plus, she was getting more polished management from coaches and owners.
While the money was decent, the treatment from hostile fans was at times unbearable, with fans berating and chiding her to get “to the kitchen” and saying this is a “men’s game.” But unkind heckling and Jim Crow restrictions only fortified her desire to excel. There was also the inconvenience and loneliness of being the only woman on the team and in the league, which made it difficult for her to shower, which, obviously, meant separate facilities that were not always available.
For most folks, Stone’s gender got the attention, but for the Indianapolis Clowns, her talent was the object when they signed her in 1953. Like the Harlem Globetrotters, the Clowns attracted fans with their ability to showoff, rather than their ability on the field, and, in the beginning, Stone’s presence was just another showpiece.
Moreover, the Clowns had recently lost its key second baseman, Hank Aaron, to the Majors, and Stone was viewed as another way to appeal to potential customers. But Stone arrived to play the best ball she could, hardly ever being fazed by the challenges she faced. There were moments when the opposing players deliberately tried to hurt her by sliding into a base with their spikes high, or pitchers brushed her away from the plate with menacing fastballs. However, her arrival with the Clowns brought increased celebrity, including feature stories in the leading African-American magazines such as Jet, Ebony, Our World and Sepia.
Playing in 50 games, Stone hit a respectable .243, and it was during this time that she got a hit off Paige and had an opportunity to play with some of the legends of the game.
But her tenure with the Clowns was very short, and she was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs. This occurred toward the end of her career, particularly because she was 10 years older than she reported. At the end of the year, with the increased resentment from management and her teammates, Stone hung up her glove and spikes and retired. She was replaced in the lineup by another female player, Connie Morgan.
In 1950 Stone had married Aurelious Alberga, a political power player in San Francisco who was 40 years her senior. They lived in Oakland, Calif., and in 1993, Stone was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in Long Island, N.Y.
Suffering from heart and respiratory problems, Stone died Nov. 2, 1996, at a nursing home in Alameda, Calif. She was 75.