Female Baseball Legend Threw Ultimate Curveball

Toni Stone was one of the few baseball players who hit a pitch from the great Satchel Paige. While that would have been enough to make her stand out, her real achievement was that she worked her way to the Negro Leagues from barnstorming in the Midwest. Host Michel Martin learns more about Stone from biographer Martha Ackmann, who teaches in the Gender Studies Department of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As you may have heard, the New York Yankees went to the Twin Cities last night and beat the Minnesota Twins in game one of that series. And for at least one historian, the game called to mind a bit of baseball history, about one of the game's unknowns - but this is somebody we thought you might want to know more about.

Her name is Toni Stone. She grew up in St. Paul and once played for a team called the Twin Cities Colored Giants, which played on what played on what was called Barnstorming Circuit of the Midwest. She was the first woman to play professional baseball for the Negro Leagues, she played against some of the best players in the game, and she even hit a single off of Satchel Paige.

To tell us more, we called author Martha Ackmann. She wrote a biography of Toni Stone. It's called "Curve Ball." It's now available, and Professor Ackmann also teaches in the Gender Studies Department of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. And she's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor MARTHA ACKMANN (Author, "Curve Ball"): Thanks, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So just how good was Toni Stone?

Prof. ACKMANN: Well, she was a very good ball player. She played about 15 years, Barnstorming, playing semi-pro ball, playing in the Negro Southern League, before she moved up to play in the Negro League - which was a parallel to the white Major Leagues.

She played with the Indianapolis Clowns, the Kansas City Monarchs in the waning days of the league. And at one time, in the 1954 season, she was batting 364, fourth in the league behind Ernie Banks.

MARTIN: And was she taken seriously?

Prof. ACKMANN: Yes and no. She joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. They were the championship team of the league at that time. Admittedly, the Negro League was losing its fan base. After Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, more and more African-American fans of baseball turned their attention to Jackie and Larry Doby and the very slow integration of the Major Leagues. And this owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, a guy by the name of Syd Pollack, was always trying something new, and he said I wonder what would happen if we brought in a talented woman ballplayer? And some fans, some members of her team were wonderfully supportive of her, knew what she was doing was hard and that it took a lot of courage, but there were others that certainly looked at her as a sort of novelty act and would yell from the stands, why dont you go home and fix your husband some biscuits? It wasnt all good.

MARTIN: What was it like for her?

Prof. ACKMANN: Well, she wanted to play baseball more than anything in her life, so it was a dream come true. But there were other moments that were not so good. In fact, there were members of her own team that would often sabotage her play. She was a second baseman, they would throw the ball to her so that she was positioned in a way to take a spikes up slide from the opposing player coming in. At one time that happened and the business manager for the Indianapolis Clowns got all the players on the bus after the game and said if anyone ever does that again they're getting a bus ticket home. So it was rough, and particularly rough in terms of travel. This is Jim Crow America, of course.

One episode in particular, was particularly painful to Toni. Pulled up at a lodging, a boardinghouse in the South and the proprietor looked at her getting off the bus with 28 men and assumed she was a prostitute and directed her to the nearest brothel. But Toni was creative, as well as talented and she had no choice. She went to the brothel and ending up kind of setting up a network of staying at brothels all across the country. She said the prostitutes were good girls. I think she saw something in them that - something of the outsider that she could identify with. They were kind to her. They gave her a place to stay. They even sewed padding into the shirt of her uniform so that she could take hard throws to the chest.

MARTIN: Wow. Did she ever have any company out there?

Prof. ACKMANN: Well, in fact, she did so well in 1953, Syd Pollack - after she was traded to the Monarchs, hired two more women to play; Connie Morgan, a young 19-year-old hotshot baseball player out of Philadelphia and Mamie Peanut Johnson, a 5 foot 2, right-handed pitcher.

MARTIN: So how did it end up for Toni? So she did actually have quite a significant career. So what, after her playing days were over, what happened?

Prof. ACKMANN: Well, age finally caught up to her and it caught up to her in an interesting way because Toni lied about her age. When she was in San Francisco during the war, it was sort of a time of reinvention and she got rid of her old name from St. Paul, Tom Boy Stone became Toni Stone, and as she said, loped off 10 years of her life. So in 1953, when she was playing with young Willie Mays and the young Ernie Banks, she was actually beginning to move into her mid-30's. So age caught up with her, the gradual demise of the Negro League, did not look like there was ever going to be an opportunity for her to play in the Major Leagues, and she returned to Oakland where she lived for the rest of her life, dying in 1996.

MARTIN: Did she ever marry? Did she ever - how did she live?

Prof. ACKMANN: She lived in a scrappy kind of fashion. She took jobs wherever she could during the off-season, just waiting for the baseball season to begin again. After she quit in the mid-'50s, she worked as a home health care aid. She did marry. She married in 1950, so she was married while she was playing ball, to a man named Aurelious Pecious(ph) Alberga. I love the name, it's so lyrical. A man of about 40 years older than she was. And he was quite well-known in San Francisco, in political circles, in sports promoting circles. And they stayed married for the rest of their life, which is significant because Alberga lived to be 103.

MARTIN: Oh, boy. Okay. Well, what would you say was Toni Stone, also known as Tom Boy Stone's, crowning achievement?

Prof. ACKMANN: Well, for her, I think the happiest day of her life was getting a hit off of Satchel Paige. But recognition came to her gradually. The Baseball Hall of Fame recognized her and other Negro League players in 1991, as did her hometown of St. Paul. So she was glad to have that recognition and it always made her think about that happiest moment of her life.

MARTIN: Well, at least it came before she died.

Prof. ACKMANN: That's true.

MARTIN: That's right. All right. Martha Ackmann wrote the biography of Toni Stone. It's called "Curve Ball." Martha Ackmann teaches in the Gender Studies Department at Mount Holyoke College, and she joined us from member station WFCR in Amherst.

So, Prof. Ackmann, I have to ask you, who you rooting for, for the World Series?

Prof. ACKMANN: Oh, dear, my...

MARTIN: Just between us.

Prof. ACKMANN: My beloved Boston Red Sox did not have a good year. But I guess thinking about Toni Stone, I'm pulling for the Twins.

MARTIN: Okay. If you'd like to read an excerpt of "Curve Ball," please head over to our website, go to npr.org, click on Programs, and then go to TELL ME MORE.

Prof. Ackmann, thanks so much for joining us.

Prof. ACKMANN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: As weve said, if you'd like to read an excerpt of "Curve Ball," or hear Martha Ackmann reading from the book, please head over to the website, npr.org, click on Programs, then TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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