Curveball Resurrects the Story of a Female Baseball Player

Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone (2010)
By Martha Ackmann
Lawrence Hill Books, 211 pages + prologue, notes, bibliography, index

The recent dismissal of Boston Red Sox operations chief Dave Dombrowski touched off discussion that his place might be taken by a woman, Raquel Ferreira. The media has treated this as potentially path breaking, but that’s only the case if you don’t look very deeply into baseball’s past. As we move into time of the year where the World Series will be decided for the 115th time, let’s look at something that’s truly unique: the first woman to play professional baseball. And I mean on men’s teams, not in all-female leagues.

Maybe you missed it when it was first published in 2010, but Martha Ackmann’s Curveball tells the story of Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone (1921-1990), a second baseman who made her professional debut in 1945. Ackmann is a Mount Holyoke gender studies professor. Yes, this is an “academic” book, though there’s nothing dry about it; Ackmann is far more interested in presenting a compelling biography than in displaying her (considerable) scholarly prowess. Stone grew up loving baseball and was really good at, when she got a chance to display her talents. That required great determination. It was hard enough being a girl decades before anyone even dreamed of Title IX; try being a black female during the 1930s.

Stone had a few things going for her. First, her family moved from West Virginia–which bordered Jim Crow Virginia–to Minneapolis when Stone was just 10. Second, Toni didn’t buy into gender roles. At a young age she acquired a nickname that stuck with her for the rest of her life: “Tomboy.” (Even as a pro player she refused to do ‘feminine’ publicity shots until 1954, and even then it was in her baseball uniform, not a dress.) The third break was that Father Keefe, a Catholic priest, talked Tomboy’s family into letting her play ball. Stone’s earliest organized play was in the Catholic equivalent of Little League. Stone was also a diehard fan of the St. Paul Saints, the local white minor league team. She began playing semi-pro and American Legion baseball at the age of 15.

Stone was known as a sure-handed second baseman. She was never a power hitter, but she was good enough to make her professional with the San Francisco Sea Lions of West Coast Negro Baseball League (WCNBL) in 1946, after stints working in Bay Area defense industries during World War II. Note the timing: In 1947, Jackie Robinson would break Major League Baseball’s (MLB) color line. Stone wasn’t dreaming of MLB; she just loved competing in all sports, especially baseball. She played in the WCNBL though the 1952 season, first with the Sea Lions, then with two New Orleans teams, the Black Pelicans and the Creoles.

Her big break came in 1953: an invitation to join the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League. A few explanatory notes are in order. The Negro League began its downward spiral when Jackie Robinson signed an MLB contract. The best talent soon gravitated to major league teams and by 1952 just six Negro League teams remained. But do not think of this brand of baseball as any sort of minor league. The year before Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns, it signed someone whose name you probably know: Hank Aaron. Ernie Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs before being signed by he Chicago Cubs. Tomboy Stone also one got a hit off a famous Monarchs pitcher: Satchel Paige. If you think he let her get a hit, you know nothing about Satchel Paige!*

Another matter in need of redress is the Indianapolis team name of the Clowns. To modern ears this sounds demeaning. That was only partially the case. The franchise came to Indiana by way of Miami, where they were known as the Ethiopian Clowns because of their proximity to the Florida Clown College associated with the circus, which wintered in Florida. Moreover, the Negro League’s “season” was so loose that its biggest game of the year was its All-Star game, not its World Series.** Money was tight and teams often barnstormed to pay the bills. On that circuit, the Clowns entertained with humor and razzle-dazzle analogous to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters. Stone didn’t mind hamming it up during exhibitions, but she insisted on being treated as a real ballplayer.

In Ackmann’s telling, Tomboy spent her life defying expectations. She played baseball with men, but broached no nonsense. When a New Orleans player harassed her on the team bus and her manager told her to settle the matter herself, she did; she took a bat into her hands and clobbered him. Stone showed little interest in dating and her clothing choices led many to assume she was a lesbian. They were shocked when she married Aurelious Pescia Alberga in December 1950. She was 29 and he was 67!

Curveball is also a rich trove of Negro League facts and lore. There are good books on Negro league baseball, but most deal with its “golden age” in the 1920s-30s when such legendary figures as Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Rube Foster, Josh Gibson, and Willie Wells were at the height of their powers, and Effa Manley smashed a few gender roles as owner of the Newark Eagles. Ackmann’s book takes us inside the waning years of Negro league ball. Stone’s elevation to the big time was motivated in part by the hope that audiences would come to the park to see the novelty of a female player, but Stone refused to be a sideshow act. She played for the Clowns in 1953, but left the team over a money dispute and the signing of Connie Morgan, who also played second base. Tomboy then signed with Kansas City, but quit when it was clear that they too only wanted to cash in on her novelty. ***

Did gender barriers prevent Stone from following other black stars into the majors? No. She was more than a PR stunt, but she hit just .243 and would not have held her own in stiffer competition. Nonetheless, hers was a fascinating life that we are indebted to Martha Ackmann for resurrecting it.

Rob Weir  

  * The Clowns were the last Negro league franchise to fold. It barnstormed through 1967. I saw Satchel Paige pitch when the Clowns came to my Pennsylvania hometown that last year. Even at age 60, Paige could pull off his diamond trick. He took the mound with a catcher, a first baseman, and one infielder and retired the side. The next inning, Paige threw a strike and then motioned the two fielders to the bench. In just 8 more pitches he struck out all three batters.

** Because teams needed to make money through exhibition matches, it was impossible to prepare any sort of normal schedule. Were you to look at league “standings” in a given year you’d discover that some teams played a 100 or more “league” games while others might play around 40.

***One more female player took the field before the Negro League disappeared. Between 1953-55, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a pitcher, registered 33 wins against 8 losses.

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