By Jack El-Hai (Regular Contributor)
Most American girls who played youth baseball in the 1930s and ’40s—and there weren’t many—eventually dropped the game for marriage or jobs considered suitable for young women. Not Toni Stone, however. She became one of the sport’s great trailblazers: the first woman to play professional baseball in a men’s league.
Born in 1921 in West Virginia, Stone soon moved with her family to St. Paul, Minnesota. Baseball attracted her almost immediately. Little League baseball barred girls, but a neighborhood priest bought her a uniform that enabled her to join a Catholic youth league. As a teen, Stone was talented enough to draw the attention of Gabby Street, a former big-league manager who had won the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1931 and established a baseball school in St. Paul. Stone honed her skills with the Twin Cities Colored Giants, a semipro African American team that played on weekends. In addition, she sometimes joined other Negro teams that took to the road in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
During World War II, Stone joined her sister in California’s Bay Area. With less than a dollar in her pocket and no clue where to find her sibling, she spent several nights sleeping in a bus station before meeting Al Love and Lena Morrell, owners of a bar in the Fillmore District, the center of San Francisco’s black community. They set Stone up with food and housing, and Love even helped her win a spot on an American Legion baseball team, making her perhaps the first black woman anywhere to play Legion ball.
By the late 1940s, Stone stood 5’7 “and weighed 146 pounds. She threw hard and was highly skilled in baseballs fundamentals. She could have easily earned a place in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (dramatized in the movie A League of Her Own), but it declared only white women eligible for play. Instead, she joined the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro League, a men’s team that barnstormed the region. She batted .280 and made the league’s all-star team.
In 1949, Stone signed with the New Orleans Creoles, a prominent team in Negro League baseball. With New Orleans, Stone earned $300 a month and played regularly at second base. She remained with the Creoles for two years, batting .265 during her final season.
In achievement and distance, she had traveled a long way from the ball fields of St. Paul. “A woman has her dreams, too,” Stone explained to one of her Creoles teammates. “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 her family’s picked out for her. It wasn’t right.”
After three years with the Creoles and one season with the Indianapolis Clowns, Stone moved to the Kansas City Monarchs. The Monarchs, once the team of Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, was one of the Negro League’s best franchises. Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil played her infrequently, however, and Stone decided to retire from baseball at the end of that season.
After Stone cut loose from professional baseball, she and her husband settled in Oakland, California, where Stone worked as a nurse. Stone managed to continue playing American Legion recreational baseball until she was 62 years old.
Over time, Stone and her old Negro League teammates faded from public memory. But when interest in African American players reignited during the late 1980s and ’90s, Stone was pleased to relive her role as a trailblazer. In 1990, St. Paul named a day in her honor, and the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame inducted her in 1993.
In 1996 she died at age 75 in a nursing home in Alameda, California, following a stroke.
Ackmann, Martha. Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.
Gregorich, Barbara. Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993.