Toni Stone never had a league of her own. She grew up in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, a young black woman aching to play baseball. But the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — the top level for her gender in the 1940s and ’50s — rejected her because of her race.
Stone had to follow a tougher, lonelier road to stay in the game. After playing for African-American men’s teams in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, she was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, becoming the first woman to play regularly in a major men’s professional league. Yet that remarkable achievement remained buried in history, even as other women players of the era got their due.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond had never heard of Stone a few years ago, when a producer contacted her about adapting a biography of Stone for the stage. The more Diamond learned about her, the more unthinkable that seemed.
“[The producer] was like, ‘Just read the book,’ ” Diamond said. “So I read the book. And I was like, ‘Oh. Oh. This is important.’ And why don’t I know her? It’s atrocious.”
Thousands more know Stone now, through Diamond’s play “Toni Stone.” The critically acclaimed show debuted off-Broadway last year and has been produced on both coasts, with about a dozen more stagings in the works.
Frank White of St. Paul, who studies the history of African-American teams in Minnesota, is grateful to see Stone getting more recognition nearly a quarter-century after her death at age 75. When people lobbied to have a St. Paul ball field named for her in 1996, White said she remained so obscure that many people assumed Toni Stone was a man. White later had a new sign made to recap her career, leaving no doubt about her place in history.
“I don’t think people understand the significance of what she did,” White said. “She had a passion to play, and she was successful.
“She had obstacles and challenges all along the way. But she persevered. She got an opportunity, and she was going to make the most of it, regardless of the circumstances. We can all learn from her story.”
Born Marcenia Lyle Stone in 1921, Toni excelled in everything from football to figure skating. Baseball, though, was her one true love. A priest at her parish, St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, allowed her to play on the church’s boys’ team, setting the tone for a barrier-breaking life.
By age 16, “Tom Boy” Stone was playing for the Twin City Colored Giants. She later moved to California to live with a sister, joining the semipro San Francisco Sea Lions in the 1940s.
After a few seasons with teams in New Orleans, Stone signed with Indianapolis in 1953. It was initially a publicity stunt, White said, but not for long.
“Hank Aaron had just signed [with the Boston Braves], and Indianapolis was looking for a second baseman,” White said. “They thought bringing in a woman would hype up the fan base. Then they found out she could play. That’s a piece that gets lost, that she really was a good player.”
Though statistics from the time are incomplete, Stone’s batting average during her two Negro Leagues seasons is estimated at .243. She retired in 1954, following one season with Kansas City.
White believes her achievements are all the more extraordinary when viewed through the lens of her era. Stone played with and for men who resented her, he said. Others sexually harassed her. She had to dress in the umpires’ room, and her husband, A.P. Alberga, remained in California during the season, adding to her isolation.
Yet that didn’t deter her. Diamond likened Stone’s relationship with baseball to an unrequited love, as she devoted herself to the game despite the hurdles she faced every day.
“It’s a metaphor for this thing that Toni lived for, that was elusive because she was a black woman playing a sport that is all male, in the ’40s, during Jim Crow,” Diamond said. “And she did it, tenaciously and with a singular focus. Which is hugely inspiring and quite amazing.”
Stone, who died in 1996, has been inducted into multiple sports halls of fame. Her story has been part of exhibits at the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Negro Leagues Museum and the City of Baseball Museum at CHS Field.
After the St. Paul field was named for her, White said people continued to call it by its former name, Dunning. Finding that disrespectful, he got the new sign installed.
“It’s important for people to know about her,” he said. “With everything she faced, she had to be very special to succeed. And she was.”