Gazette Opens Baseball Season with Ackmann

Monday, April 4, 2011 - 10:38

This article originally appeared in the April 2, 2011 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Leverett Writer Tells the Story of Negro League Woman Baseball Pioneer
By Suzanne Wilson

You're a baseball fan and you've never heard of Toni Stone?

Martha Ackmann isn't surprised.

"Most people have never heard of her," says Ackmann, a journalist, author and Mount Holyoke College professor who lives in Leverett. "I'm always surprised when I meet someone who has."

Ackmann, 60, is drawn to the stories of women on the sidelines of American history. And so, the first, fresh hours of a new season of Major League Baseball - a sport dominated by big men with big names - seemed a fitting time to talk with Ackmann about her latest book, "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, The First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League."

Amid hardship, constancy

The short-hand version of Stone's story begins in the 1920s in St. Paul, Minn. As a young tomboy, Stone loved baseball more than just about anything. Encouraged by a priest at the Catholic Church her family attended, she became a standout local athlete whose feats on the field were covered by the local press. She went on to play for black, all-male teams that barnstormed across country playing in small towns and small parks.

Stone made the leap to the Indianapolis Clowns, a top Negro League team, in 1953. She replaced Henry Aaron, who had moved up to the recently integrated major leagues, in the infield. As the Clowns' name clearly suggests, the team's outings were presented as both sport and entertainment - and Stone, as the only woman, was part of the novelty.

In her prime, Stone was known as "a tenacious athlete," Ackmann writes, "with quick hands, a competitive bat, and a ferocious spirit..." During her career, she played alongside some of the biggest names in baseball, including Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks and Buck O'Neil.

It is an understatement to say that Stone faced enormous obstacles - both as a black player in the Jim Crow era of rigid segregation and the first woman in the Negro leagues. (Two other women later played.) She played in the days when black players, while traveling in the South on old, broken-down buses, were routinely denied access to rest stops, hotels and restaurants. In some ballparks, Ackmann writes, black fans were forced to sit in the bleachers in a segregated area created by stringing chicken wire around a section of seats. Black players, in search of a meal, often had to knock on a restaurant's back door to ask if they could get fed and were sometimes served contaminated, spoiled food at the eateries that would take them.

"I think for the most part she steeled herself against it," Ackmann said of the pervasive racism and sexism Stone faced. "Sometimes she couldn't take it and struck back. But Toni always knew she was representing her race and her sex and so she swallowed hard."

Stone was accepted by some male players, but also endured plenty of ugly taunting, harassment and sexual insults. On the road, people sometimes assumed that, as the only woman on a bus full of men, Stone was a prostitute. She wasn't, but she did sometimes stay at brothels while her teammates bunked in rooming houses. Conditions were anything but comfortable. The women who took her in were kind, Stone said, and would wash her clothes and give her a place to sleep.

As a woman playing a man's sport, Stone attracted some media attention in her day, though nothing remotely like the fame - not to mention the money - players earn today. After she quit playing in 1954, Stone worked as a home health aide in San Francisco and cared for her much-older husband, Aurelious Alberga.

The two had married in 1950, when Stone was 29 and Alberga was 67. She called him Pa, he called her "dear sweetheart" and the two settled into separate bedrooms in Alberga's Oakland home.

"I don't know whether it was a romantic relationship, but it had something that worked for them," Ackmann said. Stone always said her husband stood by her, Ackmann said, and the couple shared a deep mutual respect. "There was a constancy there."

Chasing rabbits
Ackmann and baseball go way back.

"I was a terrible runner, but I could throw really far," she said over coffee at Cushman's Market and Cafe in Amherst, as she talked about her childhood playing days in St. Louis, Mo.

Her team was sponsored by a garden supply store, and when the players ran out to take the field, this is the name they wore on their backs: Flexible Hose. "I don't think it exactly made the opposing teams quake," she said.

As she began considering topics for her next book, Ackmann said she knew she wanted to find a story that would indulge her passion for sports. Besides loving the Sox, Ackmann is a huge fan of Pat Summitt and the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team - and she also subscribes to the view that sports stories are often a window onto history.

"I knew there was this story about the woman who replaced Henry Aaron," she said.

Digging into Stone's story took Ackmann to the cities and towns where she'd played. She dug through decades-old clippings stored in the archives of the black press. She scrutinized rare old footage of Stone warming up. She listened to interviews she had done, becoming familiar with Stone's distinctive, high-pitched voice. She searched out surviving teammates, relatives and ardent baseball fans who are the keepers of old stories and stats.

"There isn't a part of writing a book that I don't like," Ackmann said. "I love the travel, I love the research, I'm happy as a clam in a dusty archive, and I love talking to people in their homes about their lives."

She also knew that at some point she'd have to stop chasing more rabbits down more holes, as she puts it, and start writing.
"I have to rein myself in because I want to know everything," she said.

Though it's easy in hindsight to call Stone a trailblazer, Ackmann says Stone didn't see herself as part of a political struggle. When the civil rights movement took off in earnest in the 1960s, Stone "didn't really connect those dots," Ackmann said. "Her focus was always on getting a chance to play. She did not have a vision of the future that was being shaped."

For Stone, it was always about the game. Ackmann writes that when she was pressured to wear a skirted uniform to bring more sex appeal to the diamond, Stone refused.

"It was about playing well and about being treated equally," Ackmann said. "She wasn't going to be denied being part of the team and she wanted to look the same way they did."

Stone, who died in 1996, lived long enough to enjoy the recognition that came her way toward the end of her life. Pictures of her went up at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Her home town, Saint Paul, threw a "Toni Stone Day" in her honor. Younger women athletes would tell her how much they admired her, Ackmann said: "She was overwhelmed and deeply moved by that."

Ackmann closes her book with a description of the weekend in August 1991 when Stone and other surviving Negro League players were invited to a reunion at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Stone, in Ackmann's words '"a strong-looking woman with a thick head of dark hair and the carriage of an athlete," stood up to speak at one of the events.

"They thought I would leave and not come back," Stone said, "'cause things were tough. Nuh uh. Baseball is my game."
 
For more about Martha Ackmann, go to www.marthaackmann.com
 
Suzanne Wilson can be reached at swilson@gazettenet.com.