Look Who Replaced Hank Aaron: Martha Ackmann

This opinion piece ran in the Indianapolis Star on March 5, 2006.

Last Monday Effa Manley made baseball history, becoming the first woman elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Manley was co-owner of the Newark Eagles and spent a lifetime trying to gain respect and recognition for Negro League players.

Some of today's fans may be unaware that baseball was segregated before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947.

Effa Manley's election and the other 16 players and executives who were tapped last week will bring increased attention to Negro League and pre-Negro League players.

But Manley's plaque on the Hall of Fame wall also will make another statement: Women have always loved baseball; some have even played it professionally.

Take Toni Stone.

Born Marcenia Lyle, Stone has been called by some sportswriters "the greatest player you've never heard of." In 1953, Stone played second base for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League.

When a young infielder named Hank Aaron left the Clowns for the major leagues, Toni Stone replaced him.

She became the first woman to play professional baseball with men on men's teams.

While team management supported her, the going wasn't easy. Opponents sometimes targeted Stone for spikes-up plays at second. She wasn't allowed in locker rooms and had to change clothes in a janitor's closet, sometimes -- if she was lucky -- umpires would vacate their room long enough to offer her some privacy and a quick shower.

When club owners asked her to play in a skirt to add sex appeal to the games, she balked. That might be acceptable for the segregated "league of their own" teams, but to Stone, skirts were not for serious baseball. She refused to wear anything but a regulation uniform as she always had.

Like the other Negro League players, she endured bigotry on the road, was not allowed to eat in whites-only restaurants, and heard stories of white waiters in diners who would smash plates after blacks had eaten on them.

"I stayed hungry for a long time," she said.

While the Clowns experiment worked and fans came to see Stone play, a few thought she had no business on the field. With threats and intimidation that Jackie Robinson would have recognized, they sometimes jeered and yelled from the stands. "Why don't you go home and fix your husband some biscuits?"

Her husband might have agreed. "He would have stopped me if he could," she said. "But he couldn't."

Records indicate that Stone hit around .250 for the Clowns before being traded to the legendary Kansas City Monarchs for the 1954 season.

There she spent most of her time on the bench with players and coaches who resented her. "It was hell," she said.

By the end of the season, some columnists were calling for Stone to go, using the same argument that sent Rosie the Riveter back into the kitchen: Women in baseball took jobs away from men and maybe even threatened the natural order. "Girls should be run out of men's baseball on a softly padded rail for their own good," Doc Young wrote in The Chicago Defender. "This could get to be a woman's world with men just living in it."

A year later, the Negro Leagues were breathing their last and Stone, finding no Branch Rickey to champion her cause and the women's movement still more than a decade away, headed back home to Oakland.

Not playing baseball, she said, "hurt so bad I damn near had a heart attack."

But like Effa Manley, whose tombstone reads "She Loved Baseball," Toni Stone never let baseball's prejudice against women steal her love for the game.

She realized that her playing days with the Negro Leagues were in part a publicity stunt to bring fans through the gates. But she also believed that when life offers you an opportunity to do what you love -- even if it's an imperfect chance -- you take it.

"A woman has her dreams too," she always told reporters. And when they asked what she liked best about baseball, she answered quickly: "Throwing a ball around in infield practice is beautiful if it's played right."

Martha Ackmann is the author of The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. She teaches at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Related Link:

Martha Ackmann - Faculty Profile