This opinion piece ran on NPR's Only a Game on Saturday, July 29, 2006.
By Martha Ackmann
This week's historic induction of Newark Eagles' owner, Effa Manley, into baseball's Hall of Fame would have thrilled Toni Stone.
Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball on men's teams. Like Manley, she made her mark in the Negro Leagues, playing second base for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 and the legendary Kansas City Monarchs in 1954.
When a young Hank Aaron left the Negro Leagues for the majors in the early 1950s, it was Toni Stone who replaced him.
Stone started playing baseball on boys' teams in her hometown of St. Paul when softball was too slow for her. By the time she was a young woman, she was playing semi-pro ball in San Francisco and New Orleans and getting noticed.
Then came 1947 and Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. That moment and the subsequent decline of the Negro Leagues made for a unique opportunity for women.
As the Negro Leagues began to lose their fan base to the major leagues, club owners looked for new ways to bring crowds through the turnstiles.
The Clowns decided to give women a try and tapped Toni Stone to be the "gal guardian at second base."
While the owners supported her, others did not. Fans would yell "Why don't you go home and fix your husband some biscuits!?" Even a few members of her own team were known to throw the ball to Stone so that players sliding into second would be well-positioned to spike her.
When Clowns business manager Bunny Downs discovered that Stone's teammates were sabotaging her, he announced that he would take action. Any teammate found to intentionally injure Toni Stone--his marquee player--would get a personal escort to the nearest bus station. And a ticket home.
Like other Negro League players, Stone slept on a team bus night after night because hotels would not open their doors to black players. Nor would they feed them. "I was hungry all the time," she said.
Stone played two seasons, hit around .250, before the Negro League fell apart and she headed back to California. There was no Branch Rickey in her future. She played ball where she could, well into her 60s, before arthritis crippled her hands. She died in 1996.
Toni Stone was asked once why she put up with the racism and sexism to play baseball. Wasn't it obvious, the reporter asked, that baseball didn't want her? Stone's answer was simple. "A woman has her dreams too," she said.
Perhaps she was thinking about that one Easter Sunday in Omaha in 1953. She was at the plate with a 3-0 count. Satchel Paige raised his big foot and hurled an inside drop pitch, right over the plate. Stone connected, smacked it, dead-on over second base and into center. "You're a fool," the first baseman said, as she rounded the bag. "The hell I am," she said and just kept running.
Martha Ackmann is a writer who teaches at Mount Holyoke College. She is writing a book on women and baseball.
Audio Link (segment starts at 26:00)