League of her own: Twins baseball clinic to honor St. Paul’s Toni Stone

When it comes to the greats of St. Paul baseball, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Joe Mauer and Jack Morris usually come to mind. The four grew up in the capital and have had an incredible career in the major leagues.

However, a fifth legend is often forgotten. Toni Stone, the Rondo neighborhood kid who smashed racial and gender barriers, once took Hank Aaron’s roster spot and proved time and time again that she could play the game.

A second baseman in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, she is credited with being the first woman to play men’s professional baseball. More than two decades after her death, her efforts are beginning to be recognized. This weekend, Major League Baseball and the Minnesota Twins will honor Stones memories with a baseball clinic and girls’ scrimmage at the Toni Stone Invitational.

“So many Minnesota locals don’t know about Toni Stone and, you know, it’s no fault of their own,” said Chelsey Falzone, the Twins’ youth engagement manager, who, like Stone, grew up in Minnesota and loved baseball. “I think we need to tell her story more. Not too much was told. And her story is really, really incredible.”

“Your attitude has changed”

Stone was born Marcenia Lyle Stone in West Virginia in 1921, but soon moved to St. Paul, where her parents ran a hair and beauty salon downtown. They lived in the Rondo neighborhood, which is where Stone discovered his love for baseball.

Her first breakthrough came when her priest at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church convinced Stone’s parents to let her play on the parish boys’ team. In later years, Stone hung out at the old St. Paul Saints ballpark, where she showed up so often that the manager eventually gave her baseball equipment and invited her to play at an all-boys summer baseball camp there.

“From there, she started playing for all these teams in St. Paul: the men’s Meatpacking League, the St. Paul High Lex team, the Catholic Boys League, and then a traveling adult male team called the Twin City Colored Giants ‘ said Martha Ackmann, author of Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone.

Toni Stone is part of the Black and Brown Baseball exhibit at the Minnesota African American Museum. Stone grew up in St. Paul and graduated from Roosevelt High in Minneapolis. She was one of the first women to play Negro League baseball. She played for the St. Paul Giants and for the Indianapolis Clowns. She once got a hit from legendary pitcher Satchel Paige.

MPR Photo | tom crane

Ackmann, who writes books about women who shaped and transformed America, said she was immediately drawn to Stone’s journey.

“Her story told us not only about who she was, but also about who we are as Americans,” Ackmann said. “And certainly Toni’s story reveals a lot about Jim Crow America, sexism in the United States and what happens when you grow up with a dream that people don’t think you should have.”

Stone eventually moved to San Francisco where she joined the Barnstorming San Francisco Sea Lions and later the New Orleans Creoles, African American minor league teams.

Eventually, Syd Pollock, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Leagues team, picked her to replace future Hall of Fame batter Hank Aaron after the Boston Braves bought Aaron’s contract.

“She knew she was a great baseball player, but she also knew she was being used as a goal attraction. Now Pollock said, and I think rightly he said, ‘If she wasn’t a good player, the fans would come and see her. And that would be it. But if she had the talent, they would keep coming to see her,'” Ackmann said.

“And baseball historians say that in the 1952-1953 seasons, Toni Stone carried the Negro Leagues on her back, you know, to still make it a financially viable business,” Ackmann added.

Stone later signed with the Kansas City Monarchs and played with or against many baseball greats, including Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Satchel Paige.

She faced a lot of sexism from teammates, fans and the media. A 1954 story about female athletes in Jet Magazine described Stone as “sympathetic, feminine without the diamond”. Ackmann said Stone was often mocked by fans, who told her to go home to make dinner for her husband.

Ackmann said it’s tough as a woman trying to get into a men’s team.

“They thought it would dilute the strength of the team,” Ackmann said. “But then when they saw that she was helping them and that she could play, she was very quick. She was good second base with double play. She was pretty good at hitting. Then her attitude changed.”

“The best day of my life”

Stone retired after the 1954 season but remained active in baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area for the rest of her life.

Ackmann and others who have researched Stone’s groundbreaking efforts in baseball say they are amazing, especially given the era.

“So their struggle first and foremost as black people. This had to be a fight. Because even here in Minnesota we had separated baseball. So here was this difficulty, and now add, here is this woman intervening. And she wants to play,” said Frank White, author of They Played for the Love of the Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota.”

White helped name the peloton near St. Paul Central High School after Stone. Two panels in front of the entrance describe their history.

“You can take that story and realize that it was that woman at a different time in life or in the world. And she continued to pursue her dream,” said White, who coordinates the twins’ youth baseball program, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. “Regardless of the challenges she faced, she continued that dream and I think that’s a good story for all of us.”

A sign at a baseball field

The sign outside Toni Stone Field in St. Paul, named for Stone, the first woman to ever play professional baseball. Stone grew up nearby in the Rondo neighborhood.

Peter Cox | MPR News

In her later years, Stone gradually gained recognition. St. Paul declared Toni Stone Day in 1990 and she was invited to speak at local schools about growing up with a baseball dream. During one of those conversations, she recalled when Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” she told the class.

Stone died in 1996 before Ackmann’s book was published, before the field in St. Paul was named after her, and before an Off-Broadway play about her life was honored by the New York Times and began touring the country.

“The recognition this weekend is personal to me because I played baseball with the boys through college and then switched to fast pitch softball in college…I love them both so much,” said the Twins’ Falzone.

“We want the kids to just play ball. And for the little girls that were like me and just fell in love with baseball for whatever reason, we want them to know that if they want to be there, they belong on a baseball field.”

Editor’s note: registration for the twins, the Toni Stone Invitational is open through Thursday night.

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