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Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro Leagueby Martha Ackmann
From the time she was a girl growing up in the shadow of Lexington Park in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Toni Stone knew she wanted to play professional baseball. There was only one problem--every card was stacked against her. Curveball tells the inspiring story of baseball’s “female Jackie Robinson,” a woman whose ambition, courage, and raw talent
From the time she was a girl growing up in the shadow of Lexington Park in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Toni Stone knew she wanted to play professional baseball. There was only one problem--every card was stacked against her. Curveball tells the inspiring story of baseball’s “female Jackie Robinson,” a woman whose ambition, courage, and raw talent propelled her from ragtag teams barnstorming across the Dakotas to playing in front of large crowds at Yankee Stadium. Toni Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball on men’s teams. After Robinson integrated the major leagues and other black players slowly began to follow, Stone seized an unprecedented opportunity to play professional baseball in the Negro League. She replaced Hank Aaron as the star infielder for the Indianapolis Clowns and later signed with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. Playing alongside some of the premier athletes of all time including Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Buck O’Neil, and Satchel Paige, Toni let her talent speak for itself. Curveball chronicles Toni Stone’s remarkable career facing down not only fastballs, but jeers, sabotage, and Jim Crow America as well. Her story reveals how far passion, pride, and determination can take one person in pursuit of a dream.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"A fine addition for all baseball shelves." Library Journal
"What makes Curveball stand out are the moving stories of racism faced by the black players, and Stone encountered more of it than most." Publishers Weekly
"Expertly captures Stone's significant life and the impressive strength of her will." Kirkus
"Martha Ackmann's biography of Toni Stone is three stories in oneof barnstorming baseball, the insidious Jim Crow era of segregation, and gender bias by blacks and whites. They are stories worth reading." Larry Tye, author, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
"Wow! Martha Ackmann has done a wonderful job telling the story of Toni Stone, this remarkable woman. There are no tears, no quit, no despair in baseball. Stand tall, keep your eyes on the Prize. SWING!" Nikki Giovanni
"We need to know [Toni Stone's] story, and in Martha Ackmann's capable hands, we do. From this time forward it will be impossible to overlook Stone or her heroic contribution to both the National Pastime and the cause of women's rights." Glenn Stout, author, Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World; editor, The Best American Sports Writing 2009
"Curveball is an eloquent and a necessary work. Toni Stone's life and this book are both wonders to behold." Dayn Perry, columnist, FOXSports.com, and author, Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball's Mr. October
"Martha Ackmann has lovingly introduced us to someone in baseball whom almost none of us ever knew existed. We should thank her for that introduction to the indomitable Toni Stone and for guiding us to a forgotten place in the sport's history." Frank Deford, columnist, Sports Illustrated, and author, Bliss, Remembered
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The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League
By Martha Ackmann
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Martha Ackmann
All rights reserved.
A Question of Sin
From where she stood the air she craved
Smote with the smell of pine;
It was too much to bear; she braved
Her gods and crossed the line.
— Countee Cullen
Tomboy Stone had a confession to make. The young girl knelt in the St. Peter Claver confession box and began to unburden her mind. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," she began, and admitted that she wanted to run away from home. Tomboy was having trouble with her parents, and their disapproval was more than the twelve-year-old could bear. She looked down at her hands, worn and dirty from all the hours she spent outdoors, and thought about how she had come to make such a difficult decision. For some time Tomboy had felt pulled between the love she felt for her family and her love for something else: baseball. "It was like a drug," she said. "Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I'd go crazy." Boykin and Willa Stone did not understand their daughter's obsession. They thought it was wrong, that it was unnatural for a girl to be so consumed by a boy's game. Tomboy was well acquainted with their opinion. "My parents thought the idea of a little girl playing baseball was sinful," she said. Her mother even sent a letter to teachers at school, informing them that her daughter's health might suffer if she played sports. She "told them I had a heart murmur, anything to discourage me." Tomboy also knew her parents had appealed to Father Keefe, the family's parish priest, to dissuade her from playing baseball with neighborhood boys. But she could not give up the sport, and, after trying unsuccessfully to win her parents' approval to keep playing, Tomboy decided to run away. Her decision made her heartsick, but, torn between baseball and her family, her choice was clear.
Father Charles Keefe listened as the young black girl recited the litany of her transgressions. Even out of sight in the confessional, children like Tomboy could not hide from Father Keefe. He recognized the children's voices, and sometimes he didn't bother to pretend that their disclosures were anonymous. He was like their mother or an alert teacher or the radio's fictional crime fighter the Green Hornet in his omniscient acuity. Once, after one of the neighborhood children confessed his sins, the boy was startled when Father's disembodied voice rang out from the opposite side. "By the way, Mel," he said, "could you get me a carton of cigarettes from the store?"
Kids and adult parishioners alike trusted Father Keefe. As a white priest in a historically black congregation, he had gained the community's respect for his commitment to race relations. Tomboy thought highly of him, too, and was drawn to his honesty. To her, he was clear and direct — straight across the plate. She also loved his passion for life. She called him a "big old Irishman" who had a "Joy to the World" enthusiasm about him. He was a kind and creative man: the type to find a solution to a problem rather than issue a decree, she thought. A few years before, when the Stone family first started attending St. Peter Claver, Father Keefe had taken an interest in young Tomboy. He knew Mr. and Mrs. Stone were concerned about their daughter. The youngster was an outcast: she did not do well in school and was made fun of by some of her peers because she didn't look, act, or talk like other girls. Keefe even knew that Boykin and Willa Stone disliked their daughter's nickname, "Tomboy." They called their daughter by her given name, Marcenia Lyle Stone. But to children and everyone else around St. Peter Claver, she was Tomboy Stone — the best athlete in the Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the girl who got into fights for being different.
Tomboy completed her confession and agreed to recite several Hail Marys and Our Fathers. It was a light penance — what St. Peter Claver kids called "a slap on the wrist." But Father Keefe knew he had to do more than require Tomboy to pray. He had to come up with a long-term plan for handling the girl's unconventional dreams while respecting her parents' concerns. Willa and Boykin Stone were strict parents, but Keefe believed their worry for Tomboy stemmed more from anxiety about her future than from a conviction that playing baseball was morally wrong. The Stones thought baseball was unladylike, that there was no future in it, and they were anxious that their daughter might get hurt, physically or emotionally. Boykin and Willa wanted all four of their children to amount to something. Willa especially was concerned about their three daughters' economic independence. She knew that for a young woman to truly have choices in life, she had to have money. Playing baseball would never give Marcenia that freedom, Willa thought. Boykin had additional concerns. He frequently lectured his children that even now — in 1933 — black people in the United States faced unfair obstacles. Tomboy said her father explained "how rotten the whites were to us ... and how he wanted us to get our education." What could baseball possibly offer a twelve-year-old girl from a black neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Willa and Boykin Stone asked their daughter? Everything, Tomboy thought.
After he finished hearing confessions from the line of youngsters standing in a neat row along the church wall, Father Keefe went to his office and considered how he could help Tomboy Stone. He did not believe Tomboy could be talked out of playing baseball: he had seen her play and knew she was a gifted athlete. He also wondered if sports might actually help the combative Tomboy more than hurt her. If she was proud of what she did on the diamond and gained some respect in the community, perhaps Tomboy wouldn't fight as much. Maybe she would forget about running away. Keefe thought about suggesting that the youngster become more involved with the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center — a lifesaver for kids with time on their hands and an inclination to temptation. But Boykin and Willa Stone might feel more assured, Keefe wagered, if their daughter participated in something directly connected to the church. The diocese had a baseball league for boys, and he knew that Tomboy was acquainted with many of the players. "After Mass, I'd put my dungarees on and I'm out to find the fellas," she said. Keefe might be able to convince parish boys to let Tomboy play in the Catholic boys' baseball league if they realized how fast she could run and how far she could hit a ball. If he could channel her athletic ability into a Catholic activity, perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Stone would stop criticizing their daughter's interests. Father Keefe mentioned his idea to Tomboy. He "told me that since I wasn't going to stop playing," she said, "I might as well play for the church."
Keefe's idea worked. After he spoke to the Stones and suggested their daughter try the Catholic boys' league, they relented. He calmed Willa and assured her he would look out for Marcenia. Tomboy was thrilled. The Stones' neighbor, Melvin — Father Keefe's cigarette runner — thought there was a more subversive reason the thoughtful priest wanted Tomboy involved with the parish baseball team. "She had the most talent," Melvin said. Folks in the neighborhood didn't seem to mind that Tomboy Stone was an oddball girl playing baseball on a boys' team as long as she helped St. Peter Claver win the game. It was settled. "I got a chance," Tomboy said, and played outfield and infield.
Tomboy was fortunate to have Father Keefe intercede with her parents. She also was fortunate to live where she did. The Rondo neighborhood in Saint Paul, named for the busy two-mile-long street that was its main artery, was heaven for a kid who loved baseball. Just blocks from Tomboy's home was Dunning Field, next to Central High School, where she could always find kids playing catch. Next to Dunning was Saint Paul's grand Lexington Park — the field Charlie Comiskey built before he took his name and his team to Chicago. The park was home to the Saint Paul Saints. Gabby Street, "the Old Sarge," managed the team after being fired from the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals a few years earlier. If he could manage the Cardinals' Gas House Gang with Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin, "the wild horse of the Osage," surely he could handle a team of twenty-year-old kids who hoped to make it to the big leagues. Tomboy loved Lexington Park, not only for the stray baseballs that she found there but especially for the days when Babe Ruth came to town. The Babe came to town on customary trips, when the Saints were an informal farm team for the Yankees. He'd sign baseballs, pose for pictures, and chat up the locals. But the Saints weren't the only game in town. A few miles to the west was Nicollet Park, home of the New York Giants' farm club the Minneapolis Millers. Kids like Tomboy waited all summer long for the big Fourth of July weekend doubleheader. The day would start with a game in Saint Paul, then fans would hop on streetcars and ride across the Mississippi River bridge for an evening nightcap in Minneapolis. Players enjoyed the Twin City doubleheaders as much as the fans did. They made a lot of money when crowds filled the bleachers. They called the Saints and Millers holiday doubleheaders "Pay Days."
On days when the Millers or the Saints were playing away games, Negro League teams would schedule games and rent the vacant stadiums. The great Satchel Paige, barnstorming through the Dakotas, stopped in Saint Paul and dazzled crowds with his one-of-a-kind pitches, as impossible to hit as their names were to forget: the bat dodger, the midnight creeper, the bee ball, Long Tom, Little Tom, the trouble ball, the two-hump blooper. After the games, Paige would stroll the midway around Rondo, duck into a restaurant, and revel in the attention of starstruck fans. Tomboy swore she met Satchel on one of his walks around the midway. They talked about baseball, and Paige later sent a letter encouraging her to stay in school. She said that Satch had heard from Rondo folks about her extraordinary play in the Catholic boys' league and even spoke to her mother about the young girl's future in baseball. Years later, Stone's family said they never heard of the "Satchel story," although one could never be sure. Tomboy Stone loved the limelight and seemed to have a knack for finding celebrity. Rondo's vitality seemed to spark a child's imagination. "You could dream your dreams there," one resident said. It never occurred to anyone that a girl might dream about baseball.
Tomboy's family had settled in Rondo and Saint Paul during the Great Migration, the movement of nearly two million African Americans from the South to the industrial cities in the North, West, and Midwest beginning in 1910. Families searched for better jobs, better schools, and better treatment as far from the grip of racism as they could manage. Growing up in South Carolina, Boykin Stone decided that scratching out a living as a farmer was not for him. The land was unforgiving. Instead he left his home in Log Town and entered the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1908 to learn a trade — barbering. Booker T. Washington's philosophy at Tuskegee made a deep impression on him. Stone believed blacks should learn a trade that could support a family. Even if it meant sweeping out a store or washing windows, a person needed work, he said. Stone viewed any kind of labor as dignified and could not stand loafers or people who drifted without a realistic goal. Stone served in the U.S. Army in World War I and later married Willa Maynard. The couple had four children in rapid succession after the war: daughters Blanche, Marcenia, and Bernous and a son, Quinten. All the children were born in West Virginia; Marcenia was born in Bluefield, near the Kentucky border, on July 17, 1921. When other members of the family headed to Saint Paul, Boykin and Willa joined them in 1931. They found a house two blocks from relatives and established a family compound of sorts, with multiple generations all living within walking distance. For a Stone child who occasionally misbehaved, as Tomboy did, punishment was difficult to escape. Grandparents looked out kitchen windows as they ate peach cobbler, aunts talked over laundry lines to inquisitive neighbors, cousins sat on front porches, putting rags on smoking smudge pots to ward off the summer mosquitoes. They heard and saw everything. "They were good people," a neighbor remembered, "hard working, strict with their children, friendly." People passing by the family's homes often could hear music floating from open windows. Willa and her sister, Aunt Johnnie, would each play one of two pianos in their mother's living room. Tomboy's brother, Quinten, played saxophone. Another relative brought a trumpet. "They had it going on for hours," the family said. Tomboy would sometimes join the group and bang on a drum set, but in order to carry on with the musical Stone clan, "you had to be good" and Marcenia couldn't keep up.
Saint Paul, in the early 1930s, when the Stones arrived from West Virginia, had a small, cohesive black community. They made up only 1.5 percent of the city's population, centering mainly around Rondo. Residents in the Twin Cities referred to the Rondo neighborhood as "colored." Tomboy's friend Evelyn Edwards remembered that, in the 1930s, "colored" meant integrated: blacks and whites lived on the same block, and white women dated and married black men. Even with a small population, blacks owned a significant percentage of homes in Saint Paul. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, Saint Paul had a larger percentage of black-owned homes than any other city in the country. Generally speaking, families with jobs that paid lower wages lived in Cornmeal Valley to the east of Dale Avenue; those with more money settled up on Oatmeal Hill to the west. The Stones lived in Cornmeal Valley. Further up Oatmeal Hill, adjacent to Rondo, were the mansions of Summit Avenue, where wealthy white people lived. F. Scott Fitzgerald rented a unit of one of the mansions while reworking This Side of Paradise before heading to Hollywood to try his hand as a screenwriter. The fathers of some of Tomboy's friends worked as waiters when the Summit families hired caterers. Status in Rondo was based more on who a person worked for than on what a worker did. To be employed by Summit Avenue families was a point of pride. To be one's own boss, however, was a mark of even higher status.
Job opportunities brought most black families to Saint Paul. Some men moved from the South for "running on the road" jobs — porters and dining car waiters for the many railroads that crossed through the area. Others worked for tips as Redcaps out of Union Depot: hauling bags, cleaning toilets, and polishing endless sweeps of brass railings, a task many admitted was their least favorite. Women worked primarily as cooks or did "day work" around town for white families who needed help with cleaning or ironing. In 1929, black families in Saint Paul owned twenty-seven barbershops, five pool halls, seven restaurants, three shoeshine parlors, seven tailor shops, one picture-framing store, and one piano-polishing business. One of the barbershops was Boykin's Barber and Beauty Shop in the busy Seven Corners area, just east of the State Capitol. "My parents were survivors," Tomboy said, "and they opened a beauty shop in town." Boykin and Willa opened the business together and served white clientele only. Many black-owned barbershops in Saint Paul and elsewhere exclusively cut white hair and, according to one resident, "strongly discouraged Black patrons."
But by the 1930s the long tradition of black barbers who earned financial rewards, status, and upward mobility by catering to white customers was beginning to give way. Italian and German immigrants set up shops and drew white customers away. In addition, some people within the community began to ask if black barbers contributed to segregation by cutting only white hair: "color line barbers," critics called them. Perhaps the community would do better, some argued, if segregation policies were challenged rather than maintained. While many black residents did not like the idea of segregated shops, they also could see other ways in which an individual barber contributed to the community. It was almost as if they said, "I hate what you're doing, but you're doing good things outside the shop."
Although they did not outwardly speak of any conflict of conscience, Boykin and Willa may have felt ambivalent when the occasional black customer came into the shop looking for a haircut or a shave. How could they turn away a member of their own race? Many black barbers would silently escort a patron to the back of the shop for a quick cut; others would shake their heads and show the customer the door. Some would only cut black people's hair at the customers' homes, in the back yard. Willa's sister said that her sibling couldn't do black hair if she tried. After years of cutting white hair, Willa simply did not know how to cut and style hair for a black customer. Some barbers with a keen eye for the changing times took a cue from Madame C. J. Walker, who built a fortune creating grooming products for blacks. They opened new shops in segregated communities and expanded their business to a growing urban market. Whitney Young, who came to Saint Paul to work on a master's degree at the University of Minnesota, recognized that the older generation of blacks faced a changing world and represented a time when segregation was accepted as a condition of life. Young did not fault the generation of barbers like Boykin and Willa Stone. It was difficult balancing the need for self-respect against the obligation to make money. "In dealing with the opposing forces, [the older generation] were skillful diplomats," Young wrote. "One might admit that at that time the strategic overtures of humility, servitude and inferiority were the best weapons for dealing with the powerful. Most of these Negro leaders' techniques have changed with the times and those who are living today are still courageous fighters for Negro rights."
Excerpted from Curveball by Martha Ackmann. Copyright © 2010 Martha Ackmann. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Meet the Author
Martha Ackmann is a journalist and the author of the award-winning The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. Her sports commentary has appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and on National Public Radio's Only a Game. She has held fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the Society for American Baseball Research. She teaches in the gender studies department at Mount Holyoke College.
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