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

A woman and man shake hands
Toni Stone meeting boxer Joe Louis. Stone, who grew up in St. Paul, was the first woman to play professional baseball.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When talk turns 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 city and went on to storied major league careers. 

A fifth legend, however, is often forgotten. Toni Stone, the Rondo neighborhood kid who shattered racial and gender barriers, once took the roster spot of Hank Aaron and proved over and again she could play the game.

A second baseman in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, she’s considered the first woman to play professional men's baseball. More than two decades after her death, her efforts are slowly being recognized. This weekend, Major League Baseball and the Minnesota Twins will honor Stone's memory with a baseball clinic and scrimmages for girls at the Toni Stone Invitational.

"So many Minnesota natives 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 loving baseball.. “I think we need to tell her story more. It hasn't been told too much. And her story is really, really incredible."

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‘Their attitudes changed’

Stone was born Marcenia Lyle Stone in 1921 in West Virginia, but soon moved to St. Paul, where her parents ran a barber and beauty shop downtown. They lived in the Rondo neighborhood, which is where Stone picked up a love of baseball. 

Her first break 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 would hang around the old St. Paul Saints ballpark, where she kept showing up so much that the manager eventually gave her some baseball equipment and invited her to play in a summer baseball camp there for boys.

"So from there she then started playing for, oh, all these teams in St. Paul: the men's meatpacking league, St. Paul High Lex team, the Catholic boys league and then a traveling team with adult men called the Twin City Colored Giants,” said Martha Ackmann, author of "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone."

Toni Stone exhibit
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 off the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige.
MPR Photo | Tom Crann

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

“Her story was one that told us something about not only who she was but about who we are as Americans,” Ackmann said. “And certainly Toni's story reveals much 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, minor league African American teams.

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

"She knew she was a great baseball player, but she also knew that she was being used as a gate attraction. Now Pollock said, and I think rightly so, he said, ‘If she were not a good player, fans would come to see her one time. And that would be it. But if she had the talent, they would continue to come 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, in terms of making it still 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 plenty of sexism from teammates, fans and media. A 1954 story about female athletes in Jet Magazine described Stone as "personable, effeminate off diamond." Ackmann said Stone was often taunted by fans, who told her to go home to make dinner for her husband.

Ackmann said it was tough to be a woman trying to gain a spot on a men's team.

"They thought that she would, you know, 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 fast. She was good. On the pivot at second base with double play. She could hit pretty well. Then their attitudes changed."

‘Most beautiful day of my life’

Stone retired following the 1954 season, but stayed active in baseball in the San Francisco Bay area through the rest of her life.

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

“So her struggle, first of all, as a Black person. That had to be a struggle. Because again, even here in Minnesota, we had segregated baseball. So here was that difficulty, and now you add to it, here's this woman that steps in. 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 to get the main field near St. Paul Central High School named for Stone. Two plaques outside the entrance describe her story.

"You can take this story and realize that it was this woman at a different time in life or the world. And she continued to pursue her dream,” said White, who coordinates the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities youth baseball program for the Twins. “Regardless of the challenges she met. 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 of Toni Stone Field in St. Paul, which was named after Stone, the first woman ever to play professional baseball. Stone grew up nearby in the Rondo neighborhood.
Peter Cox | MPR News

In her later years, Stone began to receive some 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 talks, she remembered when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. 

"It was the most beautiful 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 drew accolades from the New York Times and began touring the country. 

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

“We want kids to just play ball. And for the little girls who were like me, who just fell in love with baseball for some reason or another, we want them to know that they belong on a baseball field, if that's where they want to be."

Editor’s note: Registration for the Twins’ Toni Stone Invitational  is open through Thursday night.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.