Long known as “Tomboy Stone,” the second basewoman broke genderlines and brought attention to the Negro League in the 1950s.

When Toni Stone was offered the chance to become the first woman to play baseball in the big leagues, she recognized that life was throwing her a curveball, and she didn’t hesitate to proudly blaze that trail. As a Black woman who came of age in the 1940s and ‘50s—after World War II and before the American Civil Rights Movement was in full swing—Stone would break both racial and gender norms by playing professional baseball, knocking that curveball out of the park. 

Marcenia Lyle Stone grew up playing baseball in the sandlots of St. Paul, Minn. during a period of unofficial segregation. She was smart and determined in school, but her obvious passion for athletics earned her the official nickname “Tomboy” Stone. She was an excellent batter and catcher in baseball, played football, and she was also known for being fearless while playing red rover. Her parents didn’t approve of her singular focus on baseball and Stone’s mother urged her to take up the more feminine sport of ice skating. Stone acquiesced, and after quickly earning a championship title, she handed her mother the skates and asked if she could return to baseball.

Stone’s passion for baseball hadn’t diminished by age 10,  and she began to consider running away from home to find a baseball team that would accept a girl. When Stone confessed her escape plan to her local priest, he recognized her drive and spirit and convinced her to stay by offering her a spot on the local Catholic boys’ league.

At the time, baseball teams were segregated—Black men played in the Negro Leagues and white men played in the Major Leagues. The WWII draft forced many minor league teams to disband, and a lack of male players made way for the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Softball League (AAGPBL) in 1943—which served as the inspiration for the 1992 film A League of Their Own. Yet Stone didn’t want to play softball, she was a baseball player, and because the AAGPBL was still unofficially segregated, Stone found herself in a professional world where she didn’t fit anywhere.

But this didn’t stop her. Stone knew the game, on and off the field, and made her way into the Minor Leagues by shaving 10 years off her age on her official paperwork, thus increasing her stated salary by several thousand dollars. Stone practiced relentlessly and played baseball on otherwise all-male Black barnstorming teams throughout her twenties, all while working odd jobs on the side. Tomboy Stone” was shortened to “Toni” after joining the Minors. 

Toni Stone. Photos courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

When Jackie Robinson left the Negro Leagues for the Majors in 1947, breaking the colorline in baseball, the division between the two leagues began to crumble and Negro League ticket sales were in serious decline. By the early 1950s, owners were motivated to sign new talent; Indianapolis Clowns owner Syd Pollack thought he could improve ticket sales if he hired Stone. The Clowns played exhibition games—which mixed theatrics and athletics, similar to the Harlem Globetrotters—and since they had just lost second base player Hank Aaron to the Braves, there was an open spot to fill. Pollack knew that even if Stone wasn’t a great ballplayer, people would come to see a woman play at least once and, if she played well, they’d keep coming back and bring friends. When Pollack offered Stone the opportunity to play second base for the Clowns in 1953, she knew she was hired as a gate attraction. She seized the chance, however imperfect, to bend the curve of history and make room for other women to take the field. 

Stone subverted the gender and racial norms of her time playing second base for the Clowns, yet she faced sexism and racism on and off the field.

Her teammates routinely threw the ball so that she was forced to dive into the oncoming spiked cleats of players sliding into second base—and she had scars on her left wrist to prove it. She ignored the constant degrading requests of her to play in a skirt instead of the team uniform, which she changed into and out of inside the umpire’s locker room. During away games, Stone wasn’t allowed to lodge with the rest of the team and, instead, stayed at local brothels. But Stone did not let these setbacks distract her. 

Stone studied and practiced every facet of baseball. She memorized statistics for every player who had ever played baseball, and understood the nuances of the game. At one point in 1953, the first year Stone played for the Clowns, she batted .364—the fourth highest average in the league—and maintained an average of .243 during the two years she played with the Indy Clowns. Game attendance increased the more she played, and Stone was credited with carrying the success of the Negro League on her back.

She was fast, strong, and fearless. And even though Stone’s skill was bringing in the money for her teammates’ paychecks, they still resented her.

Stone had to prove herself every single day, every single game, and eventually people began to notice. The women at the brothels sewed extra padding in Stone’s uniform to protect her and began following her games in the newspaper to know when she’d be in town. During the offseason of the Majors, Stone played against Jackie Robinson and held her own. She became known not simply as a novelty, but as an extraordinary baseball player. 

A mosaic of famous Black ballplayers featuring Stone (center) at Downs Field in Austin, Texas.

Eventually, Stone’s true age began to catch up to her; she was a decade older than most ballplayers and felt the physically taxing nature of being a professional athlete. While Stone only played two seasons with the Clowns, she achieved her life’s dream and had also successfully broken barriers as a Black woman in men’s professional baseball. After ending the 1954 season, Stone retired from professional baseball at the age of 33. She moved to Oakland, Calif. where she worked as a nurse and cared for her husband who was 40 years her senior. Stone lived the rest of her life in California and died in 1996 at the age of 75. 

Although Stone’s athletic ability and significant contribution to American baseball made her briefly famous, she was all but forgotten until Martha Ackman wrote the book on her life, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Ackman’s 2017 book introduced Stone’s life story to notable playwright Lydia Diamond, which inspired her to write The New York Times Critic’s Pick play Toni Stone. The off-Broadway production brought Stone’s legacy back into the public conscious, earning Stone a new nickname: “The best baseball player you’ve never heard of.” 

Diamond credits Curveball with preserving Stone’s history. “If it weren’t for Martha’s book, history would want to erase Stone, as history is want to do to women who are extraordinary in ways that are outside of what women are supposed to want to do,” she said, comparing Stone’s athletic prowess to a grandmaster in chess. “She was an expert athlete to the bone. If there had been a graduate school of baseball, Toni Stone would have attended.” 

The otherwise all-male cast of Toni Stone (in its New York run, which closed Aug. 11), is led by April Matthis, who plays Stone’s focused passion for baseball against a backdrop of supporting characters who change gender and race with subtle hand gestures and props. The narrative structure highlights the fluidity of elements such as time, race, and gender, while noting Stone’s subversive power over these structures. 

“She was brave, focused, hardworking, and refused to let people tell her what she couldn’t do,” said Diamond. “There seems to be something about her that was unapologetically and bravely herself. She did this thing that no one before her had done—she was the first woman period to play professional baseball, regardless of race, and she did it during a time when the country was even more racist than it is now.” 

Despite being briefly lost to the annals of history, Stone’s story continues to resonate with feminists, athletes, people of color, and others because of its threads through the Civil Rights Movement and into the Women Sports Hall of Fame. Her legacy shows what can be achieved when you give your all—even when all life gives you is one, imperfect opportunity.

Grace Boyle is a writer for Rebel Girls, where she focuses on interviewing contemporary feminist artists and researching historical feminist leaders. Previously, she led the writing and content team at MentorBox as executive writer and editor, where she created educational content for world-class experts and thought leaders including New York Times bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grace studied writing at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature and learned to interview at the Nationally Acclaimed Public Radio show New Dimensions Radio. She regularly consults with podcasts and businesses on brand narrative and communication strategy. Grace lives by the ocean in San Francisco and begins each day with a cup of tea and a text to her mom. You can find Grace on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Elisa Macellari is a Thai-Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Milan. She specializes in children’s illustration and editorial illustration. Elisa likes colorful things, wild animals, jungle, mysterious creatures, strange objects and tom yum soup. Her illustrations have been exhibited in Italy and abroad.