As We Mark the Anniversary of Title IX, I Regret I Never Met Toni Stone—The First Black Woman To Play Professional Baseball

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Toni Stone, the first woman baseball player in the Negro Leagues. (AP Photo / Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum)

“Stars of the Negro Leagues.” I can’t remember where I bought the boxed set of trading cards that feature Black athletes who were prevented from playing Major League Baseball. This, until April 1947 when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier that had prevailed, for nearly a century, in “America’s National Pastime.” 

While thrilled to own the highly collectible cards, I’m mindful that the deck doesn’t include Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone. Unfamiliar with the name? I’m not surprised.

Few seem to know that Stone was the first Black woman to play professional baseball. Having defended second base for other Negro League teams, she replaced Henry “Hank” Aaron at the position when, in 1953, he left the Indianapolis Clowns to join the roster of the Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Braves.

In April 1974, Aaron bested Babe Ruth’s 714 home record with a shot that cleared the left field wall at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. He died in January 2021 at age 86.

“In physical size [Toni] almost was identical to Aaron,” wrote Martha Ackerman in Curveball, her 2010 book about Stone. “In the field, she turned efficient double plays and stood firm against hard-charging base runners.”

Stone later laced up her cleats for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs before retiring from baseball at age 33. Then a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, she worked as a nurse before her death in November 1996, at age 75.

As it happened, I was a staff reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle during the last 10 years of Stone’s life. In fact, we lived within minutes of each other in nearby Oakland, Calif.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark June 1972 legislation that enabled girls and women to participate fully in interscholastic sports, I regret that I never met Toni Stone.

Instead, my editors directed me to write articles about a white, San Francisco 49ers football player whose injuries they always deemed headline news. I was also dispatched to Candlestick Park (since demolished) to cover baseball games between the arch rival San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In a rarity for a 1980s Black woman reporter, I once interviewed, at home plate, then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. In hindsight, I would have gladly traded the experience for a chat with Toni Stone.

For I have more than a journalist’s “objective” interest in the life and legacy of Stone. Now age 68, I lament the fact that I abandoned softball just before the passage of Title IX. Threatened by the lesbian baiting that trailed female athletes and clueless about Stone’s pioneering role in baseball, I shelved my first base mitt after a single season with a team that had widened my horizons.

In a rarity for a 1980s Black woman reporter, I once interviewed, at home plate, then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. In hindsight, I would have gladly traded the experience for a chat with Toni Stone.

My softball team—the Marvelettes—was supported with municipal funds for youth recreation programs during the 1960s-era civil rights movement. Decked out in our crisp white cotton shirts and denim shorts, we travelled to playing fields previously deemed off-limits for Blacks in my midwestern home town. I don’t recall a single racial slight.

As for gender, girls in cleats were soon branded “mannish” in the coded parlance of the day. The innuendo was too much for an adolescent then struggling to suppress lesbian leanings. Feigning disaffection with practice (lame!), I quit softball at season’s end. Call it an intentional walk.

Sidelined by societal and internalized homophobia, I effectively forfeited the opportunities that Title IX has now afforded millions of girls and women for half a century. On her website, tennis great Billie Jean King put it this way: “Since Title IX’s passage, female participation at the high school level has grown by 1057 percent and by 614 percent at the college level.”

As King also noted, Title IX has enabled a growing number of women to craft professional careers in sports as players, coaches, officiating staff and executives.

Consider: Jennifer King, assistant running back coach for the Washington Commanders,  Alyssa Nakken, on-field coach for the San Francisco Giants, Sarah Thomas, the first woman to officiate in a Super Bowl game and Kim Ng, general manager of the Miami Marlins.

Then there’s openly gay WNBA champion Brittney Griner who has been detained in Russia since February. Like her legions of fans, I wish BG (her nickname) a safe return home.

Sidelined by societal and internalized homophobia, I effectively forfeited the opportunities that Title IX has now afforded millions of girls and women for half a century.

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Celebrating Toni Stone” via Google on Feb. 9, 2022. (Illustrated by Monique Wray)

While I never got the chance to meet Toni Stone, I was delighted by the Google Doodle that, earlier this year, celebrated her baseball career.  For I’m mindful that Jim Crow laws also prevented Stone from playing with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that existed from 1943-1954.

Indeed, the 1992 film A League of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, includes a scene that turns on a Black female spectator who is believed to have been inspired by Stone.

“Toni was not allowed to play in the Women’s League because she was Black,” said Monique Wray, the California-based illustrator who created the dazzling animation of Stone for Google. “Playing with men in the Negro League was literally the only option for her.”

As for me, I’d likely be a stronger and more agile sexagenarian—less dependent on ice packs and heating pads after my aerobics class—had I not abandoned softball during my youth. So, here’s a fist bump for the 50th anniversary of Title IX with high hopes for a Toni Stone card in a new edition of Stars of the Negro Leagues.

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About

A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life (2004). She lives in Nova Scotia.