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Toni Stone

Kathryn S Gardiner  | Published on 5/14/2021

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

In the 1992 film A League of Their Own, a brief scene depicts our heroes, the Rockford Peaches, an all-woman baseball team, trying to reclaim a ball that has gone out of bounds. A Black woman picks it up. She’s a spectator, standing with other Black women and men watching from outside the fences because they were not permitted in the stands.

 

“Right here,” says the protagonist Dottie Hinson, barely 10 feet away, her mitt up and ready to catch. Instead, the Black woman hurls the baseball with enough speed and precision to send it all the way to the catcher’s mound where it’s caught with an impressed wince of pain. The woman then nods meaningfully at Dottie and returns to her spot outside the fence.


This scene serves as a reminder that, when a door is pushed open by and for white women, it often remains intractably closed for women of color with equal, if not greater, talent. A League of Their Own highlights events that happened in 1943. Jackie Robinson became the first Black man in the male leagues in 1947. Neither the relative legitimacy of the white women’s leagues, nor a Black man in the pros opened the doors for Black women with passion for baseball. 

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Marcenia Lyle Stone was born July 17, 1921 in West Virginia to parents Boykin and Willa Maynard Stone. In her teens, she would choose the name Toni as a better fit with her personality. Father Boykin was a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute and served in the United States Army during World War I. Mother Willa was a hairdresser, who worked even as she raised Toni and her two sisters and brother.

 

Toni was undoubtedly a challenge for Willa. The family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in the early 1930s, where they opened Boykin’s Barber and Beauty Shop. Rowdy, spirited Toni loved playing baseball with the neighborhood boys. Naturally, this earned her the designation “tomboy.” Her mother begged her to pursue more ladylike sports and bought her a pair ice skates. Toni learned to skate, even excelling to win a city competition, but figure skating didn’t satisfy her athlete’s heart. The softball played by other girls wasn’t fast enough for her. According to some stories, she also tried swimming, track, basketball, and football. But she always came back to that American standard: baseball. 



Her preteen and early teen years were punctuated by adults who failed to see, respect, or cultivate her talents, whether because of her gender, her race, or both. When a priest suggested she join the parish league, her parents consented because it was a church activity. The coach of the team, however, had no interest in training a girl, so Toni was pushed aside. She read the rule books and taught herself what she could of this sport she loved. Desperate to be trained, she loitered around a St. Paul baseball school, trying to convince the coach to take her on. “Every time I chased her away,” recalled Coach Charles Evard “Gabby” Street in an interview with Ebony Magazine in 1953, “she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.”

 

Toni often skipped school in favor of baseball and eventually dropped out around age 16, in 1937, when she was hired to play weekend games with the Twin City Colored Giants team. It was a paying gig—about $2 a game (equivalent to $37 a game in 2021)—so her parents permitted it.

 

In 1943, 22-year-old Toni left Minnesota for San Francisco to live near her older sister. She settled in the Filmore District, known then as the “Harlem of the West” because of its vibrant jazz music and nightlife. There, she worked at Jack’s Tavern, the first Black-owned nightclub in the area. It was also where Toni would meet her future husband, the much-older Captain Aurelious Pescia Alberga, a local Oakland man and a veteran of the first World War. 

 

Toni remained singularly focused. She wanted to play baseball and would do almost anything to make that happen. Through more connections forged at Jack’s Tavern, she found in-roads with the American Legion Baseball teams. She’d played briefly with the legion teams in Minnesota. But San Francisco teams had age limits, so Toni said she was 17, not 27, and went for it. She played with the team from 1943 to 1945.

 

The existing all-women leagues that Toni could have otherwise pursued had strict beauty standards for their players. A League of Their Own features these athlete makeovers, leaning into the comedy of “tomboys” and farmgirls being turned into beauty queens. A requirement that went unspoken in these scenes, however, was whiteness. According to these all-women baseball leagues, the women must be beautiful—and to be beautiful, the women must be white. These leagues were never a possibility for Toni, no matter how impressive her skills or how willing she might have been to “play ball” with sexist beauty standards for her love of baseball.

 

By spring of 1949, she was playing for the San Francisco Sea Lions, a previously all-male Black baseball league. She had argued to the owners that a woman on the team would draw crowds and they took a chance on her. The game schedule was grueling, but Toni proved her worth; in her first game, her time at bat lead to two homeruns. But she would soon leave the team after discovering her pay was much lower than what her male teammates received. She quickly joined with the New Orleans Creoles instead, in that same year. 

 

Toni married Aurelious in 1950. He settled in the Bay Area permanently, becoming a homebase for Toni during the years that her baseball career took her on the road.

 

In 1953, Toni signed with the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns to play second base, taking over the position from Hank Aaron. The owner had been trying to sign her for the better part of three years. His goal was the publicity that would come from hiring a female player, but Toni was there to play serious ball.

 

The Indianapolis Clowns’ owner partnered frequently with the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Clowns presented a similar entertaining mix of tricks, performance, and genuine sports play. Some reports claim Toni was asked to play in a skirt or shorts to increase her sex appeal, but she refused. She was frequently featured in team promotions. (These promotional materials often included fabricated stories, joining Toni’s false age given to the San Francisco team in clouding the line between myth and reality in her life; many stories simply cannot be verified one way or another.)

 

Despite this clear exposure benefit of playing with the first woman in the Negro American Leagues, neither Toni’s teammates nor her manager were welcoming. Her manager reportedly told her to “stick to knitting and homecooking,” though he also later claimed to have been won over by her athletic abilities. She was not permitted in the team’s locker room and wasn’t given one of her own. Toni took the hostility with her usual determination and grit. She proudly showed off her scars and told stories of the male players who “spiked” her—deliberately injuring her with the spikes of their shoes—during game play. The men wanted to take out the woman standing on second base. Toni took pride in taking them out instead.

 

She left the Indianapolis Clowns when her contract was purchased by the Kansas City Monarchs. With this new team, she again played alongside men who resented her presence. “It was hell,” she recalled. She stayed for them for only season, retiring in 1954 due to the low pay. The Negro American Leagues were themselves on the decline as men’s integrated baseball gained popularity, giving Black male athletes a path to the majors and better pay. The very few paths available to Black women baseball players—many forced open by Toni herself—were dwindling. 

 

Now in her mid-30s, she relocated permanently to Oakland with husband Aurelious and began work as a nurse. Aurelious died in the 1980s at age 103.

 

On March 6, 1990, St. Paul celebrated “Toni Stone Day,” and in 1991 she was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame, followed by the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. She died in 1996 at age 75.

 

In 2019, “Toni Stone,” a play written by Lydia R. Diamond, premiered Off Broadway. “I have the privilege of being able to try to unpack and deconstruct the way I move through the world as a person of color,” Lydia said in an interview with The New York Times. “[Toni] didn’t have the time to sit down and pull apart the politics of her existence. She had a thing to do. And she did that thing. ... I want people to meet Toni Stone.”