By Michael LeCompte
Toni Stone was the first of three women to play in the Negro Leagues. For this self- described tomboy from Minnesota baseball was a life-long love affair. She started playing organized baseball when she was ten on Catholic Midget Leagues in St. Paul. By age fifteen she was playing alongside men for the St. Paul Giants, a semi-professional team.
After marrying a man forty years her senior, Stone moved around the country playing for different teams in several leagues, always looking for the best opportunity to get on the field.
When she was twenty-eight Stone’s professional career began in earnest when she joined the San Francisco Sea Lions to play second base for the 1949 season.
After one season in San Francisco she played for the New Orleans Creoles until 1952.
Stone’s big break came the next year when the Indianapolis Clowns offered her a contract to replace a young Hank Aaron, who was departing for Milwaukee.
The Clowns joined the Negro American League in 1943 and were known for their unique on-field mix of show business and baseball. Considered the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball the Clowns’ act lasted until 1989.
Initially the Clowns signed the thirty-two year old Stone as a publicity stunt. They claimed she was ten years younger than she actually was and that she’d earned a graduate degree but would rather play baseball than do anything else, and they reported that she was paid $12,000 a year. (Stone later said her contract was “greatly exaggerated” and indeed it was probably $500 a year or less)
Regardless of any exaggeration and fabrication, or of the Clowns’ on-field antics, though, members of the team still had to be able to play the game. Over her one season in Indianapolis Stone hit at a respectable .243 clip and even managed to get a hit off the legendary Satchell Paige.
Stone was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs in 1954, but retired 50 games into the season due to a lack of playing time, an issue that dogged her throughout her career as managers were more apt to let male players, white or black, take the field instead of her.
In retirement Stone worked as a nurse and cared for her aged husband, while continuing to be an ambassador for the game she loved. She was elected to the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
Stone passed away at the age of seventy-five in 1996.
This pioneering woman of the Negro League is remembered every March 6th when St. Paul, Minnesota celebrates “Toni Stone Day.”