The ball field on St. Paul’s Dunning Street was renamed for her, and a play was written about her. Yet for the most part, the Toni Stone story and her rightful place in modern history is unknown.
Marcenia Lyle Stone (1921-1996) was born in West Virginia and moved with her family to the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. She almost immediately got involved in sports, especially baseball.
The young Stone convinced her church priest to allow her to play on the church boys’ baseball team as a pitcher and fielder. Later, at age 15, she did double duty playing both softball and barnstorming with the Twin City Colored Giants Black baseball team in 1937.
Stone, whose nickname was “Tomboy,” later changed her name to Toni, headed out to San Francisco, and played with the San Francisco Sea Lions semi-pro baseball team in 1949. She left after one season because the team didn’t pay her as promised. But her days with the Colored Giants put Stone in rarefied company as the only female on a men’s baseball club.
Her place was permanently cemented in modern baseball history when the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues signed the 5’-7” Stone to a pro contract to replace Hank Aaron, who left for the majors in 1953.
But prior to that, she played in the Black baseball minor league in New Orleans (1949-52), a fact not often talked about when Stone’s story is told. A primary reason for this is that Negro League baseball statistics were not recorded for many reasons, including the lack of newspaper reporting, and documentation is hard to find.
Because more Blacks were finally allowed in the majors, this slowly became the death knell for the Negro Leagues. Some suspect that the Stone signing was nothing more than an attempt to draw fans – the Clowns were seen as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball and weren’t taken seriously.
Nonetheless, Stone played in 30 games in 1953. The team sold her contract to Kansas City for the 1954 season, but Stone retired the next season due to lack of playing time.
Her quest for playing opportunities never ended, says Maria Bartlow-Reed, Stone’s niece. “Even when she stopped playing, she would go back after a year or so and play again. She knew she had to lie about her age to get back into it,” Bartlow-Reed told the MSR.
The St. Paul Saints recently honored Stone, the first woman to play in a men’s professional baseball league, for its Honoring Women in Baseball Day. A Toni Stone bobblehead was given to fans.
“It is really close to her likeness,” Bartlow-Reed said of the miniature replica of her famous aunt, who died in a California nursing home at age 75. “I actually never thought of her as famous. She’d buy me shoes and clothes when I grew up with her [in California]. It wasn’t until she [Stone] got a little older…that I [learned more about her].”
Stone is in the Women’s Sports Foundation International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Sudafed International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, inducted into both in 1993. Dunning Baseball Stadium in St. Paul was renamed Toni Stone Field in 1996. Great American History Theater presented “Tomboy Stone,” a play about Stone, in 1997.
“She was very proud of what she did, but she wasn’t a bragger,” Bartlow-Reed said of her aunt. “My family never made a big thing about it. She was a person that kept everything inside.”
Bartlow-Reed reiterated that the Toni Stone story hasn’t been fully told. It has “in the Black community, but not all over,” she pointed out.
“A lot of things my Aunt Toni went through” playing with men, not being taken seriously or being snubbed out of jealousy, envying attitudes and such, she mentioned as part of the untold story.
“She was really a hard-working person,” Bartlow-Reed said. “She really fought [to play baseball]. Her main love was baseball.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.