The Red Sox open the season Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Fans will head to Fenway for the 2:05 p.m. first pitch. Commentator Martha Ackmann says one of baseball's greatest fans was a player you've probably never heard of.
Every spring when the days grew warmer, Toni Stone would go nuts.
“It was like a drug,” Toni said. “When the bats started popping, I’d go crazy.”
That's Toni with an 'i'. That's right -- a woman. Toni Stone was baseball’s female Jackie Robinson. She was the first woman to play professional baseball in the old Negro League of the 1950s.
When a young Henry Aaron moved from the Indianapolis Clowns to the majors, Stone replaced him. She played against Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, and -- at one point in the 1953 season -- batted fourth in the league behind Ernie Banks.
She got her start in a curious way. After Robinson integrated baseball, the Negro Leagues lost its fan base, and club owners looked for ways to increase attendance. That’s when the Clowns signed Stone, a sensation playing semi-pro ball. Toni did not disappoint and fans turned out. She was scrappy, quick on the base paths, and a fierce second baseman.
Once when the Clown’s third baseman grabbed a hot line-drive, he fired to Stone for the double play. The ball tore through the webbing of her glove and knocked her out cold. After several minutes on the ground with coaches pouring water on her face, Stone shook daylight back into her head. “Let’s play,” she said, as she popped up and wove her glove back together.
Stone played one season for the Clowns before being traded to the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. There she sat on the bench with a coach who begrudged her, and players who often sabotaged her play. “It was hell,” Toni said.
By 1955, the Negro League had run out of steam and Toni Stone returned home to Oakland. “Not playing baseball hurt so bad,” she said, “I damn near had a heart attack.” She died in 1996.
Looking back on her playing days, Toni Stone knew she had been part of a publicity stunt to bring fans through the gates. But she also realized that when life offers you one imperfect chance to live your dream —you take it.
She always had the same answer when reporters asked what she liked best about baseball. Her eyes would gleam, her voice grew lively. “Throwing a ball around in infield practice,” Toni would say. “It’s beautiful, if it’s played right.
Martha Ackmann teaches at Mount Holyoke College and lives in Leverett, Massachusetts. She's the author of "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League." Stone’s story is being adapted for the stage and will be previewed at Harvard University on Thursday, April 6, 2017.