When Toni and Mamie and Connie Took on the Negro League - Sports Illustrated

For a Black Man, the Negro Leagues Could Be a Trial of Resilience. Imagine Being a Woman

Enabled by risk-takers and opportunists, obstructed by teammates and hot-takers, three women crossed baseball’s gender line in the 1950s. Their stories, set in the dying, showboating days of the Negro Leagues, were the start of something much bigger.
Author:
Publish date:

This story was published in partnership with Truly*Adventurous

The second baseman trotted onto the field and at first glance looked like all the other players: same billowy white pants, same snug baseball cap. It was only in lingering a moment on the face—especially those eyes, gleaming and confident—that you realized she was a woman.

That was by design. Toni Stone took great pains to look like all the other players. In 1950 she was with the semi-professional New Orleans Creoles, the only woman in an otherwise all-male outfit, but as she began warming up on this day her attention dwelled on the opposing team. The Creoles were a kind of minor-league side within the Negro American League, the last of the dwindling Negro leagues. The Indianapolis Clowns, though, were the class of the lot, and Toni had grown up idolizing them. Today would be her chance to prove she deserved a shot at one day playing for them.

“A woman has her dreams, too,” Toni confided to one teammate. “When you finish high school, they tell a boy to go out and see the world. What do they tell a girl? They tell her to go next door and marry the boy that her family picked for her. A woman can do many things.”

dCOVtonistone_V

Toni watched the Clowns’ players warming up, and there stood the most exciting man in the stadium, her baseball idol, Richard King, who went by King Tut. Before games, King Tut would lead the way in a Negro League tradition known as Shadow Ball, a kind of vaudeville pantomine of the match to come. The players would sling around an invisible ball, with a behind-the-back throw received by a behind-the-back catch. The ball bounced off the third baseman’s rear end, into the hands of the shortstop. Players fielded the make-believe orb with gyrations and high jumps, and ultimately a batter would knock it high into the sky. Maybe Spec Bebop, who had dwarfism, would emerge from out of nowhere, wearing a grass skirt, entreating Tut to look up. The two would run in circles anticipating the fall, then Tut would dive to the ground, poised to receive the ball at last. In one final bit of magic, Tut would pull a real ball out from his mitt, like a rabbit out of a hat.

Shadow Ball represented the heart and soul of Black baseball. It was like jazz, never performed exactly the same way twice, displaying the players’ physical prowess and comic inventiveness. The Clowns’ brilliance here was yet another reason Toni placed the team at the apex of baseball, and after the performance ended on this day, applause rained down.

Toni loved the spectacle and she was obsessed with the sport. As a teenager she had shown up to a baseball workshop for boys led by Gabby Street, the St. Louis Cardinals’ former manager. Street chased her off, but when one boy hit a ball and Toni ran back onto the field, jumping like a kangaroo to catch it backhanded, Gabby advised her to seek a career in baseball. She kept at it.

To listen to more longform stories from a variety of publications, download Audm for iphone or Android.

In 1943, when the Clowns came to her hometown, 22-year-old Toni watched King Tut with awe. She stood at the steps of Indianapolis’s dugout and locked eyes with McKinley (Bunny) Downs, the team’s business manager. “Want to try me out and sign me?” she asked. Bunny chewed on the toothpick between his teeth and considered it. That he gave it any thought at all spoke to Toni’s talent. But whatever aptitude he saw in her, Bunny knew that the Clowns were too good to accept a sandlot player. If she could gain some real experience, he suggested, and prove that she was worth the risk, anything was possible. “You feel ready, you come back. Ask for Bunny Downs, and we'll sign you,” he said.

“See you,” she answered, as if in warning.

Toni got her name in the papers that year, but not for her baseball acumen. A man in Saint Paul, Minn., took to calling her on the phone every night, asking for a date. And every night she declined, asking him to stop calling. One day she found him standing outside her front door. He knocked her down, kicked her in the face and “got a date—sixty days with the city jailer,” an AP newser concluded. The story was syndicated, not because the violence against a woman was so extraordinary, but because the perpetrator met consequences for it, a rarity. Toni knew then how brutal men could be, how dangerous.

SI Daily Cover

Pursuing a career in baseball presented a new kind of danger: How would men respond if they felt Toni was taking something from them—a spot on the roster, or their pride? How would fans react? She wouldn’t dwell on it. She had a passion, a calling, and no one would stand in her way.

Shortly after the assault, Toni went out for the Wall Post #435 American Legion amateur boys team out of Minneapolis and earned a spot. She stayed until 1945 and in ’47 went semi-pro with the San Francisco Sea Lions, with whom she played for one season before jumping to the Creoles.

Now Toni found herself facing the team that had inspired her in the first place. On the field she showcased her greatest strengths: her speed, her agility in executing double plays. Bunny Downs took notice. And his memory clicked.

“You’re the little girl from Saint Paul, ain’t you?” he asked.

“Sure am,” Toni responded. “Are you gonna sign me or not?”

Bunny chewed on that. He’d punted on Toni before, but he couldn’t deny her rare talent and grit. The Creoles were paying her to play ball, but the Clowns—the team that inspired the 1976 comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings—were a step above. Could a woman really hang with a top-notch men’s team?

Stone in her Creoles days, circa 1952.

Stone in her Creoles days, circa 1952.

***

The decision came down to Syd Pollock, the Clowns’ white owner, who was never afraid of a bold move. His team had become the most profitable of any in the Negro League—possibly the first whose players never missed a payday. He carried no weak links on his team; he could not afford to. He kept hundreds of meticulous files in his cabinets, on every player available for recruitment at every position, including scouting reports, applications and letters of interest. There was one file, tantalizing and dangerous, labeled GIRL PLAYERS. Now he weighed it in his hands.

In the first half of the 20th century, baseball in the United States was as prolific as it was disorganized. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of teams: traveling teams, professional and semi-professional teams, devoted neighborhood teams, Sunday teams, regional teams, teams sponsored by factories and composed of their workers… .

The Negro League teams differentiated themselves by offering not only high-quality play but also physical comedy. They ran a faster and looser operation than the majors, with far fewer restrictions on the kinds of pitches that could be thrown. Black and white spectators alike filled the stands because of this unique experience, and they especially favored the Clowns, who won the championship in 1952—their third straight. But trouble loomed. The roaring of the audience couldn’t hide the fact that the Negro League was dying.

In 1950, the league had been made up of 10 teams. By the end of the ’52 season, only four remained, their schedules filled out by playing lesser squads like the Creoles. Jackie Robinson had broken the major league color line in ’47, when he played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but at first this presented more problems than it solved. The majors were committed to keeping a small number of Black players and silently barring the rest. At the same time, the bottom lines of the Negro League teams came to rely heavily on the sale of players’ contracts into the majors—like Hank Aaron’s sale to the Boston Braves in ’52, by the Clowns—but with so few opportunities for those Black players, it was difficult for teams to get the kind of capital they needed to stay afloat. Meanwhile, they were being charged more and more to rent their stadiums while fans increasingly stayed home to watch big clubs like the Yankees play on television. (Negro League games were not broadcast.)

Pollock had to come up with something to give a ticket-drawing advantage to his Clowns, the team always pushing the envelope. He flipped through his files until he found the entry concerning the woman that Bunny Downs had mentioned seeing in New Orleans.

Pollock was no stranger to controversy. When he was 22, he sheepishly revealed to his Jewish parents that he’d just married an Irish-Catholic girl. His father threw him down the stairs of their apartment and told him he was dead to the family. To put a fine point on it, the Pollocks sat shiva. Still, the dark-eyed, paunchy Syd stayed true to what he loved. Later, in his professional career, that meant baseball.

It’s your club, your decision. That’s how Bunny had responded to the question of adding a woman to the Clowns’ roster.

Staring up from his file, Pollock was convinced. If ever there was a woman to risk everything on…

***

Toni sat alone on the Clowns’ two-toned Flxible bus, parked in the middle of the dark woods. On one side of her she could see the occasional pair of headlights illuminating a quiet country road. On the other side, she dare not look. A few beats of silence. Then she heard the murmurs outside. The noise amplified and spilled back into the bus, where 20 of her teammates, and the driver they called Chauf, were re-boarding, their piss break over. A few of the guys looked at Toni as they took their seats, then turned away.

Like all of the male players, Toni rode the bus between games, anywhere from 100 to 500 miles in a day, and then got off to play baseball. But even as she was living her dream, there were moments on these trips where she stood out so profoundly as the other. Rest stops definitely did it.

Stone lands in Indianapolis with the Clowns.

Stone lands in Indianapolis with the Clowns.

Shortly before joining the Clowns, Toni—or Marcenia, her birth name—married a man 36 years her senior: Aurelious Alberga, who had been commissioned as one the first Black U.S. Army officers of World War I. Pollock, however, thought that Toni Stone was much more marketable than Marcenia Alberga. Her new spouse took no objection.

Toni and Aurelious were both strong-minded, with desires to carve their own paths in life. While Aurelious wasn’t thrilled that his wife wanted to play baseball, he also knew better than to stand in her way. He trusted her implicitly, even as she rode the bus with other men from April until August.

Toni never wanted special accommodations on those trips, but Bunny made sure she stayed with friends or colleagues, rather than at hotels, whenever the team stopped for a rest, which wasn’t often. Playing by night and driving by day, the Clowns did most of their sleeping on the bus. They enjoyed the comfort of a real bed maybe once every three weeks.

In April of 1953 the team completed two days of spring training games in Virginia. In the first they battled the Norfolk Palms, a semi-pro team. Five thousand four-hundred eighty-six attendees—a near capacity crowd—turned out on a chilly Saturday afternoon. In Toni’s first appearance at bat, she walked. In her second, she hit a two-run single, an auspicious start to her Clowns career. Toni’s fielding showed her to be fast and graceful like a cat. She could run 100 yards in 11 seconds.

Pollock and Bunny believed in Toni. Syd, especially, saw something of himself in her. He lived for the thrills of owning a baseball team, and as much as he loved the business aspect, Toni loved the game. He could see she was not playing for fame or fortune.

In fact, he wished that she were more interested in publicity. In the press photos that had started to circulate, Toni’s eyes tended to be on a ball she was fielding, or cast askance. She looked contemplative, wise beyond her years. Pollock, though, would have preferred her to project youth and vivaciousness. Early on, he asked her to play in shorts, but she insisted on wearing the same wool pants as everyone else: navy blue (save for special occasions in white), to hide the dirt stains that could not be scrubbed out given the sheer volume of games played each week. Meanwhile, the media reported that she was receiving $12,000 a year, a figure meant to shock baseball fans, while in reality she earned upwards of $300 per month. She just wanted to play pro ball.

Fans turned out in droves to see Toni, and her playing improved with experience. The season opener in Kansas City drew 18,200 fans; at Philadelphia, 12,000; at Chicago, for a double-header, 20,400 combined; at Baltimore, 7,300 (an overflow crowd); 21,000-plus for a Detroit double-header.

Stone, Toni--Pollack Collection-photo postcard

The Daily Standard, out of Sikeston, Mo., wrote: “Toni refuses to give ground as she executes twin killings, has good baseball instincts and knows what a Louisville Slugger is for.” She played three innings of every game, either at the beginning or the end. During an exhibition against locals in Elizabeth City, N.C., she knocked in two runs and scored twice. In Windsor, against the Norfolk Royals, she accounted for three runs and handled five chances in the field without committing an error.

Spectators were dazzled to see a woman playing with so much heart. And, looking out over the faces of the little girls in the stands, she found strength in thinking about how far she’d come—the Saint Paul girl who’d long ago set the course of her destiny at the breakfast table, collecting enough Wheaties box tops to participate in a sponsored baseball club.

Now women in the stands were weeping openly with pride at this never-before-experienced sense of recognition, stunned by the realization that they could be more than housewives, maybe even rediscover dreams long ago lost to men who didn’t believe in them. Rosie the Riveter had entered the cultural zeitgeist in 1943, the same year Toni fought to make her sexual harasser stand accountable to the law. The same year she began her baseball career. Women had been welcomed into the factories and plants while the men were away at war, but many of them gave their independence back when their husbands came home.

Here, however, was a fierce, fun and talented woman who didn’t play to help a desperate country. Toni knew she had talent, and she made it her life’s work to develop that talent to its fullest. She was not selling sex appeal, or any of those then-prized female values: subservience, demureness, daintiness. She grunted. Sweat poured from her face. She leapt and dove; she danced around and taunted pitchers; she got in umpires’ faces when she disagreed with their calls. She raised her cap and joined in on the fun to give viewers a good time.

According to the scant extant records, Tony hit 18 singles and one double in 74 at bats in 1953, with four runs, three RBIs and a stolen base. Altogether, Pollock’s son, Alan, would later say: “Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit.”

In fact, at age 12 Alan had developed a major crush on Toni. Attending a game in Monroe, Mich., with his dad, Alan got permission to go on the field during batting practice, hoping for a chance to impress her. One of the male players walloped the ball and Alan loped after it—but it ricocheted off a water sprinkler, the story goes, and though Alan ducked, the ball still knocked his cap clean off. Leaving the field, he crossed paths with Toni, who had, unfortunately, seen the whole thing.

“Little Syd,” she said, “sometimes it’s safer on the mound than out in center.” That ball broke his heart rather than his head.

As her confidence grew, Toni was putting on a show. Who didn’t love her?

Stone, Toni-400 dpi

***

Plenty of people, it turned out. Toni’s notoriety spread, and so did the rumblings against her. Even some of the male players who enjoyed watching her resented her success. Runners slid into second base with their spikes up. Pitchers tried to bean her, and she’d glare them down so ferociously that the crowd would break into applause.

One skeptic stood out. Sam Lacy, a popular baseball columnist at The Afro-American, out of Baltimore, had played a little ball himself. Nothing too serious, but occasionally he would earn as much as $30 a day to put on a semi-pro team’s uniform if a sub was needed. The way he saw it, he had enough experience to know a true player from a gimmick, and he wasn’t sold on Toni. She was just a part of the Clowns’ act.

Such skepticism galvanized Toni. She knew that playing against men would stir up hostility. But she was certain she could handle it. In April 1953 the Clowns headed to Portsmouth, Va., to square off against the Merrimacs. It would be the first time in the state that a Black professional team played a white one, and Toni and her teammates set out to impress. Adding to the pressure: Portsmouth was the hometown of Indianapolis’s catcher and manager, Buster Haywood.

Stone and Haywood.

Stone and Haywood.

Intense and a little pugnacious, Haywood had played brilliantly for the Clowns in the 1940s, and many considered him to be the best catcher of all time, Black or white. Now he was watching his team build a 5-3 fifth-inning lead against Portsmouth, his reputation being honored… .

Then came a disastrous collapse. In the end, the Merrimacs won 11-8. Toni, for her part, had done nothing in her only at-bat to stifle the comeback.

Haywood laid the sting of defeat entirely at her feet. “Wish I hadn't had a woman on second for a game like that,” he huffed afterward, nodding to the fact that the Clowns employed Ray Neil, the best Negro League player at the position, and yet they took him out for three innings every game so Toni could play. “Right in my hometown, too.”

Haywood’s words were a shot across the bow. He believed that women had no place in the game. If he could build his case and convince Bunny and Pollock, she would be gone in no time.

***

Syd Pollock traveled to Chicago for the mid-season Negro American League owners meeting. By this point, the Clowns, who had started the season with three consecutive championships to their name, were ranked in the lower tier of the League. But they had also made more money so far that season than ever before, and Pollock attributed this to Toni. In Chicago he wanted to make sure the other teams treated her with respect. And as operational concerns wrapped up, Pollock finally brought it up: Pitchers kept trying to wallop Toni with crazy throws. “She’s a woman, but she’s capable,” he said. “Have your pitchers throw her fastballs only. And the other thing: They shouldn’t brush her back.”

This outraged the owners.

Just fastballs? You try telling a man to throw just fastballs so fans can watch a woman hit him,” replied the Birmingham Black Barons’ owner.

“You're messing with the integrity of the game,” cried the Kansas City Monarchs’ owner.

And from the Memphis Red Sox: “If she can't hit everything, she shouldn't play.”

Pollock was having none of it. “So, your ace throws his arsenal at Toni—what's it prove? He can make a woman look bad at the plate? So what? He makes her look bad, the fans won't come back. Then you can't afford your teams. The league dies, and all these great pitchers got no place to pitch. They hit her in the head, we lose our meal ticket.”

Ultimately, he swayed them. The teams voted—unofficially—that Toni would get only fastballs.

***

On the field, tensions were growing. Clowns players started messing with Toni. Once, when she was playing at second, third baseman Willie Brown caught a grounder and waited as long as possible to throw to Toni, who refused to give up the out, diving hard and eating dirt.

Opposing players were one thing, but now she had saboteurs close by. Bunny and Pollock had represented a bulwark against this tide—until her idol turned on her.

Against the Kansas City Monarchs, King Tut watched carefully as Toni walked up to the plate with the bases loaded. Increasingly he regarded her with distrust, even disgust. What the hell kind of nerve did this woman have, thinking she could play on the same team as him? Paying to employ a spectacle was one thing; it came with the territory on a team known for clowning. But Toni really seemed to think she was more than a novelty, that she actually belonged on the field with a great like him. This would not do.

King Tut had learned that he could jack up his already disgruntled manager by heckling him for playing Toni. “S---, Skip,” he shouted at Haywood. “What you batting her for? Pinch hit for her, Skip. Pinch hit!” Haywood tried to keep a lid on his anger at this teasing, and on his frustrations with Bunny, who was forcing him to play Toni for business reasons. But that was all made harder, for example, when she struck out in K.C., wasting the three runners. Or later, when Toni dropped a ball in the field that gave the Monarchs a run.

“S---, woman, you can’t play no ball,” Tut told Toni as she reached the dugout. “You ought to be home washing dishes.”

Toni stopped and cursed at him, and while the crowd couldn’t hear exactly what she was suggesting Tut’s relatives do, the fans loved her ferocity. When she was done dressing down her idol, she jogged back to the dugout and threw her glove against the wall in rage. A painful reality set in. Her old hero—strolling back onto the field to perform another vaudeville number— was no king.

Stone gave boys and girls a new idea of what a ballplayer could be.

Stone gave boys and girls a new idea of what a ballplayer could be.

Back on the bus, Bunny Downs addressed the problem head on. Standing at the front, he faced his players. Everyone went silent. “Ain't no need to be naming names,” he said, gesturing to Toni, who was trying hard to become invisible. “This lady's putting money in our pockets. You men all expendable. She ain't. ’Nuff said?”

The players mumbled in agreement. Bunny took his seat at the back, and they all drove on.

***

Toni was standing with Sam Lacy that season, talking by a fence before a game, when the columnist snatched her glove out from under the crook of her arm. She knew what he was looking for: non-regulation padding. Of course, he found none.

He pressed her further, insinuating that she might be a “flatchester”—a lesbian, in the backwards parlance of the time—and she reminded him in even tones about her husband back home in California. The truth was, though: She didn’t care what Lacy thought. Toni had checked out of the publicity game. She could play better than the man questioning her; she didn’t need his b.s.

Toni wowed the Birmingham Black Barons that afternoon, and NAL insiders would take notice of the attendance spikes when she played in games like this. From the outfield she squashed two of the Barons’ scoring opportunities with quick, powerful throws. At bat, she knocked one ball into the air with a swing that the pesky newspaperman hadn’t expected from a woman. ...And then her innings were done. Ray Neil, who was leading the Negro League at the plate by most measures that season, relieved her.

Toni watched the rest of the game from the dugout, including Tut’s familiar vaudeville routine. It came as close as anything could to symbolizing the invisible forces that made Negro League baseball what it was, for good or ill. To the outside world, the suppression of Black people—especially Black women—was silent and invisible, but it was as omnipresent as that invisible ball the men pretended to command.

As noted in the press, 1953 was shaping up to be the first season since integration in which the Negro American League would be profitable. Bunny and Pollock knew this was due in large part to Toni’s presence—but that didn’t stop Lacy, whose campaign against her continued. After the Black Barons game he wrote about the pitches she’d faced: “They aren’t curving you. They aren’t throwing any softer—but they aren’t curving you, either.”

Toni had no idea about the owners’ backroom deal, and as the summer season wore on, she still had need from time to time to eat dirt rather than get beaned at the plate. She still got pitched knuckle balls and screw balls. But the bombshell landed. The spectre of favoritism had been raised, and it was an opponent more nefarious than any she could meet face-to-face.

Pollock started paying extra attention to Toni, who was bruising and spraining more consistently. He decided he wanted a second female player—someone who could alternate games with Toni—and Toni, already on the defensive, chafed at the idea. The Clowns signed Doris Jackson, an inexperienced 16-year-old from Philadelphia, to be Toni’s “understudy,” as the press called her; and while the experiment flopped in a matter of just two weeks, Pollock would not relent. As the Clowns returned to some of the smaller cities for a second time that season, he saw that attendance was down, and he believed Toni’s suddenly lackluster performances were part of it. ...Or maybe he’d just been listening to Tut and Haywood too much.

Then Bunny found Mamie Johnson, an 18-year-old pitcher playing semi-pro ball in Washington, D.C., and she reminded him of Toni in all the best ways. She was deadly serious about baseball. She had grit, making do with a stick and a tape-covered-rock as a child, playing through the first two trimesters of pregnancy as an adult.

Johnson, in a promotional Clowns pic.

Johnson, in a promotional Clowns pic.

After that baby was born she’d attempted to join the All American Girls Baseball League on a segregated white women’s team but, she says: “They looked at me like I was crazy.” It was an injustice, but this left Mamie available for the Clowns, and Bunny offered her a two-month contract for the offseason, barnstorming in the fall. “I’m so proud,” Johnson said in accepting the deal, “and I’m so glad that [the AAGBL] didn’t let me try out. I would be just another lady ball player somewhere … Now I’m proud to say I’m the first lady major league pitcher.”

When Haywood found out, he gave Pollock an earful. After three consecutive championships the Clowns had finished the 1953 season in second-to-last place. Then Haywood did something Pollock never could have seen coming: He quit, proudly letting the owner know he’d been offered a job managing the Memphis Red Sox, a team that shared his beliefs about women playing alongside men.

***

Toni showed Mamie more courtesy than she’d gotten from most of the men when she first showed up in the Negro League—but she didn’t exactly become fast friends with the new pitcher. The two women had little in common. Neither one, though, took flak from men kindly. Years later, Mamie would tell the story of Tom Barnes, a pitcher with the Red Sox (though the story has also been told about the Monarchs’ Hank Baylis; Mamie admitted the detail may have been lost to time), who found particular joy in pestering her. As he approached the plate one day, he guffawed at her slight figure: “How do you expect to strike anyone out [when] you’re not as big as a peanut?” With three fast pitches, she showed him exactly how. Her new nickname, “Peanut,” was a badge of honor, and a challenge to anyone else who underestimated her.

Pollock set up a publicity photo shoot with Toni to restore her confidence. He had her put on a full-skirted dress, and he scared up a shiny new Cadillac, directing her to sit on the fender and beam. (He seemed to have forgotten how much she hated these things.) When Pollock was satisfied with the shots, Toni finally spoke her mind. This fancy car reminds me, she said. I need a raise.

Pollock demurred. He’d already bumped up her salary from $300 to $400 a month over the course of the season. Any more and she would soon be the second-highest paid member of the team, below only Tut. And Pollock knew that would enrage Tut, who was already peeved about losing his friend, Haywood. Tut was irreplaceable. Pollock wouldn’t risk it.

The Clowns played only a few more barnstorming games with Mamie and Toni together before Toni approached Pollock again. She wanted out. She sought to focus more on the game and less on the publicity. Truth be told, she also disliked playing alongside another woman. Toni resisted the fabricated drama of women competing against one another.

Ultimately, Pollock signed off, negotiating the sale of Toni’s contract to the Monarchs, a team that didn’t clown nearly as much. Toni could focus on baseball, and the Monarchs would benefit from the ticket-sales bump she brought. Toni knew it was the best she could hope for. Women had absolutely zero bargaining power in the Negro League; she had survived not just because of her skills, but because people like Bunny and Pollock had seen the opportunity and potential of those skills. Even then, these men were exceptions. It remained the Sisyphean task of the female Negro League player to prove herself again and again, game after game, for as long as she could survive, until the league spat her out.

With Toni gone, Bunny and Pollock found yet another woman (on Toni’s recommendation) they hoped could fill their old star’s shoes. Even at 19 years old, Connie Morgan radiated the star power that Pollock had always wished Toni would embrace. She was, to Syd’s eyes, incredibly beautiful, photographing like a Hollywood starlet. She’d played fast-pitch softball for the all-female Philadelphia Honeydrippers, and basketball for the Philadelphia Rockettes—but she’d never before been paid for her game. She supported herself instead as a secretary and as a clerk, coming to the Clowns’ attention only after she’d impressed Jackie Robinson with her speed and accuracy during an exhibition game. Once Pollock saw the publicity photos Connie took with the Dodgers’ star, he knew he had to sign her.

Morgan, with Jackie Robinson in 1954.

Morgan, with Jackie Robinson in 1954.

***

At the beginning of the 1954 season, Pollock wrote to Toni, who’d settled in with the Monarchs:

First opportunity I've had to write, altho have been in contact with [Tom Baird, who owned the Monarchs] and know everything has been worked out satisfactorily between you and him. I'm having difficulty locating a place to make me up some sort of protective bra for Connie and Mamie, who will be with us this season. Am sure you use one, and maybe you can give me some information as to where same can be obtained and how to go about ordering same and idea of price? Any information you can give me by return airmail will be appreciated.

Toni, in fact, didn’t wear any such protective bra, and Pollock never found anything suitable for Connie or Mamie. Well protected or not, they still helped the Clowns regain the Negro League title in 1954. By that May, Mamie had pitched four innings for the Clowns without allowing a run. On Mother’s Day she faced the Monarchs and came head-to-head with Toni, who got a single off her. But in mid-June Mamie was released from her contract, returning home to raise her child.

Connie lasted through the off-season barnstorming. Following the 1954 season, though, the Negro League owners, perhaps again by unofficial ballot, ruled against allowing any female players. They worried that the novelty had worn off.

Among other major changes that season: The Clowns left the Negro League, becoming a professional exhibition team, like the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball. Pollock found that the declining quality of the Negro League was making profitability impossible. Now he could tour the Clowns across borders, playing the likes of the Winnipeg Buffaloes in Canada and the Cerveceria Nacional in Panama.

King Tut reigned supreme over the newly independent Clowns for several more years. He remained one of the more beloved figures in Black baseball, and most players encountered a very different mentor than did Toni—a man who taught them something vital about the game or about life. Buster Haywood, after moving in protest to manage Memphis, retired one season later, in 1955. Sam Lacy, credited widely with using his platform to promote racial equity, was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in ’98. In his final assessment of Toni, in ’53, he wrote about her merits as a fielder and admitted that she hit well, in a style not expected of a woman, concluding: “Maybe you didn’t convince that hardboiled newspaperman that you passed up a better job in kids work in California for this baseball stuff … but you feel you’ve convinced him you’re not strictly a gag in this business … and you have, Toni Stone.”

Alan Pollock, Syd’s son, would credit Toni with delaying the death of the Negro League by at least a season and a half—a crucial extension in that it further allowed the showcasing of talented male players such as Ernie Banks, a one-time Monarch who went on to his own storied career in the majors. “Toni’s whole life was something like waiting for American society to call a third strike,” Alan wrote in his book Barnstorming to Heaven. “She was already Black. She was already a woman.”

The same was true for Mamie and Connie. In their time, a woman needed to be fierce; she needed to extract joy and a sense of accomplishment from institutions determined to grind down her soul. Along with Toni, they remain the only three women ever to play in the Negro League, against male opponents.

Morgan, posing for the Clowns.

Morgan, posing for the Clowns.

Although Toni paved the way for Mamie and Connie to play professional ball, many consider Connie to have been the most skilled of the three, not least because of her powerful bat. Later she would recall one game played in the midwest where a small dust storm—a spiral of red grit—kicked up just as she stepped up to the plate. A fastball came at her, she belted a long drive toward left field, and as she began running the adrenaline of her first homerun started to flood in. Then she heard the collective groan of the crowd. Just as the ball left the park, the storm seemed to intervene, carrying it foul. Connie could have been crushed, but she wasn’t. She’d walloped that ball plenty hard, and if she stopped feeling proud of all the accomplishments diminished by forces outside of her control, what sort of life would that be?

That game remained one of her favorite memories with the Clowns. Another: the time she tagged out Toni, after Toni had left for K.C. Toni had a different attitude about things being taken from her, and Connie remembered Toni’s response: “Hollering at me, hollering at the world. That was Toni’s style.”

After her 1954 season with the Monarchs, the Negro League having abandoned women, Toni retired from baseball. She returned to California and cared for her husband until his death in ’87, when he was 103.

Connie, too, walked away after her time with the Clowns. She enrolled in post-secondary classes in Philadelphia and enjoyed a long career working with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Mamie continued to play amateur ball for years after her stint with the Clowns. She supported herself by working as a nurse, but she coached various leagues well into her 60s, and she held court at a Negro League gift shop in Maryland, which her son ran. She died in 2017 at the age of 82, and while she did not live to see another woman take to a men’s baseball field professionally, what she did see was no less amazing: the ascendance of icons like Althea Gibson and then Venus and Serena Williams, in tennis. Of Dominique Dawes and Simone Biles and Maya Moore and Allyson Felix and Crystal Dunn and so many others—all giants in their own right, all standing on the shoulders of three pioneers.

Stone, the first of three women to play in the Negro League.

Stone, the first of three women to play in the Negro League.

Read more of SI's Daily Cover stories here