The Negro League’s Last Hope: Three Brave Women

(via National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Jackie Robinson’s 1947 move to the Dodgers not only altered the course of major league baseball history but set off a chain of events that signaled the end of the Negro Leagues.

A number of Negro Leagues superstars, including Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Hank Thompson, followed Robinson to the majors, and by 1952 there were 150 black players in the big leagues. Negro Leagues teams rarely received compensation for the loss of these players, bankrupting many as their fans turned their attention and pocketbooks toward major league baseball. By 1950, there was just one Negro League and once-great teams like the Homestead Grays and Newark Eagles had folded; by 1952, only six teams remained.

Desperate to salvage the leagues, many team owners turned to promotional offers and in-game stunts to win back fans. Pre-game and in-game entertainment ranged from comedians to singers to clowns; if the owners thought something could bring in a crowd, it was added to the mix. But attendance continued to dwindle and clubs continued to fold, and it seemed like nothing could prevent the complete collapse of the Negro Leagues.

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Then, in the spring of 1953, Syd Pollock, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, decided to try to capitalize on the 1940s success of the All-American Girls Pro Baseball League by adding a woman to the roster: second baseman Toni Stone. Soon, the Clowns had two more female players: pitcher Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and second baseman Connie Morgan.

Black women have been involved with baseball since its creation and have a long history of playing semi-professionally, beginning with the Philadelphia Dolly Vardens of the 1880s. Through the first decades of the 1900s, various black women earned their spots on black and mixed teams, from Pearl Barrett in 1917 with the Havana Red Sox to Isabelle Baxter in 1933 with the Cleveland Giants. However, professional baseball was strictly off limits until these three women emerged in 1953 and 1954. Though they were all gone from the crumbling Negro League by the end of 1955, their stories offer insight into not only the Negro League’s desperation in its final years, but how difficult it was for black women to become–and remain–prominent public figures.

Toni Stone, First into the Fire

A poor student, Marcenia Lyle “Tomboy” Stone often turned to baseball for both comfort and proof she could excel at something. At the age of 16, after longing to turn baseball into her profession, she joined the Twin City Colored Giants, a local all-black male barnstorming team that traveled through the Midwest and Canada during summer weekends. In addition to believing Stone would increase the team’s notoriety, the manager also thought Stone could legitimately fill a gap at second base, and so she spent the summer earning a couple hundred dollars while broadening her horizons, both in terms of her own capabilities as a player and the extent of racism in the country.

Three years later, at 19, she dropped out of high school, hoping to become a full-time ballplayer. For the next three years, she hopped from Black team to Black team, but none survived of them longer than half a season, and she had soon exhausted her Midwest options. After spending three years reconciling herself to this devastating truth, she packed her bags and headed to San Francisco to track down her sister, and hopefully join some team there.

Using the change of scenery as a new start and a last hope, Stone changed her name from “Tomboy” to “Toni” and her age from 26 to 16 so she could join the 17-and-under Fillmore-area American Legion team. American Legion baseball was one of the primary funnels to the major leagues. Scouts routinely attended games and plucked up talented players. But her team finished last in its league, and though her teammates eventually warmed up to the presence of a girl on the team, no scout gave her the time of day.

The following season, Stone moved on to the local Peninsula Baseball League semi-pro team where her manager encouraged her to look at the all-male San Francisco Seals, who might “take a chance on a girl.” There was no Negro League team in the West, but the Seals, a barnstorming semi-pro team, were the most Black-friendly team in the region, and, seeking to remedy the lack of professional Black baseball, two of its players formed the West Coast Negro Baseball Association in 1948 and captained the newly-formed, all-male San Francisco Sea Lions. Though, like many Black baseball leagues, it folded after a few weeks, the Sea Lions manager brought in Stone afterward, hoping that “a woman could bring in crowds” large enough to compensate for the folded league.”

Stone made her debut for the Sea Lions in the spring of 1949, continuing the idea that she was a decade younger than her actual age. She got the opportunity to play every day at second base for crowds across the country, earning several hundred dollars a month. Despite the large crowds, media coverage of the Lions was scarce, a fact that endlessly frustrated Stone, as “the flawed record keeping made it difficult to offer a quantitative argument that she played as well as the men, or that black players were as good as whites.” Without a reliable record of her play, Stone feared her career would stagnate.

However, she was good enough for Alan Page, owner of the New Orleans Creoles, who had seen her play well against his team on several occasions. Page had employed several women base coaches in 1948 and 1949, though none lasted more than a season. Stone nonetheless jumped from the Sea Lions to the Creoles toward the end of the 1949 season, becoming the first of many to jump ship on this particular road trip.

Stone quickly found out that playing in the South was like nothing she had experienced to date. Though she encountered racism everywhere she played, it was more overt, as Jim Crow laws were very much in place. But the South was also home to the best remaining black talent, and she attracted much attention from fans and rival executives, all of whom tracked her every move on the field, either willing her to succeed or hoping for failure. With this team, she received much national recognition, with papers across the South and in Ohio and Wisconsin writing about the “Ex-St. Pat Sandlot Star” who made the Creoles “the most unique team in baseball.”

The semi-pro team got to play against many Negro League teams, including the Black Barons and the Indianapolis Clowns, teams that were constantly on the lookout for novel black talent, and Stone was frequently showcased, catching the attention of one man in particular.

Syd Pollock, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, was one of a few team owners who managed to receive compensation for the players he sold to the major leagues. Behind Hank Aaron, his team won the 1952 Negro League Championship. But Aaron departed for the Braves, and Pollock was in dire need of a second baseman to replace him and provide extra marketing for the team that was now one-fourth of the league. Remembering Stone from the Clowns’ previous games against the Creoles, Pollock reached out to her.

Stone was physically almost the same size as the 17-year-old Aaron, could run the 100-yard dash in an excellent time of 11 seconds, and had the “timing, coordination, and reflexes” to potentially match his offensive output. It was the offer Stone had been waiting for for the better part of two decades, and she eagerly accepted it, returning to baseball after a one-year hiatus and despite her husband’s objections.

Almost as soon as she accepted his offer, Pollock began advertising her, exclaiming that women had managed to “invade another realm once regarded as the domain of the muscle and brawn set,” and naming her the “gal guardian of second base.” In addition to remarking on her feminine appearance, Pollock reassured his potential customers that Stone would have to earn her place on the team and would not be treated differently by the opposition; “the pitchers throw just as hard and base runners slide into second with spikes just as high,” declared Pollock the February before the season began.

Indeed, Stone was determined to have her gender play as little a factor as possible. She scoffed at Pollock’s suggestion she wear a skirt like the All American women’s league players wore, instead insisting “this is professional baseball” and she would wear the same uniform as the rest of the team. It was evident that much of her presence on the team was due to her being a woman, but she told reporters, “I know what I am doing and what I am in for. I don’t want anyone playing me easy because I’m a woman and I don’t plan to play ‘easy’ against them. I’m out here to play the game and I’m sure I can take the knocks as well as anyone else.”

Despite these wishes, her gender factored into much of her professional career. Opposing players and teammates took it easy on her in some regards while presenting her with numerous other challenges. Pitchers frequently went easy on her, while other players did their best to knock her off balance, excessively spiking her and groping her with their gloves as she slid into bases. She played only the first three innings of each game, as had been the case with the Creoles, but the schedule was rigorous, with seven or eight games a week and an average of 400 miles of travel between each one.

Due to Pollock’s relentless advertising and word-of-mouth, fans gathered in flocks to see a woman play baseball; men wanted to see if she was any good, while girls and women emphatically cheered her on, thinking that if she could play professional baseball, maybe they could find similar success somewhere. On opening day in Kansas City against the Monarchs, crowds lined up at the ballpark hours before the game, indicating that this season could be one of the best in recent memory for the Negro League. The Clowns lost the game, 8-3, and Stone went 0-for-2 at the plate, but nonetheless black newspapers latched onto her, understanding her to be the kind of draw that could save the league.

She played well the entire season, supposedly batting .302 and leading the league in double plays turned, but injury troubles–and age–kept her out of the lineup for week-long stretches, disappointing many crowds and putting into question her ability to play a full season at any level of ball. At the end of the 1953 season, after Pollock had signed Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan, Stone requested a trade. She wanted to play every day and was unwilling to take a pay cut to stay on the Clowns and become Johnson’s backup. But she did take a pay cut as she headed to the Monarchs, who would pay her $325 a month and promised her a daily spot in the lineup. But both the addition of two more women to the league and the change in teams took a toll on Stone, defining her final season in professional baseball.

The emergence of Johnson and Morgan

Throughout the 1953 season, both Stone and Pollock received dozens of letters from girls and women looking for tips on how to become professional baseball players, as well as from scouts who had discovered new women players. Pollock, however, kept these letters to himself and never acted on them, figuring that if more black women became professional players, he would not be able to monetize Stone’s presence on his team.

When it became clear that Stone had injury troubles, he brought in a 16-year-old girl, Doris Jackson, to shadow the team, but Jackson returned home without playing a game. Nonetheless, Pollock wanted to find an additional black woman player so he could field one every game. This search led him to Johnson and Morgan.

Peanut Johnson’s road to the Clowns began when she was an 18-year-old pitcher on the St. Cyprian’s recreational league team in Washington, D.C. As with Stone, she played baseball growing up, but unlike Stone, she learned the game from her mother, who had played as an adolescent. After moving from South Carolina to Long Branch, N.J., at the age of 8, Johnson began playing baseball in the Police Athletic League, making her the league’s first black player. As many of these experiences go, she received a frosty welcome, but her teammates warmed up to her once she proved she was an asset on the field. Somewhere along the way, the story goes, she bumped into Satchel Paige at a game, and he taught her how to throw a curve ball, which changed her life.

She played with Long Branch’s Police Athletic League team throughout high school before moving to Washington, D.C. to live with her mother. In the spring of 1953, after being turned away from the all-white male Alexandria semi-pro team, she landed with St. Cyprian’s, an all-black team that fielded another woman, Rita Jones. She and Jones tried out for an All-American girls team that was hosting tryouts in Washington, but they were the only black women at the tryout and were quickly turned away with nothing more than a glare from the team’s organizers. Despite the league’s recent dip in popularity and struggle to remain afloat, it would not lift its unspoken ban on black women. Dejected, the two women returned to St. Cyprian’s, playing with the team every weekend.

One day, Clowns scout Bish Tyson was in attendance and liked what he saw from Johnson enough to pass along knowledge of her to Oscar Charleston, the team’s new manager. Though they both were concerned about Johnson’s lack of professional playing time and road travel, they thought she was good enough both as a player and attraction to be worth the gamble. Tyson invited her to try out for the team that September, when the Clowns were in finishing up their season. She impressed enough with both her bat and arm that the team invited her to join for a two-month autumn barnstorming trip. Johnson accepted the offer without telling anyone and boarded a bus for Norfolk.

Before joining the Clowns, Connie Morgan played for her hometown Philadelphia Honey Drippers, one of the best all-women’s teams in the country. Philadelphia had for decades been the mecca of black baseball and had even lent itself to black women’s baseball on occasion, such as the 1880s Dolly Vardens teams, but even there opportunities for black women players were scarce. Nonetheless, Morgan lasted five seasons with the Honey Drippers, compiling a .368 average while playing every position on the field, primarily second base and catcher.

Like Johnson, Morgan received help from a prominent former Negro Leaguer, this one being Jackie Robinson. Morgan had traveled to watch Robinson play an exhibition game in the fall of 1952 and had caught Robinson’s eye when she was working out with a few players to the side of the field. Robinson inquired about her to Gil Hodges, who told him, “that girl has really got it. She throws, hits, and fields like no girl I’ve ever seen.” Intrigued, Robinson offered to warm up with her; she impressed him with her arm strength and accuracy.

Encouraged by this encounter, at the age of 18, she wrote Toni Stone a letter that was passed on to field manager Bunny Downs. Weeks later, Morgan was invited to try out for the team in Baltimore during the opening barnstorming weekend. A month after Johnson joined the team, Morgan had her tryout. The team initially placed her at third base, but decided the pace there was too rapid for her, they moved her to second, where she impressed both the team and Robinson, who was in town with his travelling All-Star team.

Still, it was not until she took photographs with Robinson and the rest of the team that Pollock decided she would be a great fit. She could replace the aging Stone and appeared more eager than Stone to do publicity; the older second baseman always treated it as a chore that distracted from her playing ability. Furthermore, the light-skinned Morgan had a more feminine appearance than Stone, which Pollock believed was more marketable.

Morgan’s position on the team made Stone more expendable. Pollock was sad to see Stone go, due in part to his friendship with her, but primarily because he did not want another team to benefit from a woman player. But he was content enough with Morgan and Johnson to negotiate her terms with the Monarchs.

Navigating the Negro League

Eager to build on Stone’s success, Clowns manager Charleston talked up Johnson and Morgan profusely to the newspapers. Leading up the the 1954 season, team owner Pollock declared Morgan to be “the most sensational girl player ever seen” and Johnson to be “one of the finest throwing arms in pro ball.” He later talked up Morgan even more, stating, “good athletes, girls especially, aren’t born every day…and Miss Morgan is no exception. In her quiet way, she’s made buddies among her teammates while gaining their admiration with her remarkable play around second base.” As he had done with Stone, he released the supposed contracts for Morgan and Johnson–$10,000 and $5,000 respectively– although they all received far less than these numbers.

In their first month with the Clowns, Johnson and Morgan drew praise for their limited play, with The Pittsburgh Courier reporting, “the girls are starting to live up to all advance predictions.” Though always qualified in some way, the praise continued throughout the season, with Clowns shortstop, Bill Holder, telling the Lansing State Journal that Morgan “handles herself on a double play better than a lot of men” and manager Charleston declaring Johnson to have “some good pitches” including “a first-rate curve ball.”

Meanwhile, Stone was having less success with the Monarchs. Her playing time was greatly reduced from what it had been with the Clowns, with manager Buck O’Neil platooning her with much younger players who had a better chance of making it to the major leagues. When she did play, Stone hit a meager .105 and was largely confined to games against the Clowns, which drew in crowds of 20,000, double the size of other games.

Becoming frustrated, Stone began to wonder whether she should quit baseball. She was not receiving as much publicity as she had the previous season, becoming a footnote to the stories of Johnson and Morgan, but even those two took up less and less space in newspapers as the season progressed.

When newspapers did write about the three women, they relied on several similar talking points about the “gal ballplayers,” and their femininity, and each Monarchs-Clowns match-up was opportunity to showcase all of them. When they mentioned the women’s skills at all, writers pitted Stone and Morgan as rivals who always tried to outdo each other. Instead of describing their performance, most accounts linked the women to other game time spectacles, like Ed Hammann, who “tosses the ball backward from third to first and home to second,” indicating the women had no value as actual players.

As it became apparent the novelty of women players had worn off and these three alone would do little to save the Negro League, writers could be less esoteric with their sexism. Some writers said the women’s presence in the Negro League emasculated black men and called for their removal from the league and game as a whole. One writer, Doc Young, summarized this view in a column: “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved––just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men…this could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!”

The three women also had to navigate fraught relationships with their teammates and opponents. They had to constantly prove themselves to those who were inclined to think of them solely as a marketing ploy while also remaining feminine enough to continue drawing large crowds. Their need to appear not overly tomboyish–which people often associated with homosexuality–meant the women could not be too vehement in their repudiation of teammates’ harassment of them. But they had to be stern enough to not be mistaken for prostitutes, which frequently happened regardless; in many cities, Stone had to stay in brothels after hotels rejected her.

Newspapers often praised the women for not asking for special treatment, making it that much more difficult for them to carve out their own spaces or address any of the harassment they encountered. Early in Stone’s career, she received praise for being the sort of woman who could “take everything that comes her way” both on and off the field, and it was determined she had “surmount[ed] the problem of a lone woman beating the country with 22 men in a bus,” a standard that applied to both Johnson and Morgan. Of course, it was common for both opposing players and fellow teammates to make sexist remarks and actions toward the women, and it was expected the women would either brush them off or stand up for themselves without assistance from management.

The women fought back when they could, often letting their play speak for them. Indeed, Johnson earned the nickname “Peanut” after she struck out a batter who asked her, “how do you expect to strike anybody out when you’re not as big as a peanut?” Once when Stone was sexually harassed on the team bus, she grabbed a bat and “hit that kid in the name of the Father and Son” after her manager refused to intervene on her behalf.

Though these women were often alone without care or protection and had little control over their own career narratives, each built up a community of supporters among other black women. Black women at brothels helped Stone alter her uniform to give her chest more protection and constantly offered housing and camaraderie to all three on the road. While many fans dropped the Negro League in favor of major league ball, black women continuously flocked to the ballparks, crying tears of joy at the sight of Johnson, Stone, and Morgan. As much as the women tried to keep the discussion of their careers to their play, it naturally extended outward, crafting narratives of hope on one side and an ugly mix of misogyny and racism on the other. Navigating the Negro League consisted of far more than should have been the case, and it took its toll on the women.

Leaving Baseball

In a May 30, 1954 editorial titled “Will Women Take Over Negro Baseball Loop?,” celebrated Salina (Kan.) Journal reporter Bill Burke championed the women as the possible solution to the Negro League’s problems. He said that with the three women in the league, it was the most prosperous season in recent memory and hinted that the Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Red Sox could soon add women to their rosters. But no other women broke into the league, and after these three women exited the game in 1954 and 1955, no woman would ever grace the Negro League again.

As she had in entering the league, Stone set the course for Johnson and Morgan with her exit. After a disappointing season and sensing the collapse of the league, Stone left to return home to her husband in San Francisco in the fall of 1954. Weeks later, Morgan followed suit, returning to business school in Philadelphia. Johnson stayed on for the barnstorming season, but left in early 1955.

The final years of the Negro League reflect this faint glimmer of hope followed by the crushing tandem of circumstance and bigotry. With crowd size dwindling throughout the remaining years of the ‘50s, The Negro League put forth one final push for survival in 1959, expanding the league by two, making six total teams. Leading this final push was the barnstorming Brooklyn Stars owner Roy Campanella, who returned to his roots following an automobile accident that ended his major league career and wanted to support Black baseball as it had supported him. Though Campanella did his best to acquire young talent for Negro League teams, most Black players chose to go to predominantly white teams who could offer them enough money to make a living. Following the integration in 1959 of the last remaining major league team, the Red Sox, the Negro League disbanded, dissipating from the American conscience as Stone, Johnson, and Morgan had six years prior.

Though for decades the marks left by these three women were faint and often unnoticed, the same is not true of the impact the Negro Leagues had on them. Aside from a press release in which Pollock declared Morgan had returned to her “true calling,” working as a secretary, the women left silently, with no newspaper remarking about their departure. None of the women had put up excellent stats, though it’s unclear how reliable the records are. Stone reportedly batted .197 in 71 at-bats and Morgan hit .178 in 45 at-bats, and both were the worst defensive second basemen in the league. Johnson fared a little better, as she locked opponents down for long stretches, and finished with a 33-8 record, but she received no praise for her work.

Each of these women had a complex relationship with their time in the Negro League. Stone relished the opportunity to travel and learn about black history, but she ultimately did not enjoy being used as a pawn to draw in attendance, telling her husband after her retirement that “my years in negro baseball has not meant anything. The owner has capitalized on me…that’s all.” Stone once said that “playing baseball felt as if the rules she lived by–at home, in school, at church–no longer applied and she was making up her own on the fly.”

The same can be said of Johnson and Morgan. There was no blueprint for them to follow in navigating the Negro League, and even the year Stone spent with the Clowns before Johnson and Morgan provided few clues as to how each woman’s relationship with baseball would play out.

But the three women were not fully free to make up their own careers; they were tied to the sexism and racism pervasive in society, and the best they could do was try to carve out small spaces for themselves within these parameters. All but Stone gave up on baseball entirely upon their retirement, and as the decades passed, their success seemed even more improbable. In an interview with Alameda Journal editor Bill Kruissink, Stone remarked that in her later years, she often repeated to herself, “don’t forget who you are,” something impossible for these women to do during their careers: They were first and foremost ballplayers, but they were also black women, and it was the combination that shaped their years in the Negro League.

References & Resources

Mary Craig is a PhD student in political philosophy and American constitutional politics. She is overly attached to Massachusetts and spends her time baking, watching hockey, and reading and writing about baseball history. Follow her on Twitter @marymcraig.