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Story of first woman in Negro Leagues hits stage

Toni Stone played for Indianapolis Clowns, Kansas City Monarchs during 1950s
April 29, 2019

KANSAS CITY -- If you were to compile a list of professional baseball players who have had a profound impact on society, Toni Stone's name might not immediately register. But that could change this summer as the story of the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues is told

KANSAS CITY -- If you were to compile a list of professional baseball players who have had a profound impact on society, Toni Stone's name might not immediately register.

But that could change this summer as the story of the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues is told on a New York City stage.

The Roundabout Theatre Company is working toward the premiere of Toni Stone, which will officially open on June 20 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Cast members April Matthis, Jonathan Burke, Kenn E. Head and Ezra Knight visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum on Monday as part of their research project on Stone and the Negro Leagues. Also at the Museum were director Pam MacKinnon and playwright Lydia Diamond.

"I'm so excited," Matthis said. "It's going to be a wonderful challenge, to bring the story of this remarkable woman."

Stone began playing baseball at an early age and she quickly showed a skill level and a determined attitude that enabled her to compete against the guys. She worked her way through the ranks and was eventually signed by Indianapolis Clowns owner Syd Pollack to play second base in 1953. Just one year earlier, the Clowns had a second baseman named Hank Aaron.

Stone batted .243 in 50 games. While the Clowns capitalized at the gate by having a woman on the team, history shows that this was no gimmick. Stone was a smooth infielder and held her own at the plate, according to Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick. The two other women who later played in the Negro Leagues were Mamie Johnson and Connie Morgan.

"It was more than just a sideshow, it was very much legitimate," Kendrick said. "At the plate, they could sometimes get overpowered, but everybody got overpowered by Satchel Paige."

Stone went on to the Kansas City Monarchs in 1954, but she struggled to get playing time on a powerhouse team.

"The Monarchs were just so good," Kendrick said. "So, Toni sat a lot."

Stone moved to Oakland after the 1954 season, where she worked as a nurse and cared for her husband until he died at age 103 in 1987. Toni Stone was 75 when she died in 1996.

"I find her fascinating and I want the people who see this play to leave with a curiosity and hunger to know more about her," Matthis said. "For me, as an actor, she's an interesting character study because she doesn't fit in a neat box."

Matthis will portray a woman who had fierce persistence in breaking down the gender barriers that came her way in a male-dominated sport.

"Once she moved past the skepticism of a female coming to join this all-male world, the mindset started to change," said Kendrick, who will be attending the play's premiere. "To me, the Negro Leagues was everything that America is supposed to be. It was a place where you were only measured by your ability. Can you play? Do you have something to contribute?"