Toni Stone holding a baseball (© Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Toni Stone was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, 40 years after this photo was taken. (© Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

She’s “maybe one of the best ballplayer[s] you’ve never heard of,” according to the Negro League Baseball Players Association.

The Negro Leagues served as a showcase for America’s best Black baseball players prior to the racial integration of Major League Baseball (which began slowly in 1947, when Jackie Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers).

Signed in 1953 to play second base for the league’s Indianapolis team, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone Alberga (1921–1996) was the first woman to play alongside men on an American big-league professional baseball team. Her story has been dramatized in the play Toni Stone, which opened on September 3 at Washington’s Arena Stage theater.

The play will be simulcast live at Nationals Park (home to Washington’s baseball team) on September 26 and will be free to interested community members. Based on Martha Ackmann’s book Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the play introduces audiences to a trailblazer who pursued her passion for baseball while negotiating challenges on and off the playing field.

Female actor in baseball uniform swinging bat (© Ryan Maxwell Photography)
Santoya Fields, swinging a baseball bat, stars as Toni Stone at Washington’s Arena Stage. (© Ryan Maxwell Photography)

Stone, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, grew up as a multisport athlete playing on boys’ teams. As a young adult, she was determined to play baseball at the highest level. The Negro Leagues — which began operating in 1920 but have since disbanded and posthumously gained major league status — gave Stone that opportunity. (The Indianapolis team was the last of the Negro League teams to disband, continuing to play exhibition games into the 1980s.)

Stone’s presence on the team was marketed as a novelty to help sell tickets, which it did. But sometimes she also confronted hostile crowds, was shunned by resentful teammates who told her she should be at home, or had to deal with players from opposing teams who tried to injure her when sliding into base.

Stone’s athleticism and grit impressed many fans, regardless.

Toni Stone, in baseball uniform surrounded by children (© Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Toni Stone greets young fans in Florida in 1953. Pam MacKinnon, the director of a play about Stone, says the team’s name, the Clowns, makes clear that these “exceptional athletes … were expected to clown for their paychecks.” (© Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Stone began in the minor league, where she got a hit off the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige in her first season. When she moved up to join the Indianapolis team, she took the place of star player Hank Aaron, who had left to play for Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Braves.

The Negro League “is born of exclusion that becomes perhaps this nation’s most inclusive entity,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The play is “an ode not only to Toni Stone, but the other pioneering women who were involved in the Negro Leagues” — Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, who followed Stone as players.

“Toni Stone is an inspiration to all of us,” he said.

The Toni Stone production’s choreographer, Camille A. Brown, describes how the team’s dynamics unfold on stage through movement as well as dialogue. “The actors worked with a baseball coach who showed them both the mannerisms and some positions baseball players hold during a game,” she said.

“The choreography for this particular production is character-driven and expresses the athleticism and sheer brilliance of the Black body,” said Rickey Tripp, associate choreographer. The actors “understood the assignment, and the payoff is grand.”