Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann

August 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Book Review, Women in Baseball, Your Turn

Few box scores remain.   Very few written records to account for her splendid achievements on the field.  No SLG, OBP, RISP, WHIP, CqStG, WARP, or VORP to measure her success.

Statistics do not tell the whole story of any ballplayer’s life.   In the case of Toni Stone, arguably the greatest woman ever to play professional baseball in any league, a complete story could never be woven out of stats and game summaries, because there was a time not so very long ago when games played by some groups of individuals were not considered worthy of a printed record.

Judy Johnson shares her wonderful writing with Books on Baseball as a guest book reviewer. Your Turn is a regular feature of Books on Baseball that spotlights our BoB friends as guest book reviewers.  Judy’s work can be found on her website — Watching the Game.

Where baseball numbers are lacking, memory, imagery, and conversation take their place.  Fortunately for our sake, various interviews with the late Toni Stone survive.  Anecdotes, eyewitness accounts, news clippings, numbers, reminiscences, and multiple stories combine to form a rich and elegant narrative that commemorates one deeply impressive human life.

Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann:  What an important and beautiful story this is;  what a lovely, near-perfect book (though many examples of vile human behavior fill its pages).   This is an engaging read for any lover of baseball, male or female.  Readers from various walks of life are likely to find in Toni Stone something of a soul mate, particularly as she passionately seeks ways of accessing the game she loves.

Hear Martha Ackmann talk about Toni Stone on NPR’s Only a Game  (starts at 26:00)

Baseball takes place on the field, off the field, and in the mind.   So it was for Toni Stone, and so it is that Ackmann deftly balances these three components in telling the ballplayer’s story, giving equal attention to her heroine’s physical achievements,  personal challenges and adversities, and the equally compelling longings of a unique soul.

It’s an understatement to say that young “Tomboy” Stone faced formidable odds in defying the double prejudice that characterized a nation’s pastime, even as the industry enjoyed significant progress in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Intensity, determination, grit, and love drove Tomboy at every step of the way.   It is no mistake that a teacher – Martha Ackmann, Professor of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College and Emily Dickinson scholar – celebrates the life of a heroine who did not perform well in school.  The young girl was never fired up by physics, grammar, or geometry; her intellectual curiosity lay elsewhere.

The yearning to play baseball is not just a physical desire.  It’s an intellectual passion, and curiosity is at the root of all learning:  “She felt more comfortable listening to old men discussing balls and strikes than she did hearing girls her own age chattering” (18).  Those men had “an easy way about them.”  

See more about women in the Negro League in this video link

Toni’s able body took her mind to places where she yearned to be, to  venues in which she knew she deep down she could thrive both physically and mentally:  “Tomboy pushed down the kickstand of her Silver King and walked through the open gates of the still-empty Lexington Park.   She wanted to get a closer look at what was going on” (22). What boy or girl or tomboy among us, what lover of baseball, hasn’t felt the pull of the game in this way?  What fan hasn’t pushed down the kickstand and wandered closer to the field?  

She craved baseball conversation at an early age, because talk meant instruction.  “Baseball was like a drug” for her.   “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping I’d go crazy” (1), she once said, describing a sensation many of us can understand.

Toni Stone was fortunate to learn the game in a formal way during a critical period in her youth, thanks to consistent playing time on several squads:  a Catholic boys’ league in Minnesota, a team of Meat Packers in Saint Paul,  a year or so of girls’ softball in high school, and American Legion ball.   Gabby Street’s baseball school for white boys was her unlikely but significant launching point. 

Young Toni (nee “Marcenia”) never would have broken into the world of baseball had it not been for a succession of mentors and advocates, including a Roman Catholic priest, a handful of compassionate teachers who believed in her talent, a former major-league manager, team owner Syd Pollack, and her parents, who gradually accepted the fact that Marcenia’s dreams took her to a place far different from what they’d envisioned for their daughter.   Those who succeed in baseball cannot do it alone; it takes the egos and pocketbooks of others, as well as basic human kindness, a constellation of believers and mixed motives, to drive the process forward.

Facing almost insurmountable odds both on and off the field, Toni Stone played baseball legitimately from 1932 until 1954.  Barnstorming the country from North Dakota to Louisiana, Minneapolis to California with busloads full of men, she proved herself worthy of professional contracts with the San Francisco Sea Lions, New Orleans Creoles, Indianapolis Clowns, and Kansas City Monarchs.   Playing in 78 games at the height of her career in 1949, while surviving and even thriving in a world peopled almost exclusively by men, Toni maintained a remarkable .326 average. 

Throughout the years, she held her own and maintained her dignity in a male world, and for the most part her teammates felt comfortable having her around.   Seeking baseball opportunities just as they did, she faced adversity and bitter racism at many steps along the way.  “Nothing serious,” a county sheriff was heard saying in a breakdown lane outside St. Augustine.  “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” (178).  Deep into the woods Toni would disappear on road trips,  alone, while her male teammates  paused together at the side of the road to relieve themselves in the middle of the night.  Surviving in a gritty world full of discomfort and uncertainty, she endured the further humiliation of being promoted as something of a circus attraction that promised larger crowds and higher revenues at the ballpark. 

One of the lowest points in her career came in the form of a cruel remark from an unlikely source – Buck O’Neill, whose surprisingly hurtful behavior inflicted an unexpected and lasting form of pain (189).  Buck’s demeaning wisecrack and subsequent aloofness came at a time when Toni’s performance on the field had already taken a turn for the worse, as various forces including middle age conspired to drive her out of the game.

How ironic that Toni came to be distanced and discarded from the baseball world, even as the industry took significant steps forward.  In 1954 she was not selected by fans to play in the East-West Negro League All-Star game, and this devastating news virtually “broke her spirit” (187).  As a few of her fellow players began to transition into the big leagues, Toni felt a peculiar sense of alienation from the game she had always loved.  The inevitable dissolution of the Negro Leagues and the opening of baseball’s gates to more players of color ironically meant fewer opportunities for women.  Gender proved to be a tricky and complicated issue, as influential figures including sportswriters began to craft shrill arguments in an effort to keep women out of professional baseball.

For some twenty years Toni Stone had proved that she could hold her own with the men and boys, but they no longer thought to let her in.  “I just got real angry.”    Other gifted female players had already fallen by the wayside, unable to persevere during those years when Toni gutted it out and proved herself worthy.   “I could of just died,” she lamented as her career drew to an end in 1954.

The story of Toni Stone is on balance an uplifting tale, but it’s a very sad story too.  “She had to find a way to let go of baseball and not let it ache so much” (194). “Not playing baseball hurt so damn much,” Toni explained years later, “I almost had a heart attack.”  Parting with the game is a difficult experience for most ballplayers, and hanging up the cleats was especially difficult for Toni.   Together with her glove, the well-worn shoes had truly become her salvation (15).

The climax of Martha Ackmann’s story comes not with a walk-off double, game-winning home run, or dazzling play at second.  The climax doesn’t happen on any field.  Long after her retirement from the game, after a lonely hiatus that felt like death, all the stories of Stone’s career finally “exploded like a grenade,” and the words began to flow.

Toni’s triumphant visit to the offices of the The Oakland Tribune marked her rebirth into the world of the game. Pondering the book she would never have time to write herself, yet eager to tell her story, Toni came loaded with clippings, jerseys, memorabilia and with “words cascading out of her mouth of a torrent” (207).

The game of baseball ultimately becomes story for all of us – for player and fan alike, for every historian, biographer, and lonely dreamer.  Whether it be an elegant narrative crafted by a scholar or a coarse anecdote shared at a bar or up in the grandstands, a tale spun out on the front porch or at the corner deli, story is what baseball ultimately becomes.  Story levels the playing field when all is said and done.

Those who have not played the game can honor it with words.   Our stories often celebrate the more elusive human elements that can’t be measured in stats and charts.  Curveball succeeds admirably in voicing the truth of one life.    Like all good baseball narratives, it’s part love story.  Toni Stone’s career played out in a way that resembled the experience of Gabby Street, the skeptical coach who gave her that first lucky break:  “[he] thought he was finished with baseball forever . . . but his love for the game would not let him go.  ‘I’ve got baseball in my blood, I guess, I can’t leave it alone’” (25).

Martha Ackmann has filled an empty space in history with an elegant story about a truly inspiring woman.  It’s our responsibility and our joy to know stories such as these.  Tomboy Stone was much more than a “girl sensation.”  She was a heroine, a complicated individual, a gifted and accomplished player who made a significant contribution to the game we love, a human being worth knowing.

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