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After Jackie Robinson led the exodus of talent out of the Negro Leagues and into the majors, Syd Pollack, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, was desperate to find a new way to attract fans to the ballpark.
The Negro National League had folded in 1948, and by 1953 the Clowns were one of only four teams left in the Negro American League.
In the ‘50s, Pollack signed three women who had the talent to be more than simply gate attractions.
Toni Stone was the first, but she wasn’t the last
The first was Toni Stone, whom Pollack signed in 1953. Stone had played hardball with boys since she was a girl in St. Paul, Minn. By 16, she was pitching for a semi-pro team, the Twin Cities Colored Giants.
She played with two more semi-pro teams, the San Francisco Sea Lions and the New Orleans Creoles, before agreeing to play second base for the Clowns and become the first woman to play in the Negro American League.
Dealing with not only rampant racism, but swirling sexism of the ’50s, Stone would triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Far from capitulating, she stood her ground when Pollack wanted her to wear a skirt like the players in the All-American Girls Professional League. Stone flatly refused.
Though her talents had earned her a spot with the boys, not all of her Indianapolis teammates accepted Stone as an equal.
Some made passes at Stone, which she reportedly quickly rebuffed. Others reportedly tried to sabotage her play by throwing the ball to her at second base in such a way that it positioned her in the path of incoming spikes.
Playing on a men’s team presented challenges off the field as well. Stone had to change in the room used by the umpires.
On road trips, she often stayed at brothels, a practice that began when the proprietor of the hotel where the team stayed figured she must be a sex worker – when he saw her get off the bus with 28 men – and gave her directions to the nearest brothel.
Unsatisfied with her lack of playing time, after the season, Pollack sold her contract to the Kansas City Monarchs, whom Stone played with in 1954 before retiring.
During her two years in the National American League, she had a career batting average estimated to be .243, but at one point in the 1953 season she was batting .364, fourth in the entire league.
Determined to draw fans in support of his team, Pollack next signed 19-year-old Connie Morgan to replace Stone.
Connie Morgan would average nearly .300 at-bat with the Indianapolis Clowns
The athletic Morgan had already played five seasons with the women’s North Philadelphia Honey Drippers from her hometown (batting .338 over that period) and basketball for the Rockettes.
When she read an article in the newspaper about Stone playing for the Clowns, Morgan wrote Pollack to request a tryout.
Oscar Charleston, the Clowns’ manager (and a Hall of Fame center fielder), had scouted Morgan and called her “one of the most sensational” female players he had ever seen. Pollack would later sign Morgan after witnessing her talents in an exhibition game.
Though Stone had to brunt many of the mistreatments that come along with being the “first Black anything” in the ’50s, Morgan also experienced the predictable sexism of the times, even from her own people.
Ebony had published photos of Stone, one in her uniform, the other in a dress: “Dressed in street clothes, Toni Stone is an attractive young lady who could be someone’s secretary, but once in uniform she is all ball player.”
The Baltimore Afro-American ran a photo of Morgan in her uniform alongside another of her wearing a white dress and gloves with the caption: “Miss Connie Morgan: The baseball player and the lady.”
Morgan played just one season in the National American League, splitting time at second base with Ray Neiland, batting third and posting about a .300 average.
The New York Amsterdam News validated the talents and temperament of Stone, Morgan and Mamie Johnson (whom Pollack also signed in 1954) when the Clowns played the Monarchs in a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium: “The girls take a back seat to no one on the field.”
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was the first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues
While Stone broke the gender barrier all alone, Morgan had the support of a female teammate in Johnson.
Some accounts have Johnson barnstorming with the team in late 1953. A pitcher with a slider, circle change, screwball and a curveball she claimed to have learned from Satchel Paige, she did not throw hard but she had good control.
They called the 5-foot-3 – or maybe 5-foot-2 – Johnson “Peanut.” Legend has it that in her first game pitching for the Clowns, Hank Baylis peered from the batter’s box to the diminutive pitcher on the mound and called, “What makes you think you can strike a batter out? Why, you aren’t any larger than a peanut?” She struck him out.
Though the moniker stuck, the nickname’s origin is up for debate among Negro League historians.
Like Morgan, she was an excellent all-around athlete born in South Carolina who reportedly was the first girl at her Long Branch High School (New Jersey) to play football, basketball and baseball. In 1953, the 18-year-old Johnson went to Washington for a tryout with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Johnson found a men’s semipro team that did want her, which is where a scout for the Clowns saw her and recommended her to Pollack.
Speaking on the sexism of the times, “After you prove yourself as to what you came there for, then you don’t have any problem out of them, either,” Johnson said in a 2003 interview with National Public Radio.
Johnson played into 1955 with the team but left before finishing the season, saying she wanted to spend more time with her young son.
All three women have been immortalized
Though Stone, Morgan and Johnson faced resistance during their playing days, the years have been kind to their remarkable journeys. Stone was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, and St. Paul named a city baseball field after her.
Morgan was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. And in a ceremonial MLB draft of living Negro League players in 2008, Johnson was selected by the Washington Nationals.
In 2020, addressing what MLB described as a “long overdue recognition,” Commissioner Rob Manfred bestowed Major League status upon seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. The decision meant that the approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues during this time period are officially considered Major Leaguers, with their stats and records becoming a part of Major League history.
This change opened the doors for Connie Morgan, Mami Johnson, and Toni Stone to be recognized for the history makers they were and continue to be.