Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie Johnson blazed a trail for women in the Negro Leagues
After Jackie Robinson led the exodus of talent out of the Negro Leagues and into the majors – and the fans followed – Syd Pollack, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, was desperate to resuscitate interest in his team.
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. Pollack, whose promotional hijinks had earned the Clowns a designation as “the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball,” had tried dressing King Tut in a tuxedo and employing a daffy dwarf as sideline entertainers.
But in the ‘50s, Pollack signed three women who had the talent to be more than simply gate attractions.
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 semipro team, the Twin Cities Colored Giants. She played with two more semipro 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.
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The fans did turn out, and some rooted for Stone’s success, but in the convention-bound ‘50s, not all of them were ready to embrace the idea of a woman playing on a men’s team. They yelled at her from the stands: “Why don’t you go home and fix your husband some biscuits?”
Her husband, Aurelious Alberga, whom she had married in 1950, might have preferred that, but Stone was determined to prove herself. Pollack wanted her to wear a skirt like the players in the All-American Girls Professional League. Stone said no.
Much as Jackie Robinson’s white teammates in Brooklyn weren’t all ready to have a different colored teammate, not all of Stone’s Indianapolis teammates accepted her as an equal. Some made passes at her, which she quickly rebuffed. Others 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 prostitute – when he saw her get off the bus with 28 men – and gave her directions to the nearest brothel. Stone, who could identify with the brothel workers as an outsider, was welcomed by them.
Stone did not play as often as she would have liked, appearing in only about 50 of the 175 games the Clowns played in 1953. 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 league, right behind Ernie Banks.
Legend has it she rapped a single off Satchel Paige, but the archives don’t corroborate the story. Still, the persistence of those who believe the story – including Martha Ackerman, author of the Stone biography “Curveball” – bears testament to Stone’s skills, making such a feat plausible.
Determined to draw fans in support of his team, Pollack next signed 19-year-old Connie Morgan to replace Stone. 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. Perhaps upon his recommendation, Pollack granted Morgan’s request when the Clowns played an exhibition in Baltimore against the Orioles. Impressed, he signed Morgan, who had been primarily a catcher for the Honey Drippers, to play second base.
She encountered many of the gender barriers that Stone had. 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.” (The previous year, Ebony had published similar 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.”)
Yet the Afro-American also recognized Morgan’s unqualified baseball ability. In an account of a May game, it described how Morgan "electrified over 6,000 fans…when she went far to her right to make a sensational stop, flipped to shortstop Bill Holder and started a lightning double play against the Birmingham Barons."
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.”
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.
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 Paige, she did not throw hard but she had good control.
They called the 5-foot-3 – or maybe 5-foot-2 – Johnson “Peanut.” Story 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, and the nickname stuck.
Good story, but newspaper accounts of her signing with the Clowns identify her already as Mamie “Peanut” Johnson. 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.
She and her friend, also African American, hadn’t realized that the AAGPBL remained all-white. After being ignored for 15 minutes, Johnson turned to her friend and said, “We better go. I don’t think we’re wanted here.”
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. The men were skeptical at first about this pint-sized pitcher, but she earned their respect with her talent. “After you prove yourself as to what you came there for, then you don't have any problem out of them, either,” she 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. By her own account, Johnson went 33-8 during her time with the Clowns, though Negro League historians question the validity of that record (the record books are incomplete on the subject).
Not disputed, though, is the fact that she was the first female pitcher in professional baseball and one of three courageous women to play in the Negro American League.
Though Stone, Morgan and Johnson faced resistance during their playing days, the years have been kind to their memory. 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.
Long after they retired, these women, who challenged the way society viewed their gender, have earned the respect they deserved.
John Rosengren is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.