Happy National Girls and Women in Sports Day! In addition to that, we're midway through the first week of Black History Month! These two things together make today a perfect day for a review of a book I read recently, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to you all. Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League, by Martha Ackmann, is an excellent biography of Toni Stone and a fascinating view into the history of Negro League baseball in the mid-1940s through 1950s.
The book starts in Ms. Stone's young childhood and follows her closely through her retirement from baseball in 1954. It also describes some details of her later life. However, the main focus of the book is on her playing career, both amateur and professional. The overarching theme throughout is Ms. Stone's love for the game. From her childhood playing on a church team, to her semi-pro years with the St. Paul Giants, to her experiences on Negro League teams including the San Francisco Sea Lions, the Indianapolis Clowns, and the Kansas City Monarchs, Ms. Stone endured constant discouragement and mistreatment as a Black woman who wanted to play baseball. But she never gave up on the game she loved. Even after her retirement, the book describes her coaching and playing with amateur teams in local parks near her home.
In spite of her passion and talent for baseball, Ms. Stone had to fight for playing time and fair compensation every step of her career. One of the most poignant details of the book was the disconnect between the way the teams advertised her, and her actual experiences. The owners told local newspapers that they were paying her thousands of dollars to play, when in reality she was getting a fraction of what they reported. They also billed her as a star of the diamond, when the way they treated her as an employee did not reflect any kind of star status. It was often difficult for the men on the Negro League teams to find road accommodations given the status of segregation; for Ms. Stone, it was even harder, since the male players often found places to sleep that would accept Black men but not a woman. Eventually Ms. Stone discovered that she could find lodging in brothels in the cities her team traveled to, making friends with the women working there and becoming able to depend on their hospitality. Having to scrounge for a place to sleep may be sadly typical at times for some of today's underpaid minor leaguers, but it would be unheard of today for an MLB player receiving top billing and bringing in big crowds to have to deal with these types of living conditions.
The uncertainty and instability she faced on the road, as well as within the organizations that employed her, cannot have been easy for Ms. Stone to bear. But even at the end of her career, as the integration of the MLB threatened the future of the Negro Leagues, and as the introduction of other female players such as Mamie "Peanut" Johnson and Connie Morgan threatened Ms. Stone's place on her own team (due to the owners' view of female players mainly as gimmicks to bring in audiences, rather than individual players with value), Ms. Stone always pushed for fair opportunities to play as she deserved. When she ultimately retired in 1954, it had more to do with the lack of playing time her manager was giving her than with any desire to quit the game of baseball.
The text is clearly non-fiction/history rather than novelization, which I preferred for this type of topic. In particular, when white women write about Black women, a novelization style provides far too much leeway to veer into sensationalization and/or exploitation (see: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). Martha Ackmann is an excellent journalist-historian known for her earlier book on a group of female astronauts, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. But Ackmann, though she is white, depicts Ms. Stone and the figures in her life with consistent respect, without falling into stereotypes or tropes about African-Americans. The author/narrator's voice is minimal to nonexistent throughout, rightly allowing the facts about Ms. Stone's life to speak for themselves.
One adaptation of Ackmann's book is already in the works, a play by Lydia R. Diamond, an award-winning Black playwright and professor known for previous works including The Bluest Eye and Smart People. The Ackmann biography is a fascinating read on its own, but it is even more encouraging to know that it is providing others with source material to create different types of media based on Toni Stone's story, and to ensure that Ms. Stone's commitment to the game of baseball against all odds is not forgotten.
You can find Curveball on Amazon here, or at your favorite independent bookstore or local library!
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