Pro baseball's first woman player Toni Stone honored in off-Broadway show

April Matthis plays the lead role in "Toni Stone." Stone was the first woman to play big-league baseball. Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theatre Company

Her hand extended in the air, weathered mitt awaiting its prize, Toni Stone catches the ball. As the first woman -- not just African-American woman -- to play big-league professional baseball, the weight of that 5-ounce ball seemed heavier.

Marcenia Lyle Stone, known as Toni Stone, took the field as a second baseman for the Negro Leagues' Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. Yet, her "first-ness" didn't yield much media attention -- in comparison to several All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) players. Her history was hidden in plain sight.

As the subject of the off-Broadway play "Toni Stone," the baseball pioneer is getting mainstream recognition more than two decades after her death in 1996. Now her name is plastered alongside a building in Times Square, mentioned in radio promos and podcast drops. The stage play is currently in previews and officially opens on June 20 at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre in New York City. Martha Ackmann's book "Curveball: The remarkable story of Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League" serves as source material for the play.

The show boasts an all-women brain trust. Lydia R. Diamond -- her most popular works include "The Bluest Eye" (2007), an adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel, and "Stick Fly" (2008) -- serves as the playwright. The play is produced by Samantha Barrie and directed by Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon. Lead actress April Matthis owns the stage as Stone.

Stone played pro baseball during the Jim Crow era. She traveled throughout the United States as a black woman with black male teammates. She was met with sexist and racist outlooks and managed to still play ball with the best of them. espnW talked to Diamond, MacKinnon and Matthis about bringing Stone's truths to the stage.

On a stage of her own

Pam MacKinnon: Toni Stone knew she was a baseball player from age 7, and she put that out into the world. But my connection to Toni, the person was really as much about baseball as it was about wanting to get inside the head of this person, and then manifest her story in the right way.

My friend and theater producer (who also produced "Toni Stone"), Samantha Barrie, is a huge baseball fan. She came to me with having just optioned the rights to adapt the book "Curveball" by Martha Ackmann, which is about Toni. I've known Samantha for a lot of years. And she was just sort of apoplectically passionate about how this story had to be told and she really felt that a play was the best way to do it.

Lydia R. Diamond: Samantha and Pam approached me to write it. I was like, "Oh, I'm so over-commissioned and I'm a slow writer." They were like, "just read the book." I read the book and I knew people need to know this story. There was never apprehension on approaching the politics of who Toni was, or it being relevant for our times. I wanted people to know her. History wanted so desperately to erase Toni. I wanted to stop that from happening.

April Matthis: Having Pam and Lydia, just those two names in the same room, made me intrigued. But, then to find out that this is the first woman to go pro in baseball and for her to be a black woman -- I was definitely interested. She was this person who challenged ideas about gender, and the screenplay was rooted in this southern black vernacular, which made it so pleasurable.

The mental research for the role, which included a trip to the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, and the physical preparation is ongoing. I got myself to the batting cages and worked on my form. We also had a coach come in, who taught the cast lots of fundamentals. Other than that, it's about familiarizing myself with that kind of movement and physicality.

Baseball and barnstorming

Diamond: The book, which served as the source material, is jam-packed with the facts about Toni's life, the Negro Leagues and some historical context. But there wasn't a story arc. I had to find the joy in the story -- especially as sport fans, we had to bring that to the show. We had to understand Toni's unrequited love for baseball.

Then we had to think about who she was. Toni came from this middle-class African-American family in the Twin Cities and she moved to San Francisco when she was a little girl, at the height of World War II. Her parents moved the family because that's where the jobs were. (San Francisco is not referenced in the play.)

And then thinking about barnstorming -- what was it like to be the black woman player on a majority black male team as they barnstorm in the Jim Crow South? It was all of those things. It's about a voyage through America and it's our history.

MacKinnon: When discussing Toni, people are like, "Oh, 'A League of Their Own' and [its reference to the AAGPBL]. But this is so much different. Toni wouldn't have been allowed to play in that league because of segregation laws. If she wanted to play pro, she had to play with black men. That's why the show is focused on her, and eventually her husband, and her male teammates.

The black men -- the actors play all of the roles, even white men. Some of them are black women. (There are nine actors on stage, for the nine positions in baseball. The actors interchange roles.) Again, I think it's about trying to get inside the brain of this baseball player.

Matthis: There were some emotionally challenging scenes. There is a certain girding at your loins when you confront histories in your work. We are confronting several racial traumas in a conversational manner, which I credit Lydia, Pam and our choreographer Camille A. Brown.

There's a scene [at an exhibition game] where the actors on stage are playing white racist [attendees] and they're hurling all these racial epithets at us. And the first time we rehearsed that, I just broke into laughter because they're so good at it because they know it so well. We all know it so well and we know how it's supposed to sound. And to take on that mask, it's no different from kids playing monsters. It's like ... "What if you're the monster? What if you wear the monster mask and you do the scary voice." And that's what racism is. It's a monster. And to ride that and to treat it here, where it has a purpose, it's storytelling. It's not the act in a vacuum. We can stop, we can go take a break, we can get away. We control how we do it.

It was hard to explain the laughter that came, but my cast members know. That's growing up at home, we would always make fun of the racists. We would do those voices and we could do them better than they could do them, and we would just crack ourselves up. Because there is, while it's also a monster and destructive force in this country, there's also something so idiotic about the idea of white supremacy. It's just really ridiculous when you think about thinking that you're superior. The inanity of it cracks me up.

Diamond: I took out a few N-words in the scene [Matthis is referencing], because my concern was that the audience would feel like it's an assault to African-Americans, as well as being discomforting to the white people. Those are nasty, horrible words, but those words are a part of our history and this is a woman who was successful despite those nasty, horrible words.

I think to tell her story and not be blunt and fail to acknowledge that dynamic would do her a disservice.

The full picture

MacKinnon: At the center of it all, this play is about a strong, actualized woman.

At a certain point we wanted her not just be a baseball player because life, of course, isn't just that. Toni did get married, and she married someone substantially older than her (Aurelious Pescia Alberga), but then he lived to be 104, so it's not like that was a short marriage. He was a very important person in her life. We wanted that on the stage just to complete this person, and how baseball often put a strain on her marriage.

Diamond: I would like to think this play pays homage to the women in sports who came before, and who come after, and who are now setting the standard.

Matthis: And there's no reason to shrink from the period where Toni Stone became known and did most of her work in this sport. You can't take Jim Crow out of the story, and there's no reason to sanitize it. We had to embrace the tenacity, joy and love -- like dogged love -- that she had for the game, that she was willing to do it under any circumstances.