A literary home run helped Toni Stone, baseball's first woman player, find a stage of her own

Toni Stone, of the Negro League's Indianapolis Clowns, poses with a baseball in 1953. Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Martha Ackmann's mission: find the "woman who replaced Hank Aaron."

"I had heard that phrase a couple of times, and I was curious about her," says the longtime journalist and lifelong baseball fan. "But she was a mystery. So I started digging."

Ackmann eventually found her: Marcenia Lyle Stone, known as Toni, who became the first woman ever to play big-league professional baseball. Hailed as the "female Jackie Robinson," Stone faced down formidable obstacles and broke barriers as an African-American and as a woman. After Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947 and other black players began to follow him, Stone seized an unprecedented opportunity to join the pro ranks. She did indeed replace Aaron -- as the second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League in 1953. But, despite following in Aaron's Hall of Fame-bound footsteps, Stone's story was largely lost as a footnote.

Ackmann made it her next mission to ensure that Stone got her proper turn at bat in the annals of history. After years of research and countless interviews with Stone's family members, former teammates and foes, Ackmann wrote "Curveball: The remarkable story of Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League," which was published in 2010.

Now Stone's story is reaching an even wider audience. An adaption of the book by award-winning playwright Lydia R. Diamond called "Toni Stone" opened Thursday at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre in New York City. espnW talked with Ackmann about the significance of big-league baseball's first woman player finally getting a stage of her own.

espnW: How did you discover Toni Stone?

Martha Ackmann: I grew in a baseball family in St. Louis, as a Cardinals fan. I have two brothers, and I wasn't treated any differently when it came to baseball. After I finished my first book, "Mercury 13," [which explored a little-known 1961 program in which NASA tested a group of skilled American women with an eye to sending them into space], I was looking for another topic. I loved this quote from David Halberstam: "Behind every great sports story is the story of a nation." I wanted to write about sports, and specifically baseball because that's what I know best.

So I started scratching away at that phrase -- "the woman who replaced Hank Aaron." I kept discovering more and more about Toni Stone. I regretted that I started the book after she died because in the audiotaped interviews I found of her, she was such a good storyteller. I always checked everything and made sure it was accurate, and I never caught her in an untruth. So I knew I could trust her voice.

Toni had a thrilling, remarkable story, as far as her baseball career was concerned. But I wanted to know: does this tell a story about our nation, about a time and place? Does it offer some kind of theme about who we are as people?

That took me a long time to answer. I started doing the nuts-and-bolts research, which was quite difficult -- and quite wonderful. Difficult because so much of the material had been lost. Negro League stats, for example, are very difficult to come by because they weren't kept for every game. Team owners would have to call in the scores to the Chicago Defender, for example, because the so-called "mainstream press" didn't cover the Negro Leagues. The information was spotty.

So since I couldn't go to newspapers and get a complete, accurate reflection of what was happening with Toni every single day, I had to talk to people who knew her. I spent an awful lot of time in old guys' garages and basements. The umpires and men who played with and against Toni would tell me stories, and get out their scrapbooks and show me old photographs.

espnW: How did interviewing and hearing perspectives from former players like Ernie Banks help shape the story?

MA: Banks was wonderful. He told me that when he and Toni were competitors, they were competitive. He said that, as a young man, he didn't have an appreciation for everything she was going through. He later became the father of daughters. He saw Toni at an Oakland A's game, 40 years or so after they played against one another. They were on either side of home plate. Ernie wanted to go over to her and say, "I didn't know then what you were going through, but I wish I did." But it got crowded and he lost her among the sea of people and he never got a chance to say that to her. Those kinds of conversations were poignant and funny and heartbreaking. They supplied a lot of the research for "Curveball."

espnW: Who was the most interesting person you interviewed?

MA: I have a special spot in my heart for Thomas "Taterbuster" Burt, one of Toni's teammates with the Indianapolis Clowns. When I interviewed Tom at his home in Norfolk, Virginia, I was struggling with that question of, "What does Toni's story tells us about humanity, about who we are?" As I was getting ready to leave, I asked Tom, "So what do you do these days that's baseball-connected?" And he said, "I coach my grandkids' teams."

"What's the hardest thing for kids these days to learn?" I asked. "How to hit a curveball," he replied. So I asked him to tell me how to hit one. "The secret to hitting a curveball is to step into it," he said, "You're supposed to step into a curveball, not away from it." I wrote that down. And I kept thinking about it. Then it came to me. The answer to that big question -- what does Toni's story mean, in terms of who we are as people? -- was that Toni got one, imperfect chance to live her dream. A lousy chance, where she knew she was a gate attraction, she knew that she was being used to bring in crowds. And what did she do with that one imperfect chance? She stepped into it. That quote became the beginning of the book.

espnW: When people ask you, "How good was Toni Stone?" how do you answer?

MA: I say that she was very good. She was a natural athlete in anything that was handed to her. She played football. She was a champion in ice skating. What I especially loved was that she was the most feared kid in her neighborhood when it came to playing red rover. One of her Negro League teammates said, "I have seen a lot of great woman athletes. Babe Didrikson was a good player. But Toni Stone was a real good player." There was no doubt that she could hold her own. She was gifted.

Syd Pollack, the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, was a shrewd businessman. He knew that if Toni weren't a good player -- if she was all flash and dazzle -- then people would come once to see her. But they wouldn't come again. So in taking a chance on her, he knew that she would need to play well all the time, that it wasn't going to be a one-shot deal. And she proved him correct.

espnW: You've said that you set out to use Toni Stone's career as a lens through which to draw attention to those who are able to "bend history." What do you mean by that?

MA: I wanted to connect Toni to the early days of the civil rights movement. I didn't want to force it. I couldn't say that she was an activist. That was obviously not the case. But there are other ways that history gets "bent," that it gets pushed.

The hardest part of the book for me to write was addressing the question of how Toni affected history. For me, it was what she represented -- of doing something that wasn't seen as appropriate or part of the conventional story. There were many photographs taken of Toni Stone, and in them, there was a look of resolve and determination and also the weight of racism and sexism upon her. I think one of the greatest tragedies of any form of bigotry is lost talent, that we don't allow people to be fully who they are. You could see on Toni's face, both her determination and the struggle. She's one of many faces of those days, of the 1950s and early '60s, that we see in photographs, of people who are fed up and who are not going to have their dignity robbed from them any longer. There's a great photographer named Ernest Withers who took a lot of photographs of Negro League ballplayers and people in the early years of the civil rights movement. Those images form a kind of collage of what came next.

espnW: Your book was the inspiration -- and source material -- for the new "Toni Stone" off-Broadway play at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. How did it come about?

MA: After the book came out (in 2010), I did an interview with Jeremy Schaap on ESPN's Outside The Lines. Samantha Barrie, who had worked in theater for a long time and who is a rabid baseball fan, was watching SportsCenter while she got ready for work one morning. Lo and behold, the piece about Toni Stone came on. She had said to her husband, "That is a great story, and I would love to develop it as a producer." She got in touch with my agent. I met her in New York and was taken immediately, both by her enthusiasm and the fact that she saw this as more than box scores, as a bigger story. I felt that we would be on the same wavelength.

So I said yes, and she optioned the book and put together the creative team -- Pam MacKinnon, the Tony-award winning director, and Lydia R. Diamond, a very successful playwright. We had meeting after meeting. We did workshops in New York, in Wisconsin, at the Radcliffe Institute, where I wrote "Curveball." Finally, the Roundabout Theatre co-commissioned it. We started rehearsals in April, then previews in May. And -- boom -- it's opening this week. It's staggering to me, as a neophyte at theater, how quickly the actors have to pull all this together. They auditioned, they were cast, and it was pretty much a month between rehearsals and the first preview performance. And that just seemed to be an enormous amount of work.

I was there for the first week of rehearsals. The actors were sitting around the table, reading the script and asking questions. At the end of the day, I rode down the elevator with April Matthis, who plays Toni. I said, "I can't believe how hard you work." She laughed and said, "Well, we're just sitting around the table reading. Next week we have to stand up!" I just marvel at their dedication and how very hard everyone has worked.

espnW: How involved have you been in the development of the show?

During readings, the actors would ask me questions. I provided a little bit of historical, biographical context. Harvy Blanks, who plays Aurelious Alberga, Toni's husband, said: "Did they ever have children? Did Toni ever want children?" Questions that helped them imagine their characters in a deeper way.

How has the story changed for the stage?

MA: As a nonfiction writer, I can't say the sky is blue unless I have a weather report. I have to be able to document everything that I write. Lydia is a dramatist. She is trying to tell a dramatic story that is true to Toni's life, but true in a different way, in that she doesn't have to cite her sources.

The most significant way that the play is different is through the character of Millie. I learned, through my research, that when Toni was on the road with the Indianapolis Clowns, she and the team stayed at boarding houses -- and boarding houses in the Jim Crow south that welcomed African-Americans were sometimes hard to come by. One story that I heard and was able to check out was that the team bus pulled up late one night, and Toni and 28 men stumbled off, exhausted. The boarding house proprietor got one look at Toni and said, "You can't stay here. I know who you are" -- assuming that she was a prostitute -- and pointed her to a brothel down the road. Toni had no other place to go, so she walked to the brothel. And there she discovered what she called "good girls" who took care of her, who gave her a clean place to stay and something warm to eat. They sewed padding into her uniforms so that she could take hard throws to the chest. And, in turn, they started reading the sports pages and started following her career.

I trusted the story. I confirmed it with other African-Americans who had similar experiences of being forced to stay in brothels. But there was no way that I was going to be able to find that specific brothel, those same prostitutes. So I left it at that in the book. I'm sort of envious, as a writer, that Lydia could dramatize that story and invent this character of Millie (Kenn E. Head), who's a prostitute. There are some very tender moments between Millie and Toni, and their developing friendship, that depict the respect and the affection and the commonality between women who are outsiders.

espnW: You've said that your mission as a writer is "chronicling women who have changed America." How did Toni change America?

MA: One of the things that I appreciate about Lydia's play is that it's a love story. But it's a love story about the work that a woman loves. Can you name anything else that focuses on the work that a woman loves? That she fights to do? The opening scene for "Toni Stone" -- it's the first scene that Lydia wrote, that she read to me -- gets at that. When Toni talks about the weight of the ball in her glove, and how she doesn't feel complete when it's not there. ... That's something that will resonate with women and that's a story that we don't get to hear enough. And certainly, that young girls don't get to hear enough. They need to hear that they're entitled to have work they love. And if it happens to be baseball, more power to you.