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Baseball pioneer didn’t back down

As baseball returns to the brains of Bay Area sports fans, ESPN reminded us last night of a special part of Bay Area baseball history: Toni Stone, one of the game’s true pioneers.

In 1949, Toni Stone became the first woman to play Negro League baseball. Stone moved to San Francisco in the late 1940s after learning the game in Minneapolis in the ’30s and ’40s.

The tall, scrappy Stone — nicknamed “Tomboy” — played only a few months with the barnstorming San Francisco Sea Lions before joining the Negro League’s New Orleans Creoles after a pay dispute.

Stone would go on to play the next four years with New Orleans and Indianapolis before finishing up with the Kansas City Clowns in 1954.

Karla Farmer Stouse wrote “The Story of Toni Stone” as part of a collection of baseball essays published in 2003. She described Stone as a “journeyman” player with a career .243 average who hated to be benched as much as anybody.

Stouse wrote that though Kansas City’s Buck O’Neil cut Stone’s playing time to two or three innings in 1954, she maintained her fierce competitive spirit:

“When she did play, she refused to back down to base runners coming in to second, taking the same punishment as any other tough competitor. She earned the respect and accolades of Henry Aaron … who indicated that Toni Stone could indeed play the game.”

Women’s baseball film “A League of Their Own” paid homage to Stone in a scene where a black female fan throws a baseball far over Geena Davis’ head.

Always an excellent athlete, Stone continued to play baseball in men’s semi-pro leagues in California until the age of 60. She settled in Oakland after her Negro league career ended and was named to the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. She passed away in Alameda in 1996.

In a 1991 interview with the Chron, Stone shared what motivated her to keep playing baseball amid all the hardship she faced:

“A woman has her dreams, too. When you finish high school, they tell a boy to go out and see the world. What do they tell a girl? They tell her to go next door and marry the boy that their families picked for her. It wasn’t right. A woman can do many things.”

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