Big-League Baseball’s First Woman, on a Stage of Her Own

Big-League Baseball’s First Woman, on a Stage of Her Own


Even for those who’ve by no means watched a single baseball recreation in your life, you’ve doubtless heard of Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. And also you’ve in all probability watched the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” which tells how the world’s first all-female baseball league got here to be.

No sport is extra typically used to inform the story of America than baseball. But Marcenia Lyle Stone, often called Toni, who became the first woman ever to play big-league professional baseball when she took the sphere as a second baseman for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns in 1953, has largely been relegated to a footnote in historical past: one in an extended listing of African-American girls who endured hardships, overcame discrimination and helped form the nation solely to be shoved apart, their contributions minimized.

However with a brand new Off Broadway play, “Toni Stone,” now in previews, the playwright Lydia R. Diamond goals to appropriate the injustice that Stone isn’t as culturally ubiquitous as Robinson, Paige or Larry Doby, the primary black participant within the American League.

Actually, Ms. Diamond didn’t find out about Stone, both, till she was recruited for the venture by the producer Samantha Barrie and the play’s director, the Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon.

“I kind of was offended and shocked that I had not heard of her,” Ms. Diamond mentioned in an interview after a latest efficiency on the Laura Pels Theater. “I felt compelled.”

Ms. Diamond’s works have typically explored class, gender and race. She broke out with an adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel “The Bluest Eye” in 2006. “Stick Fly” marked her Broadway debut in 2011; “Smart People,” in 2016, introduced Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali to Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theater.

And Ms. MacKinnon described Ms. Diamond as the precise particular person for this job: “She sneakily places context and politics into her play worlds. However they’re so character pushed. And her characters are so sensible.”

“Toni Stone,” which is being introduced by the Roundabout Theater Firm, isn’t the primary play concerning the title character’s life: In 1996, Roger Nieboer’s “Tomboy Stone” ran on the History Theater in St. Paul, Minn., the place Stone grew up. (That was the identical yr Stone died at 75, leaving no quick survivors.)

Ms. Diamond started her dive into baseball some 4 years in the past, counting on the biography “Curveball: The Exceptional Story of Toni Stone,” by Martha Ackmann, as supply materials.

In her studying, Ms. Diamond found a singularly targeted and unapologetic lady, obsessive about baseball statistics, who spent her life defying gender stereotypes — at the same time as she was surrounded by naysayers, together with her personal teammates, within the Jim Crow South.

“I’ve the privilege of with the ability to attempt to unpack and deconstruct the way in which I transfer by means of the world as an individual of coloration,” Ms. Diamond mentioned. “She didn’t have the time to take a seat down and pull aside the politics of her existence. She had a factor to do. And he or she did that factor.”

“A League of Their Personal” advised the story of the All-American Ladies Skilled Baseball League. As a result of it was for white girls solely, Stone couldn’t take part in it within the 1940s, so she performed on newbie males’s groups as a substitute.

She was 32 when Syd Pollock, the proprietor of the Clowns, signed her to assist with ticket gross sales, at a time when integration within the Main Leagues minimize into the stature of the Negro Leagues. Stone took the roster spot of one other baseball participant you’ve doubtless heard of: Hank Aaron, who had left for the Milwaukee Braves.

Stone had already developed her abilities alongside boys and males on sandlots in St. Paul. Whereas considered as a novelty act, she did pull off some of the troublesome feats for any baseball participant on the time: She acquired successful off Paige, one of many biggest pitchers in historical past.

Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas Metropolis, Mo., mentioned Stone’s profession “deserves to be greater than only a footnote in each baseball and in American historical past.” He grouped her with Mamie Johnson (often called Peanut) and Connie Morgan, who followed her path into the Negro Leagues.

“I feel it speaks to the inclusive nature of what the Negro Leagues represented,” Mr. Kendrick mentioned. “Fairly frankly, they didn’t care about what coloration she was. They didn’t care what gender you have been. Are you able to play? Do you have got one thing to supply?”

Taking part in Stone onstage, April Matthis has the problem of reciting scads of statistics belonging to gamers Stone admired. The function initially belonged to Uzo Aduba, finest recognized from “Orange Is the New Black,” who departed the production last year due to a scheduling battle.

Ms. Matthis impressed the artistic crew when she stuffed in for Ms. Aduba at a workshop, and the function ultimately was hers.

Like Ms. Diamond, Ms. Matthis had by no means heard of Stone and wasn’t a lot of a baseball fan. As a part of her preparation, she listened to audio clips of an interview Stone did within the 1970s.

The manufacturing, which is partially sponsored by Main League Baseball and the Gamers Affiliation, additionally organized a visit to a New York Mets recreation, the place Robinson Cano, a former All-Star and a second baseman (like Stone), gave Ms. Matthis tips on stances and positioning. There have been additionally journeys to take swings on the Chelsea Piers batting cages.

As the one lady who seems onstage, she is, in a small approach, experiencing baseball the identical approach Stone did.

“I don’t have the identical alliance that I might if there have been one other lady onstage with me,” Ms. Matthis defined over espresso earlier than a latest matinee. “I’m in a unique dressing room than they’re. Toni couldn’t be within the locker room with the blokes. She needed to typically change within the umpires’ rooms.”

Reasonably than observe a chronological arc, the play is extra of a collage, depicting key moments and figures in Stone’s life. We be taught that she excelled at determine skating on the urging of her mom, watch as she offers with racist and sexist taunts, and get to find out about her marriage to a person a number of a long time older.

Ms. Diamond mentioned she felt an unlimited duty to correctly convey who Stone was.

“I would like individuals to fulfill Toni Stone,” she mentioned, “and for the play to have been worthy of what she represented.”



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