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She died in 1996, but Toni Stone is still telling her story on theater stages across the country.

She can tell her story because a cadre of writers, historians and family members brought it roaring back to life — refusing to let the story of the pioneering St. Paul native be lost to the swirl of history.

On stage, it starts like this:

"It is round, and small and it fits right there in your hand. And it's not the thing itself, it's the weight of it. It's how it feel, and how it fills what your hand was without it. Before that weight, my hand, your hand, is just a thing that serves you. It is a tool, no better than a fork or a screwdriver."

As the actress playing Stone reaches down and picks up a baseball, history is made ... again.

Stone was raised in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul and is considered one of the greatest baseball players you've never heard of. Her name and image hang around the periphery of baseball in Minnesota. She is there in a mural at Target Field. Her name stands tall on the scoreboard at gorgeous Toni Stone Field in St. Paul.

But now her story is spreading as the subject of the play "Toni Stone," based on Martha Ackmann's book "Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone."

The play, written by Lydia Diamond, is imbued with Stone's love of baseball and how it enhanced her love of life. It recognizes the unfathomable sexist and racist challenges she faced, while honoring the ultimate truth behind that pain — she persevered and pursued her passion.

The play opened Sept. 3 at Washington's Arena Stage theater and was simulcast live Sept. 26 in an unusual collaboration between Arena Stage and Major League Baseball at Nationals Stadium.

Toni Stone, called up to the majors.

The play was previously staged off-Broadway and was a Critic's Pick by the New York Times.

Toni Stone Field in St. Paul honors the first woman to play professional baseball. She began to learn the game growing up in Rondo at age 10.
Toni Stone Field in St. Paul honors the first woman to play professional baseball. She began to learn the game growing up in Rondo at age 10.

Jeff Day, Star Tribune

Stone moved to St. Paul in 1931 and was, by all accounts, an exceptional athlete in every sport she tried. But it was baseball, which she started playing when she was 10, that got into her soul. She first played in a Catholic Youth League before joining the St. Paul Colored Giants, a men's semiprofessional team, at 16.

When it came to telling her story, Diamond's challenge was to write a poetic, engaging play about a life that was real but not well-documented. She had to embody the character. Diamond, a lover of clothes and style, said that while spending years with Stone's story, she found herself dressing like a tomboy, just like Stone.

"I do think that you kind of take on this character that you're living with a lot," Diamond said. "I think there was something that was a little transformative to me and certainly a lot encouraging to me.

"Whenever I'm in a place where I'm the only person in a room full of powerful people — the only one — I can get over myself a little more when I think about how much harder it was before me to be the only one."

While tracing Stone's journey in professional baseball, the play also documents her falling in love with Aurelious Alberga, who she married in 1950. One of the truths Diamond wrestled with was how to showcase the difficulties Black pioneers in America faced, while also making room for their joy.

"You're not defined by a way that the world is or the way that the world treats you," Diamond said. "You have fun. You live life. You have love and experiences. The center of your life isn't the bad things that a racist society has done to you, but the navigating of them is perilous. I think I also wanted to get that right."

Stone's niece, Maria Bartlow of Issaquah, Wash., said that seeing her aunt's story spread further into the world has given the family a great deal of happiness.

"Oh, my God, it was just great. I mean I can't say great enough," she said. "To see that her story, her life, is actually out there. I mean we didn't think that anything would be this big. My aunt, in her own way, she was never really out there to politicize her life. She just put it out. She just did things by her own nature.

"Some people say that baseball for her was an addiction, and yes, it was," Bartlow continued. "It was really all that was important to her at the time. So this is really great for people to see how she went toward her job, and how she did it, even though it was really a hard job, a hard position for her to be in. She loved it so much that she was able to capture the opportunity and do it."

But her story, for so long, was only hers.

Irrepressible in her pursuit to play games that often relegated women and segregated between white and Black, she became the first woman to play professional baseball, debuting with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues in 1953 after spending years playing with barnstorming baseball teams around the country.

She played with the Kansas City Monarchs before retiring after the 1954 season.

The men who swirled around her career were some of the most foundational in that bubbling cauldron of baseball history of the mid-20th century as the color line was broken by Jackie Robinson.

Abe Saperstein, who founded the Harlem Globetrotters, recruited her to play for the Clowns to draw in a larger audience. The second baseman she replaced on the roster? Hank Aaron, who had just been called up to the major leagues. One of the greatest highlights of her sporting career was getting a hit off the legendary Satchel Paige in an exhibition game in her first big league season. It was the only hit her team managed.

"You know when she was taking pictures with [heavyweight boxing champion] Joe Lewis and she hit a ball off Satchel Paige, that for her that was really big," Bartlow said. "The public saw it, but they weren't as, how can I put it, as excited as she was.

"Now it is out there for the public to see and view what this woman had gone through."

When asked if she had any insight into how her aunt would react to a Major League Baseball stadium hosting the telling of her story, Bartlow said it would have been a monumental day.

"You know one thing, working around lots of men most of her life, and playing cards and drinking with men and fighting with them at times about pay and what have you, she would never cry," Bartlow said.

"She told me, 'Don't. There's no reason. You get it or you don't get it.' But I think in this scenario, this would probably be the first time that she would cry. Because I'm crying for her. This would be the first time, just being honored and being put on the pedestal in the big leagues. She would be honored by that."