Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, who began his career with the Negro American League with the Kansas City Monarchs. He went on to break the color barrier in the sport of baseball on April 15, 1947, becoming the first African American player in the Major League.
However, the impact of the Negro Leagues would be incomplete without the stories of the talented Black women who were a part of it. Seventy-six years after Jackie Robinson made history integrating major league baseball, we’re honoring the Black women– Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, and Mamie Johnson– who made history, too.
During the early days of organized baseball, only a handful of Black players competed alongside their white teammates. Black players often had short-lived careers despite their talents due to Jim Crow laws and segregationist sentiment.
The turn of the 20th century brought with it unwritten rules and “gentlemen’s agreements” between owners that effectively excluded Black ballplayers from big league competition.
Still looking for a way to compete, Black players established their own teams and toured the country. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster and his fellow team came together to create the Negro National League, and various other major Negro leagues developed during this time, including the Negro American League. Their concerted efforts resulted in a profitable business enterprise that provided thousands of employment for Black players, coaches, managers, team owners, and others, until integration led to Black players gunning for the white majors.
After Jackie Robinson led the exodus of talent out of the Negro Leagues and into the majors, Syd Pollack, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, had to find new ways to attract fans to the ballpark.
The Negro National League disbanded in 1948, but the Negro American League remained with four teams still active. One of those was the Clowns. The Clowns were dubbed “the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball” thanks to Pollack’s promotional gimmicks. By the 1950s, however, Pollack had signed three ladies with the talent to be more than gate attractions.
Toni Stone was the first to be signed by Pollack in 1953. Stone had been playing hardball with boys since she was a young girl in St. Paul, Minnesota. By age 16, she was throwing for the Twin Cities Colored Giants, a semipro team. She played for two more semipro teams, the San Francisco Sea Lions and the New Orleans Creoles, before agreeing to play second base for the Clowns and becoming the league’s first female player.
Similar to how Jackie Robinson’s white Brooklyn colleagues weren’t all eager to have a teammate of a different race, not all of Stone’s Indianapolis teammates saw her as an equal. She faced unwanted advances from teammates as well as attempts to sabotage her during games. Off the field, she faced many challenges as well. While on road trips, she often stayed at brothels, a practice that began after a hotel owner’s assumption that she was a prostitute after seeing her exit the bus with 28 men and giving her directions to the nearest brothel, according to Baseball.com. Stone, who could identify as an outsider with the brothel workers, was welcomed by them.
Following the season, Pollack, unsatisfied with her lack of playing time, sold her contract to the Kansas City Monarchs, a team Stone played for in 1954 before retiring.
Pollack signed 19-year-old Connie Morgan to replace Stone to boost support for his team. Morgan had already played five seasons of baseball with her hometown North Philadelphia Honey Drippers (batting .338 in those seasons) and basketball with the Rockettes.
Morgan was scouted by Oscar Charleston, the manager of the Clowns and a Hall of Fame center fielder, who described her as “one of the most sensational” female players he had witnessed. After observing Morgan’s abilities in a showcase game, Pollack eventually signed her.
Morgan also experienced the predictable sexism of the times. Ebony magazine had published images of Stone, one in uniform and one in a dress, saying, “Dressed in street clothes, Toni Stone is an attractive young lady who could be someone’s secretary, but once in uniform, she is all ball player.”
The Baltimore Afro-American published a photo of Morgan in her uniform beside a portrait of her in a white dress and gloves, titled “Miss Connie Morgan: The Baseball Player and the Lady.”
However, Morgan persevered and her abilities as a player were also recognized. She played just one season in the Negro American League.
Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson
While Stone broke the gender barrier all alone, Morgan had the support of a female teammate in Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson.
Johnson, who was 5-foot-3- or 5-foot-2- tall , was nicknamed “peanut.” The story goes that Hank Baylis looked at Johnson from the batter’s box in her first game pitching for the Clowns and said, “What makes you think you can strike out a batter? Why, you aren’t any larger than a peanut?” She struck him out, and that nickname stuck.
She, like Morgan, was a great all-around athlete who was reportedly the first girl to play football, basketball, and baseball at her Long Branch High School in New Jersey. Johnson, at 18, traveled to Washington for a tryout with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1953.
A scout for the Clowns saw Johnson play for a men’s semipro team and recommended her to Pollack. She played with the team into 1955 but left before finishing the season to spend more time with her young son.
A Lasting Legacy
Although Stone, Morgan, and Johnson encountered opposition while playing baseball, their extraordinary impact on the sport cannot be denied. Stone was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, and St. Paul named a city baseball field after her.
In 1995, Morgan was honored by the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. Additionally, Johnson was chosen by the Washington Nationals in the 2008 ceremonial MLB draft of living Negro League players.
In what MLB called a “long overdue recognition,” Commissioner Rob Manfred conferred Major League status on seven professional Negro Leagues that existed between 1920 and 1948 in 2020. What that meant was that the approximately 3,400 players who played in the Negro Leagues during this period are now officially regarded as Major Leaguers, and their stats and records are now part of Major League history.
This shift allowed Connie Morgan, Mami Johnson, and Toni Stone to be recognized as the trailblazers they were and continue to be.
The stories of these three Black women in baseball are featured in a new animated series called “Undeniable — Stories from the Negro Leagues.” The collaboration between Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum shares unique stories from the historic era of the Negro Leagues.