In the new Amazon TV series A League of Their Own, Maxine “Max” Chapman (Chanté Adams), a talented pitcher with a wicked fastball, shows up in Chicago at the tryouts for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in its 1943 inaugural season. The players are impressed when she throws the ball from the outfield into the stands behind home plate, but one of the coaches tells her, “We’re not going to have colored girls playing with our girls.”
That happened to the teenage Mamie “Peanut” Johnson at an AAGPBL tryout in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1952. The AAGPBL, which lasted from 1943 to 1954, never had a black player, even after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. (A few light-skinned Latinas who “passed” as white were permitted to play, as depicted in the Amazon series).
Prohibited from playing in the AAGPBL, three African American women — Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan — played in the otherwise all-male Negro Leagues. In the TV series, the character of Chapman is an amalgam of these three female trailblazers.
Like Penny Marshall’s Hollywood version of A League of Their Own — which starred Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell and is the most popular baseball movie of all time — the eight-part TV series focuses on the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches, one of four teams in the AAGPBL’s first season in 1943.
But the 1992 film skirted the issue of the league’s racial segregation. The only reference to that reality is a fifteen-second scene in which a ball rolls away from the playing field during a Peaches practice. A black woman picks it up and fires it back to the Peaches’ catcher played by Davis. The throw is so hard that the Davis character has to rub her hand to ease the pain. She stares at the black woman, who smiles back knowingly, as if to say, “I belong on that field, too,” before walking away.
The TV series, which recently premiered on Amazon and costars Abbi Jacobson, who also cocreated the show, directly confronts the issue of baseball’s racial segregation. Chapman is a central character throughout the series, highlighting the many obstacles racism puts in her way, on and off the baseball field.
The AAGPBL’s founder, Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate who also owned the Chicago Cubs, figured that baseball fans might buy tickets to see women play the game while many of their favorite major league stars were in the military during World War II.
The Hollywood version also ignored the reality that many of the AAGPBL’s best ballplayers were lesbians. League executives insisted that the teams avoid the perception that any players were gay. The league handbook required players to radiate the “highest ideals of womanhood” and “dress, act, and carry themselves as befits the feminine sex.” The AAGPBL expected players to “Play like a man, look like a lady” — or, as player Lois Youngen put it, “Look like Betty Grable and play ball like Joe DiMaggio.”
Team chaperones closely monitored the players’ clothes, hairstyles, and social activities. The new TV series puts the players’ sexuality front and center, depicting their off-the-field lives as young women experiencing their first taste of independence and portraying their frustrations at the league’s efforts to control their activities and appearances.
“Why do you think they’re doing all this, Carson?” one player says to another while they endure the league-mandated charm school classes. “It’s to make sure we don’t look like a bunch of queers. That’s what all of this is.”
Enduring a Double Burden
Banned from the AAGPBL because of her race, Chapman tries to get a job at a local factory in Rockford, which produces screws for the war effort and is eager to hire women workers, although reluctant to hire black women. She pushes her way into a job, which she wants because the company has a baseball team, the Screws, open only to its employees — part of a large wave of corporate-sponsored teams during the war.
The Screws manager reluctantly gives her a tryout, but she blows her chance by pitching wildly. She begins to lose hope of ever playing organized baseball.
But in the show’s seventh episode, a barnstorming black team, Red Wright’s All Stars, comes to Rockford to play the Screws. When the All-Stars’ sole female player, a pitcher named Esther (Andia Winslow), gets injured, she urges the manager to let Chapman take her place. (We later learn that Esther, a lesbian who had a brief fling with Chapman at a gay party the night before, faked her injury to give Chapman a shot). Chapman pitches brilliantly, and the All Stars offers her a place on the team.
After 1947, as major and minor league teams slowly hired black players, black fans began losing interest in the Negro Leagues. The Negro National League (NNL) folded in 1948. Its rival, the Negro American League (NAL), continued but struggled with low attendance. By 1953, only four teams remained. NAL team owners began looking for ways to rejuvenate the league’s appeal.
Syd Pollock, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, was a brilliant promoter. The Clowns played first-rate baseball, but they also engaged in various theatrics to draw customers. The games included comic acts that fed on racist stereotypes, similar to the play of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
Some players found it demeaning, but they put up with it because they needed the jobs, and the theatrics brought in the fans. Not only did the Clowns win the NAL pennant in 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1954, but it was also the league’s most profitable club.
Despite that success, Pollock knew that the future of the league was in doubt. So he hit on the idea of hiring a woman to play for the Clowns. In 1952, after the Clowns’ star player, Henry Aaron, signed a contract with the Boston Braves (who later relocated to Milwaukee, then Atlanta), Pollock sought to find a woman to join the team.
Born in 1921, Marcenia Lyle Stone — known as Toni — grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her parents emphasized education, not sports, but she was determined to excel in athletics. She played on her Catholic school’s boys’ baseball team then played softball on an all-girl high school team. Starting at fifteen, inspired by her exposure to barnstorming Negro League teams, she played for all-male semipro black teams in Saint Paul and San Francisco before joining the New Orleans Creoles between 1949 and 1952.
Pollock’s scouts found Stone playing second base for the Creoles. After the Clowns signed her to a contract for the 1953 season, Pollock claimed that “this is no publicity stunt,” but he clearly recruited Stone to help boost attendance.
Pollock tried to get Stone to wear a skirt like the AAGPBL players, but she refused. She wore the regular men’s uniform. Pollock heavily publicized her arrival. Her image was included on scorecards, flyers, and other materials to promote the games.
Pollock’s strategy worked. With Stone in the lineup, the Clowns began drawing crowds larger than at any time since the late 1940s, including an opening game against the Kansas City Monarchs that brought 17,205 fans to the ballpark. Some exhibition games drew even larger numbers, including an increasing number of female fans.
But some fans weren’t pleased having a woman on the field. “Why don’t you go home and fix your husband some biscuits?” one yelled at her.
The records of Negro League games are incomplete, so it is impossible to say how well Stone performed on the field. Stone was a good ballplayer, but most observers at the time said she was not up to Negro League standards. The Clowns typically put her in the game for the first two or three innings before replacing her. Many opposing pitchers gave her a break by only throwing fastballs.
In response to the publicity surrounding Stone, the Clowns received many letters from coaches and athletes promoting the talents of other black women seeking a chance to play in the Negro Leagues. Pollock wasn’t interested in fielding an all-women’s team, but he was open to adding one or two more women.
Johnson, born in South Carolina in 1935, began playing baseball after her family moved to Long Branch, New Jersey. She was the only girl, and the only black person, on the Police Athletic League team, helping them win two division championships. When she was twelve, her family moved to Washington, DC, and she began playing for a local black, all-male team, the Saint Cyprians. After graduating from high school, and after she was rebuffed by the AAGPBL, she continued to play for the Saint Cyprians on weekends while working at an ice cream shop.
At the end of the 1953 season, Pollock hired Johnson — a five-foot-four, 120-pound pitcher — to play in the Clowns’ off-season exhibition games and then added her to the roster for the 1954 season. Based on existing statistics, she had a thirty-three-to-eight win-loss record during her years with the Clowns and was a solid hitter with a .270 batting average.
Women in the Negro Leagues
Born in 1935, Connie Morgan joined an all-black women’s softball team, the North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, at age fourteen. At John Bartram High School in Philadelphia, she excelled in several sports, graduating in 1952 before enrolling in the William Penn Business School in that city. While in business school, the nineteen-year-old Morgan read an article in the local newspaper about the Clowns hiring African-American women.
She wrote a letter to Pollock seeking a tryout and was invited to a Clowns’ exhibition game with the Baltimore Orioles in 1954. Pollock and his coaches were impressed with Morgan’s athletic skills and signed her to a contract. That season, batting third in the Clowns’ lineup, she hit approximately .300 in forty-nine games.
But Pollock was also impressed with Morgan’s appearance. She had light skin, a curvy figure, and curled hair, which seemed more “feminine” to management than Stone and Johnson, who also had darker skin. Pollock viewed Morgan as more marketable, hired her to a two-year contract in 1954, and made sure that she, more than Stone, was included in publicity events, including a photo of Morgan with Jackie Robinson.
Pollock put that image on the team’s official scorecard. The Baltimore Afro-American ran two photos of Morgan — one in her uniform, another wearing a white dress and gloves — with the caption: “Miss Connie Morgan: The baseball player and the lady.”
Angered by the Clowns’ favoritism toward Morgan — who also played second base — Stone asked Pollock to trade her. He sold her contract to the Kansas City Monarchs before the start of the 1954 season.
As result, three women played on Negro League rosters that year. They each had to endure catcalls, physical harassment, sexual advances, pitches thrown at them when they batted, and ridicule from their male players on their own and opposing teams. Pollock and the team’s business manager reminded the male players that the women were a drawing card that put fans in the seats and helped pay their salaries.
Occasionally the women exacted revenge. Johnson threw fastballs at opposing players who ridiculed her. Stone once swung a bat at a teammate who sexually harassed her.
Ironically, Sam Lacy, Doc Young, and Wendell Smith — three prominent black sportswriters for black newspapers who had been in the forefront of the movement for the racial integration of Major League Baseball — opposed the entry of women in the Negro Leagues.
“Negro baseball has collapsed to the extent it must tie itself to a woman’s apron strings in order to survive,” wrote Smith soon after Stone joined the Clowns.
But not all black newspapers shared that sentiment. In 1954, the Kansas City–based Call referred to Stone as “the female Jackie Robinson” who would “break down the prejudice against women players in the N.A.L.” Referring to Stone and Morgan, the Call wrote: “These two ladies prove that we no longer can refer to them as the weaker sex.”
A New Generation of Women Ballplayers
By 1954, however, attendance declined, as the novelty wore off and more Negro League stars embarked for minor and major league teams. The NAL folded, but the Clowns and Monarchs continued to operate as barnstorming teams, traveling around the country playing local semipro teams and occasional exhibition games against teams composed of white major leaguers during the off-season, similar to the one Max joins in A League of Their Own. The 1976 film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, starring James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor, and Billy Dee Williams,” depicts the hardships and joys of those barnstorming black teams.
At the end of the 1954 season, Stone left the Negro Leagues. She took care of her ailing husband and worked as a personal care assistant in San Francisco, but she was eager to stay connected to the sport she loved. She coached a Little League team sponsored by Saint Francis Cathedral, played in pickup games with local men’s teams, and joined a league of lesbian teams in the Bay Area.
Morgan quit the Clowns around the same time, after only one season, and returned to William Penn Business School in Philadelphia, completing the program in 1955. She went to work for the AFL-CIO, the labor union federation, in her hometown, retiring in 1974.
Johnson quit the Negro Leagues in 1955, obtained a nursing degree from North Carolina State A&T University, and worked at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC, for several decades.
During their brief careers in the Negro Leagues, the black press covered their activities, but the white media — which generally ignored the Negro Leagues anyway — paid almost no attention to these three black female sports pioneers.
Robert Peterson’s 1970 book Only the Ball Was White sparked renewed interest in the Negro Leagues, leading to a growing number of films, books, and oral history projects about black baseball. The film A League of Their Own triggered an upsurge of interest in women’s role in baseball, inspiring books and documentary films. The result was growing attention to Stone, Johnson, and Morgan.
Stone was elected to the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, and Saint Paul dedicated a baseball field to her four years later. Martha Ackmann’s biography of Stone, Curveball, was published in 2010, and an off-Broadway play based on her life, Toni Stone, opened in 2019. Morgan was elected to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. Stone and Morgan both died in 1996.
After retiring from her nursing career, Johnson coached youth baseball and helped run a store of Negro League memorabilia. In 1996, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton honored Johnson at a White House ceremony. In 1999, Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Bob Coble presented Johnson with a proclamation. In 2002, Michelle Green published a children’s book about Johnson, A Strong Right Arm. In 2005, Washington, DC, Mayor Anthony Williams invited her to join him at the first game of the Washington Nationals. That year, Brown University premiered a one-woman play about her life, called Change Up.
In 2012, Johnson was introduced to eleven-year-old Mo’ne Davis, an African-American pitcher for a Philadelphia-based team, the Anderson Monarchs, who were in Virginia as part of a nationwide bus tour to visit civil rights and baseball sites.
Two years later, the seventy-eight-year-old Johnson was invited to attend the opening game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where she watched Davis, by then thirteen years old, pitch the first shutout by a girl in a championship game.
“That’s me when I was her age — the size, the way she throws, everything,” Johnson said at the time. “I never, ever thought I would witness this.” Johnson died in 2017 at eighty-two.
Like Stone, Johnson, and Morgan had done for the Negro Leagues, Davis generated excitement for Little League baseball. In 2014, she was the first Little League player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Mark Hyman, assistant professor of sports management at George Washington University, told the New York Times that Davis was “the most talked-about baseball player on earth right now.” According to the Times, when Davis pitched in the Little League World Series, ratings increased for ABC and ESPN, which broadcast the games.
Davis exemplified a new generation of women (and black women) ballplayers. After Little League, Davis played varsity soccer and basketball at Spring Side Chestnut Hill and led the varsity softball team to a state championship. At Hampton University, a historically African-American institution, she switched from pitching to playing infield. In 2020, her freshman year, she hit .333. COVID-19 forced cancellation of her sophomore baseball season, but this year, as a junior, she hit .218.
After the AAGPBL
After the AAGPBL folded in 1954, there were few opportunities for girls and women to play baseball. That changed after Congress passed Title IX in 1972. Little League, which had banned girls since it began in 1939, revised its charter in 1974 to allow girls to play. Girls’ participation in Little League was boosted in 1976 when actress Tatum O’Neal starred as the only girl on her Little League team in the film The Bad News Bears.
Since then, the number of girls and women participating in sports, from childhood through the professional ranks, has skyrocketed. The number of high school girls playing softball grew from 110,140 to 362,038 between 1982 and 2018, while the number playing in college increased from 7,465 to 20,316. These numbers don’t include the growing number of women participating in college club sports and in amateur and professional leagues around the country. Women’s Professional Fastpitch, a pro softball league that began play this year, is the latest.
In 1996, Justine Siegal started Baseball for All (BFA), a nonprofit organization, now supported by Major League Baseball, to encourage girls to pursue baseball (not softball) beyond Little League. Last month, BFA held its seventh national tournament for four hundred girls from six to sixteen at Bell Bank Park in Mesa, Arizona.
More and more colleges are sponsoring women’s baseball teams. In addition, this spring, eight women are expected to play on otherwise all-male college teams — an all-time peak.
Some women have even played professional minor league baseball. Ila Borders — the first woman to receive a scholarship for men’s college baseball — played in several professional minor leagues from 1997 to 2000. She stayed in the closet until after she left baseball.
Kelsie Whitmore was the only female on her high school baseball team in Temecula, California. She played softball for Cal State–Fullerton and led the US Women’s Baseball team to a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 2015 and 2019. This season, the twenty-four-year-old Whitmore is the only woman player on an all-male professional baseball roster. She’s currently pitching and playing outfield for the Staten Island FerryHawks in the independent Atlantic League, one or two rungs below the majors.
The only woman to play in the professional major leagues so far has been Genevieve “Ginny” Baker, an African-American pitcher for the San Diego Padres on the fictional Fox television series Pitch, broadcast in 2016 and canceled after one season. Hopefully she won’t be the last.