By Sydnee Williams
At a time where segregation was at an all time high, the Negro Leagues reflected societal hatred, with African-Americans kept from participating in Major League Baseball.
Taking matters into their own hands, the Negro Leagues, a union made up of blacks and latinos, were formed. The familiar names we associate with the league-- Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, and Toni Stone, with Robinson, of course, the most prominent trailblazer in MLB history. But those other names, highly revered by teammates, opponents, fans and historians, must be acknowledged for their place in making history.
Two that should be highlighted in bold in the history books, Johnson and Toni Stone, are female pioneers of the game that don’t garner enough praise or acknowledgment. They played alongside the men of the Negro Leagues. Heart and soul, teamed with their undeniable skill, should make them fixtures in the history books.
Johnson was the only female pitcher in the Negro Leagues. As a child, "Peanut" and her uncle would get creative with ways to play the game she so loved. “They improvised bats out of tree limbs, bases out of pie plates and balls from rocks wrapped in tape. To strengthen her right arm, Belton [Johnson] threw rocks at crows sitting on the fence of her grandmother’s farm.” (visionaryproject.org) She was denied an opportunity to try out for the All-Girls League, so she took that frustration and turned it into determination, hence becoming the first female pitcher in the Negro League. Never paid more than $700 a month and continuously mocked by opponents, yet she carried herself with class.
Reflecting on her journey, all I can think about is African-American pitcher Mo’ne Davis. The first girl in Little League World Series history to pitch a shutout and winning game, at 16. Many young fans may not be familiar with Stone or Johnson, but their legacy is surely living on through Davis.
Marcenia “Toni” Stone, wise in age, became the first woman to ever play in the Negro League. Growing up playing in the sandlots of St. Paul, she was not new to the idea of playing with the opposite sex. Arriving in San Francisco in the 1940’s with just 50 cents to her name, she started building a new life. She changed her name to Toni and took several years off her age to catch the eye of men’s teams. She began playing with the San Francisco Sea Lions before scoring big with the Indianapolis Clowns. With sketchy record keeping in the Negro Leagues, she was reported to be 22 instead of her actual age of 32. Toni played hard and gave the team a boost for a period, but due to her age, old for baseball, and deteriorating performance, she began getting the cold shoulder from teams. She became an outsider on her own team, retiring after a short time with the last club she played for, the Kansas City Monarchs.
Fall of the League
The most relevant and honored of them all, of them all, Robinson joined the Major Leagues on April 15, 1947 when he became the second basemen for the Brooklyn Dodgers (now Los Angeles Dodgers). Inadvertently, even though he was a pioneer and did nothing but good for the sport, there was collateral damage done to the players who were pioneers in the Negro Leagues. The leagues began seeing a drop in attendance, and the bigger names such as Hank Aaron, eventually left and joined Robinson in MLB. The Negro Leagues ultimately folded. The end of an era for some blacks who had finally found something they could identify with.
That brings us to "The Other Boys of Summer," executive produced by Lauren Meyer, a documentary that set out to highlight these “forgotten” players. We chatted about the film, the history and the impact of the Negro Leagues:
SW: What inspired you to make this documentary and when can people expect to see the full version?
Lauren Meyer: I began to research and interview players for “The Other Boys of Summer” because I didn’t understand what made people believe that segregation made any sense. I wanted to learn what it was like to pursue your dreams in a segregated America. The goal is to begin screenings this summer.
SW: What was your goal when you set out to make this film? What do you want the audience to leave with?
LM: I want people to see that you can pursue your dreams and make a positive impact. These men and women dreamed of playing baseball and they worked hard, played well, carried themselves with class and humility and not only changed the game but changed America. I want the viewers to leave inspired.
SW: Mamie Johnson and Toni Stone were two of only three women to play in the Negro Leagues. What kind of insight can viewers expect to learn about them in this documentary pertaining to their journeys?
LM: I didn’t interview or delve into Toni Stone. I interviewed Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and she talks about what it was like being a girl and being black and wanting to play the game she loved. According to her stories she was treated with respect by her teammates while playing for the Indianapolis Clowns and she felt like one of the family. She was very proud to have been the only female pitcher in the history of the Negro League.
SW: Most people are familiar with Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige but not many others who endured the tough life of the Negro League. Who touched you the most through these talks the people might not have heard of and why?
LM: Each player I interviewed shared personal stories and I enjoyed meeting them all. John Miles grew up in San Antonio Texas and never imagined he would be able to make a living playing professional baseball, but he did and he was proud to have done so. He talks about never imagining the day when blacks and whites would play on the same team. To this day he holds the record for most consecutive games in professional baseball with a HR (home run). He hit a HR in 11 games in a row while playing for the Chicago American Giants. Learning how Jackie Robinson continued to barnstorm with the Negro League players after he was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers surprised me. After the end of the MLB season he would select a bunch of players from the Negro Leagues and barnstorm through the country. They experienced extreme racism while traveling but the players all said they learned a great deal from Jackie about like and baseball.
SW: Racial slurs and pay that barely supported them was the lifestyle for these players. Decades later, what is the tone they talk with when reflecting on all the hardships they went through?
LM: Not one of them was bitter when I asked them if it made them angry to be treated the way they were treated. 100% of them said, “No. That’s just the way it was.” They were thrilled to have the chance to play the game they loved. They epitomize class and humility.
Remembering and honoring those that risked so much to play the game they loved when so many wanted different is critical. As Meyer said, they did not only change the game of baseball, but they changed America.
Sydnee Williams is a sports journalist out of the DC area. She covers all dc sports on halfstreetsports.com. She covers the Washington Nationals for Fox Sports 1340am. You can follow her on Twitter @sydneeW_