I may have committed a felony last week. I’m not really sure. But it involved throwing a bag of bagels from a 10th-story balcony.
This coronavirus can really mess with one’s routine.
I don’t know whether the act of throwing something down to the street from 10 stories up is illegal. When I first looked it up, I found the term defenestration, which I always thought meant the act of shaving one’s legs. Anyway, although defenestration does mean throwing something or someone out of a window, it apparently connotes an impulse both deliberate and forceful, especially when it comes to tossing one’s enemies out onto the street to kill them.
My online reading of the California Penal Code proved inconclusive. I mean, I came away pretty sure that if the bagels were thrown deliberately to hurt someone, it would be considered an assault. (Especially if the bagels were stale.) However, if there was no malicious intent . . . well, that wasn’t directly addressed.
Finally, I cryptically texted a police officer friend and asked whether, hypothetically, it would be illegal to toss a bag of bagels off of a 10th-floor balcony towards a person waiting to catch them. “Of course not!!” was the response. “Unless it hits them on the head and kills them. Then you might be looking at a murder charge!”
I was supposed to be on my biennial train trip to the East Coast right now. Boo hoo. Instead, I’m cooped up just like the rest of you, but I’m one of the luckier ones because I have no aging parents to worry about, no children to homeschool, and no paychecks to forego. My heart goes out to everyone suffering from the disease or its economic effects, and my deepest respect goes out to everyone on the front lines keeping my vulnerable arse safer – delivery people, grocery clerks, mail carriers, and especially health care workers.
So I’ve decided to do what little good I can and help you all through the pandemic by recommending the top 10 products (and activities) I’ve discovered while sheltering in place.
Recommendation #10: Do something so silly it makes you giggle.
Regarding the above-mentioned felony: My friend Char Sachson recently mentioned that she was baking homemade bagels and that we should let her know if we wanted any. After that conversation, the only thing on my mind, 24 hours a day, was the possibility of nabbing some of those bagels.
The only slight glitch was that she lives in a high-rise condo building, and for various health and logistical reasons it was best that we not do a personal handoff. So she suggested the “bagel drop.” This would involve her sending the bagels plummeting to earth from her 10th-floor balcony.
Char said that she would make us three kinds of bagels, put each type in its own paper bag, then put all three paper bags into a bigger paper bag. Julie and I would drive down to her neighborhood near the Civic Center, park on Franklin Street, and get into position under her balcony for the drop. On the way there, Julie and I were on the phone with Char, plotting the details of the caper and laughing harder than we had since this whole pandemic started. I mentioned that we had recently gotten some cream cheese delivered so it would be a perfect time to acquire the bagels. That’s when Julie commented that she liked jalapeños on hers, and Char was aghast. “Only a shiksa would put peppers on a bagel,” she scoffed.
That made us laugh even harder.
Sure enough, there were a couple of parking spaces right near Char’s balcony. We’d decided that Julie would attempt to make The Catch. We were both wearing masks, but she was also wearing her baseball glove. My job was to take photos and hope that the “sports mode” on my camera, which shoots multiple frames per second, would capture the exact moment of the catch.
We positioned ourselves and gave the sign that we were ready. Char let ’er rip. The bagels fell to earth much faster and harder than we had anticipated. Julie said she hadn’t accounted for wind and trajectory. The bag smacked off Julie’s glove, caromed off her forearm, and then hit the pavement with an explosive boom that echoed far down the city streets.
I had my camera trained on the right spot but never even saw the bagels come down. I just heard the boom. As bad luck would have it, the camera’s shutter captured only the moment before and the moment after impact. Dang!
Julie was okay, although her arm was a bit sore. All three interior bagel bags ripped open on impact, but the outer bag survived and kept the bagels from rolling into Franklin Street. And the bagels were, thankfully, intact.
My friend Julie Riffle, after I’d recounted the story to her, said that we should have calculated the force of impact beforehand. Well, I never took physics, so that had not occurred to me. She actually spent some time after the incident to perform a number of calculations (with the disclaimer that she hopes no physicists are reading this blog because these are very rough estimates) and concluded that “the force at impact is dependent on the surface it impacts. If the surface is soft and gives, the impact is less, or if the object itself gives, the impact will be less. This makes it very hard to calculate since the bagels first glanced off of Julie’s glove and arm, which would have lessened the impact. And then there’s the effect of the bagels (and/or bag) being displaced upon impact with Julie and ultimately the sidewalk. So, I started with the default for d (distance traveled after impact), 0.1 m representing the movement of Julie’s arm after impact. This gave the result in Newtons which equals 609.18 lbs of force at impact. But if the bagels had missed Julie and hit the sidewalk, the distance traveled after impact would have been only the displacement of the bag and/or bagels, since the sidewalk would have presumably not been displaced. This would result in greater impact.”
Does anyone understand that?
By the way, she also commented that Char should have made a tiny parachute for the bagels. Maybe next time.
Recommendation #9: Toss the Caravella.
Limoncello has been all the rage in the States for some time now. It was first offered to my parents and me back in 1998 on our trip to Italy. We were sitting outside our small hotel on the outskirts of Rome. Our young waiter poured it for us and told us that it “helps with digestion.” He also told us, excitedly, that he was soon going to California with his girlfriend and was especially looking forward to seeing “Joe’s Meat.” We were puzzled. It came to me, though, after a few seconds. “Ah,” I said, “Yosemite!”
I was quite pleased with myself for figuring this out before my parents did.
Anyway, as you all surely know, limoncello is a lemon liqueur. People over here often say “lemonchello” but it’s actually pronounced “LEEmonchello.”
We’ve been buying the Caravella brand, which is the only kind carried by Safeway, our local supermarket. But a couple of weeks ago we picked up an order of wine (I just can’t get enough of it these days) at our neighborhood wine store (curbside), and we noticed on the store’s website that they carried only one kind of limoncello and it was not Caravella. It was Il Convento. I don’t like change, so I was skeptical, but I finally agreed to give it a try.
It was glorious. Birds started singing when I brought the tiny glass of liqueur to my lips. It was not thickly sweet like the Caravella. The consistency was lighter. The color was a yellow pastel. It tasted more like lemons, and like Italy. It was springtime in a bottle.
Il Convento. Get some.
Recommendation #8: Poo-Pourri. Go with it.
I don’t think I need to dwell too long on this product, in case you’re reading this blog post over breakfast. Suffice it to say that about a year ago, some friends suggested that Poo-Pourri is an essential suitcase item for travelers sharing hotel rooms. You spritz it into the toilet before you go, and it covers up any odors. I had my doubts but added “Buy Poo-Pourri” to my Microsoft Outlook calendar, a year into the future. Well, the year came ’round, the “reminder” popped up, and I decided to give the product a try. Danged if it doesn’t work like a charm. And it doesn’t work by just covering the odor with a strong, cloying smell, which is what I feared. It just makes the odor disappear altogether. A miracle! I don’t understand it. Anyway, many lovely scents are available, but I would recommend buying the sample pack and figuring out which one you like. The vanilla mint is, in my view, especially nice.
Recommendation #7: Crisp some prosciutto in the microwave.
It’s quite possible that the mere suggestion of microwaving prosciutto could be considered a crime of heresy in Italy and could net you some jail time. I know my nonna would thrash around in her grave if she were to catch wind of this nonsense. I’ve been eating this thin-sliced Italian ham delicacy my entire life and never heard of microwaving it until this pandemic. But Julie discovered it online and then used it to slightly modify a recipe she found for Prosciutto Pasta with Peas and Parmesan Cheese.
Let me just say that the result entered the realm of the god-like. The microwaved prosciutto is crispy, and a bit like bacon, but much more delicate and, in my opinion, much more concentrated and flavorful.
I interviewed Julie so that I could properly replicate her technique:
“Line a microwaveable plate with two layers of paper towels,” she says. “Lay 2-3 slices of prosciutto on the plate, then cover with another single layer of paper towels. Microwave for one minute. If it doesn’t look too fried, do another 30 seconds and continue microwaving for 30-second intervals until it is crisped. Remove plate from microwave and use a paper towel to wipe off any grease sitting on the prosciutto. Let it cool for a bit. Once it’s cool enough to touch, crumble each slice into small pieces. Then sprinkle it over the pasta.”
Give it a shot!
Recommendation #6: Embrace your hair.
Recommendation #5: Try Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread recipe.
The aforementioned Char Sachson – who apparently has become a baker extraordinaire – suggested that we try making our own bread. I used to bake sourdough bread but it was a pain in the arse and never really worked for me. Julie groaned at the thought of kneading bread. But the recipe Char recommended requires no kneading! In fact, it is called “No Knead Bread,” and although it takes 15-21 hours to make, the dough is “largely unattended” and probably requires only 30 minutes or so of effort on your part. Each loaf is a perfect loaf, every time.
Recommendation #4: Have a delightful time exercising – finally.
Many of you know that I hate exercise and that occasionally I work out for only 30 seconds at a time and consider that a coup. We recently bought a stationary bike and I glumly figured I would never warm to it – until I discovered BitGym.
BitGym is an app. I don’t normally like apps of any kind. But this one is a marvel.
Everyone around me is sick to death of hearing me waxing poetic about BitGym, but in a nutshell it makes you feel like you are riding your bike through the California redwoods or on the streets of Paris or along the Atlantic shore. And you need no special hardware or connections whatsoever! More than 170 high-resolution video rides are available (they add more every month), and these are real trips that volunteers? employees? drones? have filmed, complete with location sound so that you can hear the leaves rustling, birds singing, hikers clomping, waterfalls roaring. By tracking your eye movements the app knows that you are exercising, so as soon as you start pedaling the landscape starts flowing. I hooked my phone up to our TV so that the gorgeous scenery is up on a huge screen and I actually do believe that I am biking through Nova Scotia. When the company says its rides are “immersive,” they are not kidding. In fact – and I am not making this up – on more than one occasion I have felt like I was too close to a cliff and about to tumble off the side of a mountain, so I’ve actually yelled, “Be careful!” to myself!
I love this thing.
The free version, which I used for a while, limits the user to 10 minutes per “tour,” and the choices are fewer. The pro version costs me $8 a month, but I think it now may be up to $10 or so. EXCEPT that the company is making it completely free through May 31 because so many of us are quarantined!!! Isn’t that lovely??
Let me tell you, I can get on that bike and pedal for way more than 30 seconds – maybe up to 45 minutes or so – and feel like it’s nothing.
And you don’t have to worry about flat tires, traffic, or bad weather! The weather in our downstairs room is always a perfect 55 degrees.
By the way, you don’t necessarily need a bike. You can use it with other aerobic machines like treadmills or ellipticals or rowers.
So if you want to make your workouts more pleasant, please give this app a shot and then thank me profusely later.
[Note: Unfortunately, my back pain is not allowing me to ride our stationary bike anymore – for now, at least. But if it ever gets better, you’ll find me in our downstairs room, merrily riding through a jungle in Costa Rica.]
Recommendation #3: Get some Bob’s Red Mill cookie mix.
Wouldn’t it be great to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie from – gasp! – a mix?
Well, it’s not only possible but a certainty.
And you’d be supporting Bob’s Red Mill.
Bob Moore, the founder of this wondrous company, is 91 years old. He got into the milling biz quite late in life, which is a minor story unto itself. He was living in southern California, working at gas stations and tire stores, when he strolled into a library and randomly pulled John Goffe’s Mill off the shelves. The book is about a man with zero experience who bought an old grain mill.
Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? At least, it did to Bob.
Long story short, Bob and his wife Charlee bought an abandoned mill in 1978. Its headquarters are now in Milwaukie, Oregon, and you’ve probably seen Bob’s natural, organic stone-ground flours and steel-cut oats on your grocery shelves.
Charlee – the love of Bob’s life –passed away in 2018, and Bob’s Red Mill is estimated to be worth around $100 million. But he refuses to sell. Instead, he’s transferred ownership of his company to his 500+ employees, with their shares dependent upon how long they’ve worked there. The man is a gem.
The company makes over 400 products. But the best might be the Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix. The mix is gluten-free, which might be an added bonus for some of you. The website says that it is “a taste of childhood,” which is absolutely true. It’s easy to prepare (you add eggs, water, and butter) and the website notes that you can use their “Egg Replacer,” which we did because we had no real ones. Even though I normally eschew substitutions, we heartily recommend the Egg Replacer!
Finally, the site says that the cookie mix is “crafted to achieve crispy edges and a soft inside.” Also absolutely true!
And that’s why it’s the perfect chocolate chip cookie: just the right amount of chocolate and the right amount of sweetness, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
I’m sure I’ve driven my health care family and friends nuts because I thank them for their public service every single time I talk to them. I mean, at least two have been working directly with COVID-19 patients! So I bought this Life Is Good t-shirt, and I wear it regularly, in their honor. It costs $28.
By the way, the company donates 10 percent of its net profits to The Life Is Good Kids Foundation, which “focuses on improving the capacity of childcare professionals to build healing, life-changing relationships with the most vulnerable kids in their care. Today there are over 10,000 Life Is Good Playmakers who have helped over 1 million kids heal from the trauma of poverty, violence and illness.”
Thank you to Alicia Darnell, Lynne Eckerson, Jane Malone, Julie Riffle, and all the healthcare workers out there.
As for the rest of you, you can shell out 28 bucks for this adorable and meaningful t-shirt, can’t you?
And my #1 recommendation: Dole out compliments for others’ endeavors.
I’ve been trying to play the piano lately. I took a year of lessons when I was 7 years old and I still have the old piano my parents bought me, as well as my old music books. I am terrible, of course, and I’m not being falsely modest in any way. I can read most of the notes in the treble clef (right hand) and a few in the bass clef (left hand), and that’s it. The only songs I attempt to play are patriotic tunes and antiquated folk ballads. My technique involves sporadic plunking at a dirgelike tempo while I hit at least 30 percent bad notes. (Much like a 7-year-old beginner.) My showpiece tune is a sluggish version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” which I’ve played on the order of 3,000 times.
I try to play only on weekdays, and only when our doors and windows are shut so there is no chance of anyone hearing me. However, the other day my sweet young (yes, to me 30-ish is young) next-door neighbor texted me the following:
“I heard you on the piano on Wednesday last week. It was beautiful! I could have listened to you play all day! It reminds me of my sister back home [in Ireland].”
This one simple gesture has brought tears to my eyes nearly every day since. I think about the kind young soul – who, because of the pandemic, is being deprived of night life and many of the other joys of youth – taking the time to text a senior citizen and turn my halting, hesitant, discordant plunking into something beautiful. Thank you, Lauren Mason.
How about complimenting someone today?
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
9/17/72 [age 16]:
“I really haven’t been thinking at all about school [college]. I suppose the thought of it is so horrible that I purposely try to put it out of my mind. But now it’s almost here, and I guess I will just . . . well, go, tomorrow. Oh, me, oh, my. CLUTZ – that’s what I am. The question is – is college for klutzes?”
9/18/72 [age 16]:
“Well, I can now say that I’ve made it through one day [of college]. Buying books was a hassle – I’ve bought 5 out of the 7 books I need for 2 classes, and it’s already cost $26. Book-buying is a hassle. My rides are still hassles; in fact, I don’t know how I’m getting to school Wednesday. Tomorrow I drive Robin and Mary and I don’t know where to park, since apparently both parking lots are too small to accommodate the stupid Travelall. I’m confused and oh-so-tired, but – I don’t know – the excitement, the people, the learning prospects – something is making me happy.”
On a beautiful May day in 1954, on an innocuous ballfield in Charleston, South Carolina, two Negro League professional baseball teams faced each other in a preseason game. It wasn’t a particularly big deal for the players. The dry infield dirt, as usual, crunched under their spikes. Gloves were oiled, rawhides roughed. But looking back now, it’s clear that that moment was definitely a big deal. Three of the players warming up on the field that day were women. They were the only women, in fact, to ever play professional baseball.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns. Infielder Connie Morgan was on the bench. Toni Stone was up to bat for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson had been throwing a shutout until Stone stepped into the box and sliced a base hit to the outfield. But she took a careless lead on the next pitch and Johnson picked her off first. It was baseball as usual, but they were not the usual ballplayers.
They were the girls of summer.
Baseball as usual, of course, has disappeared for now, and we don’t know when it will return. I’d been planning on writing about these three women for nearly two years, but I backed off when I learned that a play about Toni Stone was due to open in San Francisco this March. Frankly, I was incensed that the theater company had stolen my idea.
Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, the live production of Toni Stone didn’t happen. Yet perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like these. You do not have to be a sports fan. This story is about much more than that. It’s about sexism, racism, talent, and guts.
From her earliest days in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where most of the Twin Cities’ black population lived, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone had an absolute obsession for baseball. She thought of nothing else, dreamt of nothing else. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy,” she said. But it was the 1930s, and her parents thought it was unnatural and unseemly for a girl to be crazy about a “boys’ game.” On top of that, Toni wasn’t at all interested in makeup or dresses or boys or any of the girlie fascinations that were thought to be “normal.” Everyone called her “Tomboy Stone,” and it was not necessarily a flattering moniker. Still, no one could deny that she was the best athlete, of any gender, in the neighborhood.
Stone started out playing in a summer Catholic boys’ league because a priest named Father Keefe needed someone to beef up his church’s ballclub. She then joined her high school softball team but quit after a year because the pace was too slow. But one spring day in 1936, at the age of 14, she stopped at a local park to watch a bunch of young white ballplayers coached by a man named Gabby Street, who had once played for the San Francisco Seals and the Washington Senators and who was then managing the minor league Saint Paul Saints. On that particular day, he was running a baseball camp for white boys in the area. Toni desperately wanted to play, and she was unaware of the fact that her race and gender were two strikes against her. Two strikes meant nothing to her anyway. So she began a campaign of relentlessly haranguing Street so that he would allow her to prove her skills.
Although Stone didn’t know it at the time, Gabby Street was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s activities had begun to wane nationally, however, and the last Klan meeting in Minnesota had been held seven years earlier. Street began to wear down. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he said later. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Second base was her preferred position, so he asked her to field grounders and hit a few balls. And he was more than impressed. A few days later, on her 15th birthday, he bought her a pair of baseball shoes, and she thought it was a miracle. She had never owned anything “official” like that. He also allowed her into the baseball camp. Those white boys couldn’t believe their eyes when a black girl walked onto the field.
But she quickly proved her mettle.
Although Toni was not a good student in high school, she became an astute student of baseball in that camp. The game is packed with more nuance than those who don’t follow it could ever imagine. Under Gabby Street’s coaching she also honed her athletic abilities and learned the more intricate skills, to the extent that she was asked to join a few summer barnstorming teams of amateur African-American ballplayers. In addition to her comfortable position at second base, she’d play center field on those teams and sometimes even take the mound to pitch.
Barnstorming teams typically were based in cities that had no major league teams, and they spent much of their time on the road. (Note: The Minnesota Twins, formerly the Washington Senators, did not move to Minnesota until the 1961 season.) Keep in mind that in that day and age, being on the road for Toni and her teammates was not all fun and games. On one of Toni’s trips to Bloomer, Wisconsin, with her Twin City Colored Giants playing a white team, the man announcing the lineups blithely declared over the loudspeaker, “And now the starting lineup for the niggers.”
After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Toni left her barnstorming Minnesota teammates behind and hopped on a bus headed for California, to see “what was over there on the other side of the fence.” Her sister Bunny lived in San Francisco, where men and women of all races had come to work in the shipyards. It was 1943, and the war effort was increasing. Toni had no idea where Bunny lived, and depending on when she would later re-tell the story, she had somewhere between 53 cents and $7 in her pocket. Her belongings consisted of a few items of clothing, her Goodwill baseball glove, and the cleats given to her by Gabby Street. To find her sister, the only thing she could do was comb the city’s streets. Incredibly, a few days after she arrived she was walking down a random alley when Bunny happened to look out the window and spotted her!
As I’ve written before, San Francisco is a mix of cultures, with so much to offer that any marginalized person can come here and find identity and acceptance. That happened to Toni. “I love my San Francisco,” she once said. “I had my hardships there. But they treated me right. Old San Francisco folks taken me over.” She had long had a passion for jazz, and the city’s Fillmore District was alive with it. She would hang out in Jack’s Tavern there, not only listening to the music but engaging in conversation with people more worldly than those she had known in her neighborhood back in Saint Paul. It was there that she would meet Aurelious Pescia Alberga, the much-older man whom she would eventually marry. He and the owner of Jack’s got Toni a spot on a local American Legion baseball team. Needless to say, she was the only woman on the squad. The team was part of a junior league, which required its players to be 17 or younger. It was now 1948, and Toni was 27 years old, so she decided to “change” her age by subtracting 10 years from it. It got her onto the team, but it also was the genesis of a long lie, and in years to come her fake youth would create unrealistic expectations and prove to be more of a hindrance than anything else.
Ultimately Toni found a place to live in Oakland through a priest at St. Benedict’s (because of Father Keefe, she would always have a soft spot for the Catholic Church). And she wrangled a job at Foster’s Cafeteria in the Fillmore District, although she would soon need more money and would end up doing physical labor down on the docks.
The next year, Stone was recruited by the San Francisco Sea Lions, a black barnstorming team that traveled throughout the country. (Note: The San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, did not include any black players.) She played second base and hit leadoff. Virtually no records were kept of those games, so no stats are available for me to quote. We do know that at some point Toni discovered that she was being paid less than her teammates, so she joined the New Orleans Creoles when they presented a better offer – which would indicate that her play was impressive. The Creoles went 44-8.
Better records are available for 1950, and by the middle of the season Toni was batting close to .300 for the Creoles. Meanwhile, she continued to fib about her age. She was a 29-year-old posing as a teenager. But she still had guts like no one had seen before. During one game in Iowa, a double-play throw from her third baseman ripped its way through her weakly made glove and knocked her out cold. Her teammates stood around pouring water on her (I’m not sure how that “treatment” was supposed to help), and when she regained consciousness she immediately stood straight up and screamed “Let’s go!” It stunned the crowd.
It was after the 1950 season, though, that Toni did a more audacious thing. She went and got married to the 67-year-old Aurelious Alberga.
No one really knew why she did it. In the first place, she had never had a boyfriend, had seemingly no interest in sex, walked around in men’s clothes, and, frankly, had been considered by many to be a lesbian. Yet her marriage to Alberga, in whatever form it took (they had separate bedrooms from the start), would last until his death.
Alberga was a well-known black social and political leader, and he provided stability and financial resources to the couple. But for a while, at least, he resisted the idea of her playing baseball, so she sat out for about a year and concentrated on home repairs and domestic chores.
Meanwhile, she was dying to get back to the diamond. During her hiatus she wrote to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – the one featured in the film A League of Their Own – but it was not only “all-American” but also all-white, and she never received a reply.
By 1953, some of the Negro League players had joined Major League Baseball (MLB), which had integrated six years earlier, and few Negro League teams remained solvent. But half a dozen were still in existence, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, who had won the 1951 league championship. The Clowns’ young shortstop, Henry Aaron, had left for the Boston Braves in the middle of 1952, and they needed infielders. The players were well aware of Stone’s play with the barnstorming Creoles, when her powerful arm, her defensive abilities, and her speed (she’d been able to run the 100 in 11 seconds) had impressed them. So she was offered a spot in the Clowns lineup for the 1953 season and joined them for spring training that year. The owner did try to convince her to wear short skirts on the field, but she threatened to quit and he relented. I mean, seriously, who can effectively slide in a skirt??
At this point, don’t forget, everyone assumed that Toni was 21 years old, and they also assumed that she could move like a dancer and run like the wind. But she was a full decade older than that and edging past her prime.
After only two days of practice (the extent of “spring training,” in those days, for the Negro League) and a month of preseason games, Toni Stone officially played her first game as starting second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns on May 15, 1953. She was 31 years old. As she took the field against the Kansas City Monarchs in Beaumont, Texas, she earned her place in history.
She was the first woman to ever play professional big-league baseball.
Just a few words, at this point, about the Negro Leagues. They were not minor leagues; they were not repositories for lesser talents. They were the beginning of organized professional baseball for black (and Hispanic, by the way) athletes who were not yet allowed into Major League Baseball. That would not happen until 1947, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays were some of the former Negro League players to follow Robinson into the majors and ultimately into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Negro Leagues lasted for 40 years, but they started to wane significantly once MLB began attracting their best players. The owners typically weren’t compensated for the departure of their superstars, and many of the teams went bankrupt. By 1960 they were defunct. The loss was bittersweet, because the Negro Leagues had helped spur economic growth in black communities and helped provide a sense of social cohesion among people of color. Their passing was greatly mourned.
This year we celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was in February 1920 that Andrew “Rube” Foster – owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants – convened a meeting with the owners of seven other independent black baseball teams to form the Negro National League. For true baseball fans and also for historians, it’s a really big deal. In fact, on June 27, 2020, all MLB players, coaches, and umps are (were?) slated to wear a Negro Leagues logo on their jersey. A host of other celebrations have been planned as well. The nature of those commemorations, however, remains to be seen.
A little more than halfway through that ’53 season when Toni Stone made history, her Indianapolis Clowns were in last place, despite Toni’s .364 average – fourth in the league. (Ernie Banks, by the way, was in second place.) Still, the team ranked first in attendance among all the Negro League teams – due almost exclusively to the presence of Stone, most observers agree. By season’s end, though, her batting average had dropped to .243, and almost all of her hits were singles.
It gave her cause for worry, especially because at that point a couple of other women were about to join the team.
Mamie Johnson was living with her grandmother in Ridgeway, South Carolina, when she first started playing ball in corner lots as a little girl. According to Michelle Green’s book A Strong Right Arm, a “pie plate was first, the broken piece of flower pot was second, and the large root about three feet from the lilac bush was third.” Home plate was the “smooth white lid of a five-gallon bucket of King Cane sugar,” the sweetest in the South. The “baseball” was a bunch of tape wrapped around a rock. And Mamie could throw that thing, powerful and smooth. She had a fastball, a change-up, and even a knuckleball, and the neighborhood boys had a tough time connecting with her pitches.
When Mamie’s grandmother died in 1945, it was decided that Mamie would move in with an aunt and uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was about 10 years old, and it was not a popular move with her. Not only did she miss the sweet southern air, but there was no baseball at the school she had to attend. It was just softball, and she hated it and refused to play. The ball was way too big, and the pitching was underhand. Sissified blasphemy! But she had gumption, and one day she passed by a field on which a bunch of kids were playing baseball. All boys, of course. And all white. (Sound like a familiar story?) Although told she couldn’t play, Mamie noted that the team was sponsored by the Long Branch Police Athletic League and she hustled right on down to the police station to ask the officers – repeatedly – about whether local laws prohibited a girl from playing baseball. Eventually she wore everyone down and was allowed onto the team, which ended up winning the division championship two years in a row.
For a couple of years Johnson played for other sandlot teams, as well as for an all-black semi-pro club. Like Toni Stone, she also got wind of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in her case she actually took a bus with a friend all the way down into Virginia to try out for the team. Once they arrived, though, exhausted but ready to play, they were told that no “colored girls” were allowed.
In 1953, when Johnson was playing for a sandlot team, a man in a pinstripe suit who’d been watching their games for three weeks came up to her after he’d witnessed her strike out a series of batters with a particularly voracious fastball. (By the way, she was about 5’2” and weighed 92 pounds.) His name was Bish Tyson, and he was a former Negro League ballplayer and now an unofficial scout. He told her that the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, would be coming to town for some pre-season exhibition games and would be looking for new players. He was taking a gamble on her; after all, she had no high-level experience on the playing field and no exposure to skilled coaching.
When she arrived at the field in September for what she thought were widespread tryouts, she discovered that the only person trying out was her! She also noted that the Clowns had another female playing for them – second baseman Toni Stone. Mamie did well in the batter’s box and threw to some great hitters that day, and right there on the spot they signed her. She’d be allowed to play in postseason barnstorming games throughout the fall and then would join the permanent roster the following season. Johnson quickly quit her job selling ice cream and boarded the Clowns’ bus, without getting a lick of input (or approval) from her husband. “It didn’t make any difference because I was going to play anyway,” she said.
By 1954 Johnson was in the regular pitching rotation and took the mound about every six days. Her curveball came to her when, in Kansas City, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige complimented her throwing arm. He was retired from MLB and back to playing in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. He told her to stop squeezing the ball as tightly and showed her his curveball. Allegedly. Years later, at a conference about the Negro Leagues, Mamie corrected the story. “He didn’t teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it,” she said. “I knew how to throw it.”
One day she faced hard-hitting Hank Baylis, third baseman for the Monarchs. Baylis reportedly stepped out, turned around, and hollered to the fans, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her!” She reached back, uncorked her fastball, and struck him out. “Call me Peanut,” she yelled back at him. From that point on she was Peanut Johnson.
At the end of 1953 the Clowns were also starting to look at Connie Morgan, who would be a more direct threat to Toni Stone because Morgan, too, played second base. Toni started to see the writing on the wall. Peanut Johnson and Connie Morgan – two 19-year-olds – were both slated to be her teammates on the 1954 Clowns. Toni was in her thirties, and the decision had been made that only one female at a time would be in the lineup. To add insult to injury, owner Syd Pollock offered her $350 a month, which was less than the $400 a month she’d been paid the previous year. So she made the decision to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered her $400 a month and the possibility of a $200 year-end bonus.
Constance Enola (“Connie”) Morgan, born in 1935 in Philadelphia, had played five seasons with the all-girl North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, with whom she’d logged a .368 batting average. She’d read about Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns in Ebony magazine and penned a letter directly to Syd Pollock, requesting a tryout. He obliged in October 1953, and she signed a two-year, $10,000 contract after impressing the team with her defensive skills at second base. She was right out of high school. She’d never had male teammates, and at that point most of her time on the field was spent behind the dish, at catcher. But she could play any position except pitcher, and she shared the same chutzpah and self-confidence that Stone and Johnson possessed.
We don’t know as much about Morgan as we do about the other women, but we do know that her defense was spectacular. She was only 5’4”, but she was strong, and manager Oscar Charleston – a Hall of Famer, and universally considered to be one of the greatest ballplayers of all time – said “her throws across the diamond rank on par with many major leaguers.”
So, what was life on the road like for Negro League players? The teams played almost every day for eight months, with two (and occasionally three!) games on Sundays. Unlike MLB ballplayers, who usually had days off for travel, Negro League players had no such luxury, often riding on a bus for up to 400 miles between games with no break. Syd Pollock meticulously recorded every conceivable kind of stat, and according to his publicity material, “The Clowns have traveled 2,110,000 miles. Once played in a town with a population of 476 and had 1,372 fans at the game. Largest crowd 41,127 in Detroit. Smallest 35 in Lubbock, TX during a tornado. Have had the same bus driver for 17 years, worn out three buses and 19 sets of tires.”
By the way, for bathroom breaks, the bus would stop so men who had to pee could just line up on the side of the road and do their thing. The women, of course, had to walk off into the woods or a culvert, often in the middle of the night.
While traveling in the South, the players had to drink only from certain water fountains and shop only in certain stores. Many of the gas stations were “Whites Only.” Restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line often provided no service to black customers, and much of the time those places were the only food establishments in the area. Once in a while the players would be allowed to go to a back window to pick up cold food. When white people were traveling with the team, sometimes they would pick up a load of food at “white” cafes and bring it back. But they had to be careful; servers had been known to spit into glasses of Coke being served to black people.
As for hotels, many refused rooms to black people, and it was often a scramble if schedules got changed. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book helped out when the team was traveling in the South. But for Toni, there was an added burden. It started when she was turned away at some of the hotels – the few who would serve African-Americans – because they assumed she was a hooker for the players. When the hotel owners pointed her in the direction of the nearest brothel, she found that the kindness of the ladies there was better than some of the everyday treatment she received from the outside world. The women not only provided her with a place to sleep but also fed her, laundered her uniform, gave her extra money, lent her a car, and often even attended her games. It was the prostitutes who always helped her out in life, she would say years after she’d left professional baseball.
One night after a game in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Toni’s rattletrap team bus caught on fire for no apparent reason. Almost all of the players’ belongings and equipment were lost, although Toni had managed to grab her glove before bailing out of the bus. No one, of course, immediately stopped to lend a hand. When a sheriff finally came by, he called his dispatcher. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” Help didn’t arrive for two more hours.
The players knew they had to be infinitely careful about their behavior, especially in southern towns. The smallest of infractions –and sometimes no infraction at all – could get them jailed or killed. “Reckless eyeballing” was one of the ridiculous charges potentially facing a black man. Any white woman could accuse any black man of looking at her too long, and he could be put away. Coaches would tell rookies to “keep their heads down and their mouths shut.”
At ballparks in the South, black major leaguers usually were not allowed in clubhouses and were required to change clothes on the bus. Even more ridiculous – if that’s possible – black fans often had to completely leave the stadium to use a toilet!
Unlike today’s ballplayers, who sit out a game if they have a hangnail, the Negro League players had no physicians available and simply had to play through almost every conceivable injury or health condition outside of a coma. Players who got spiked, for example, would make paste from coal-stove soot, rub it on the (often very deep) wound, and lay a spider web on top of everything to protect the wound because there were no bandages available!
Toni Stone, in particular, was no stranger to being spiked, or to being hit by pitches. Many of the men in the league – including some on her own team – resented playing with or against a woman so much that they either ostracized her or blatantly tried to hurt her. Some teammates even threw to her directly in a baserunner’s path to make it easier for the opposing players to gash her with their metal cleats. She ended up with a lot of scars to prove it, although later she would shrug them off as being battle wounds.
Meanwhile, sportswriters were beginning to be more callous about the women in the league, considering them to be novelties and concerned that they were somehow emasculating the men and the sport. “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved – just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men. . . . This could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!” screamed one such insecure writer.
After 1953, the league was on its last breaths.
Connie Morgan played only one full season with the Indianapolis Clowns. She never quite found her footing offensively, hitting only .178 with seven singles, a double, one stolen base, and one RBI in 45 at-bats.
Peanut Johnson hung on for a bit. She played for parts of three seasons with the Clowns and ended up with a dazzling win/loss pitching record of 33-8 and a batting average reported to be between .262 and .284.
The 1954 Monarchs season was not a good one for Toni, who was now 32 years old and 12 pounds over her typical playing weight. She was trying too hard, and her batting average never crossed what is now derogatorily called the Mendoza line (.200). As a result, her temper was closer to the surface. During one game she was called out by the ump on a pitch she thought was a ball, and the catcher yelled “pussy high” after the ball crossed the plate. Enraged, she leaped on the catcher’s back. She would later say that she didn’t know what made her the maddest: the call, the catcher’s vulgar and sexist remark, or the fact that manager Buck O’Neill loved retelling the story.
The Monarchs would come in last place.
Toni Stone retired at the end of the season. The owner gave her $400 for the month but refused to hand over her $200 year-end bonus. It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. “Not playing baseball hurt so damn bad,” she lamented, “I almost had a heart attack.”
After these three women left the game, no woman would ever play professional baseball again.
Toni had a hard time adjusting to life after Negro League baseball. She settled back into her home on Isabella Street in Oakland. Her mom and sister lived nearby, but she felt unmoored. She spent time alone with her mementos, reliving the glory days, and occasionally she took to drinking a bit too much. She was always suspicious of visitors claiming to be sympathetic reporters, who on more than one occasion stole her mementos. But she was also suspicious of bona fide reporters, who, she thought, would go to great lengths to make her seem more sophisticated, educated, or feminine than she really was.
In the 1960s, though, she emerged from her funk. She began playing rec baseball and coaching neighborhood teams. She attended Oakland A’s baseball games, sitting by herself behind home plate. In June of 1975, Stone threw out the first pitch at a Giants game. She also did work for local hospitals and served as an occasional home caregiver. When her ancient husband Alberga turned 100 years old in 1984, he asked Toni to give up playing recreational baseball, and finally she agreed. She was in her sixties. After he died at 103, she could often be seen riding her bike around Oakland.
Peanut Johnson earned a nursing degree, moved back to Washington, D.C., remarried twice, and had a 30-year career as a nurse. After retirement she managed the Negro League Baseball Shop in Maryland, which not only sold memorabilia but also taught the public about the historic nature of the Negro Leagues and about living during Jim Crow. It was impossible to get baseball out of her soul, and she remembered only the good times. When asked how she felt about her days in baseball, she would say, “Have you ever won a million dollars? Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me. If they didn’t let me play, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m very proud of that.” She passed away on December 18, 2017, at the age of 82.
Connie Morgan went back to business school, graduated in 1955, and enjoyed a career that included working for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country. But her subsequent days working for a furrier aggravated her arthritis, and when she switched to driving school buses she developed kidney disease and had to retire at the age of 40. According to Martha Ackmann, Morgan “rarely talked about the Negro League. To many who saw her, she was just the lonely woman who sat for days by the window of her Federal Street row house with only the light of a flickering television set.” In 1995, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year – after living with constant dialysis – she succumbed to her kidney problems at the age of 61. For years her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia was unmarked. A travesty. But in 2014 she was finally given a headstone through the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project.
Incredibly, the Baseball Hall of Fame did not even officially recognize the Negro Leagues until August of 1991. Seventy-five former Negro League players were invited to Cooperstown that year, and Toni Stone was one of them. It was the second-happiest day of her life. The happiest, according to a tale she would oft repeat, was the day she got to hit against Satchel Paige during a barnstorming game. Paige loved to toy with batters by outright asking them, ahead of time, which pitch they’d prefer to see. He did the same for Toni. “It doesn’t matter which pitch,” she yelled back. “Just don’t hurt me!” Satchel had a lot of pitches in his bag o’ tricks: the bee ball, the two-hump blooper, and a raft of others. She didn’t even know which one he unleashed on her, but she smacked it over second base. Yes, that was the happiest day of her life.
Toni Stone Alberga died of heart failure in an Alameda nursing home on November 2, 1996. She was 75 years old.
A year later, a baseball field named for her was dedicated at the Dunning Sports Complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The year Toni Stone died, Minnesota playwright Roger Niebor wrote a play entitled Tomboy Stone that had a brief run at the Great American History Theater in Saint Paul. “I suppose the number of women who could travel and play like that, discriminated on the basis of race and sex the whole time, would be few,” he said. “And to do it with the energy and intensity of Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit and made me proud to know her.”
To “power and beauty” I would add “fearlessness.” Those women needed to be physically tough and to have no problem squatting in a dark culvert at night or playing through serious injuries with no medical attention. And they had to be courageous enough to suffer relentless racist and sexist taunts and all the other consequences of breaking barriers more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed.
Finally, I would also add “dignity.” No matter what they faced, these women continued to live their lives with self-respect. And when they retired from the game, and their departures garnered no attention, they showed no traces of bitterness over the ways they were exploited by team owners. Even in later years, when they spoke of their reverence for the game and for their time in the big leagues, they never dwelt on the fear they lived with on the road, the inconveniences, the scorn.
They played with passion, these women. Passion got them through the tough times.
Like a lot of war veterans, Toni Stone “didn’t talk too much about her baseball life,” said her niece, Maria Barlow. “But she was the first woman to do a lot of things. She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but she knew that she wanted more in life and she was fighting for it. She stood up to people, like the white owner, and fought for her pay. She stood up for herself. I saw the letters that she wrote. And she did it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone helping her or clearing the path for her. My aunt was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.”
All three are gone now. But they represented the best of America. And for a brief moment in time, they were our girls of summer.
Note: Much of the information in this piece was taken from the beautifully researched Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann and from A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
7/24/72 [age 16]:
“I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I have begun reading the Bible. Seriously, and completely. I have only gotten through Genesis. It is interesting reading, though sometimes the ‘Jason had two sons, Esau and Aron, and Aron had . . .’ and it continues for pages is boring. It may take me a year or two to read it, but I want to conquer it, just as I conquered ‘Leaves of Grass’ (of which I finally bought a copy, the cheapest paperback available, 95 cents).”
8/5/72 [age 16]:
“I rode [my bike] down to Confession tonight. Big deal, I missed Mass once. But I won’t miss it again. Hey, Auntie Jackie called yesterday and asked if I could fly down to her house [in southern CA]. I really want to go, and I love to fly, and I’ll be AWAY. But Mom and Dad are against it, and as yet they haven’t produced an answer. If they say no, I’ll croak!”
8/8/72 [age 16]:
“The [Santa Cruz] beach was awful today – it was completely cold and gray and overcast and there were absolutely no waves at all. No surf + no sun = no fun. (A Paula Bocciardi original – perhaps I should have it patented.) I didn’t even go in swimming, although I did wade a bit. Mom and Dad still haven’t given me an answer on the trip down south. They better hurry. If they don’t let me go, I will stay mad the rest of my life!”
8/10/72 [age 16]:
“It’s hard to believe that I got to come down South [to visit my relatives in southern CA] today. At 6:55 we took off from San Jose, and Grammy and Grampy picked me up in Burbank at 7:43. Fantastic, that plane ride! I mean, all by myself and it was so miraculous looking down on the earth. I was not afraid at all. I also love it down here. [My aunt] Jackie is a neat-type parent, and I like her way of life (except her house isn’t very clean). Today I was introduced to a new way of life. We drove down to [my aunt’s friend] Renee’s store. I met Renee – she’s a middle-aged hippie and owns a boutique shop and sells organic health foods. A friend of hers was in there, another free-spirit musician, playing his guitar and singing. The place smelled like a funny spice, which I can still smell, and was so hot I almost passed out. Also, I had one of her homemade organic fruit drinks and it nauseated me.”
8/14/72 [age 16]:
“I pulled one of my traditional ‘Paula Bocciardi the klutz’ tricks today. Dad had given me five dollars for this trip [to southern CA] along with the strange words ‘Don’t spend it’ (don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean) and [my cousins] Carla and Ronnie and I went down to a record store in Hollywood to get Andy Williams’ ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ for Carla. I stuck the bill in my pocket and – ack! – it had a hole in it. I LOST it! What will Dad say?”
8/15/72 [age 16]:
“Oh, wow, today was the best day of all. Grammy took [my aunt and cousins] Jackie, Kathy, Lisa, and me (Carla was too tired) to Magic Mountain in Valencia. I loved it. You pay $5 to get in, but after that ALL THE RIDES ARE FREE, yeah. I liked the log ride because there are two slopes that are straight down. And I also liked the bumper cars, because we met some guys (I swear they are all cute down here) and had a ‘war’ with them. From 8:00 to 8:45 we saw TRINI LOPEZ (free!). And Grammy saw GLEN CAMPBELL stroll by, and I’m sick because I didn’t see him. 1:00 to 11:00 – total time, 10 hours.”
9/9/72 [age 16]:
“Mom and Dad and [my visiting uncle and aunt] Fred and Jackie and [my cousin] Lisa and I went off to the Cannery and the wharf and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I’ve seen them a million times but I love San Francisco for its hilaric [sic] craziness. The city has a grand, majestic, mysterious beauty but the cars and the people and the streets – they’re all crazy. Two guys came near to blows in the middle of traffic and some girl who thought she was a witch was cursing some guys, and the musicians – it’s so crazy!!”
9/11/72 [age 16]:
“The very worst possible thing has happened. Dad mentioned tonight that we are going to Clear Lake this weekend. O, I did so want to make the most of this very last weekend before I start college! I don’t want to go to that horrid place I hate so dreadfully! Maybe if I play it straight and be calm and cool and good, something’ll happen. Please, God!!”
9/14/72 [age 16]:
“Today was a nothing day except I found out some wonderful news. We are not going to Clear Lake this weekend. I wanted everyone else to go and just let me stay at [our friends] the Rosaleses at night, but instead we are not going at all. Now I feel guilty. I don’t know if I should, since I HAVE put up with it for so often. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to ask – God heard my fervent, fervent prayer and granted it, so perhaps it’s okay. I don’t know. I can’t help but feel guilty, but my joy and relief right now overrules it. Yeah.”
9/15/72 [age 16]:
“The time for college is growing near, and I am no more emotionally prepared for it than I am sensible, and THAT’S not at ALL. My car pool situation is very confusing, which doesn’t cheer me up at all. My best friend and teacher and confidant is going away, and the thought of homework kills me. Only a few days left, and I am so scared. Oh, my aching heart.”
9/16/72 [age 16]:
“I went to see ‘On a Clear Day’ and ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ with Jeanne, and something a lady in the latter movie kept saying has been bothering me. She was always in a constant state of depression, and told Alan Arkin that he couldn’t be able to think of three kind, loving, decent human beings, and I’m wondering if humanity is all that bad. Who would my three be? [My cousin] Carla, Sister Kathleen Mary, and Abraham (my Bible hero). Linus and Charlie Brown aren’t real, and Christ is God. I don’t know if I could think of anyone else.”