The girls of summer

The girls of summer

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.

Toni Stone
Toni Stone

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.

Toni stone_espn.com
Toni Stone

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.

peanut johnson 1_National Visionary Leadership Project
Mamie Johnson

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.

Peanut Johnson
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

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.

2009_16_15_082.tif
Connie Morgan

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.

The_Negro_Travelers'_Green_Book_1953As 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.

***

Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan
Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan

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.

Toni Stone_Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Toni Stone

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.

Peanut Johnson 2_Smithsonian
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

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.

the end

 

 

 

***

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.”

A whole new ballgame

A whole new ballgame

There’s a moment, as you’re heading to a Giants game from the west side of town, when your Muni train rises out of the darkness of the Market Street tunnel and rumbles into the sunlight.

It’s a moment I always anticipate, but this time it was particularly meaningful.

Until recently I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get to the ballpark this year. Typically I attend all the Giants weekday afternoon games, but for the last six months I’ve been suffering from savage nerve pain. For those long months I felt as though my eyes had been burned raw from the inside out, preventing me from seeing one ounce of beauty in the world around me.

But as fall became winter and turned again into spring, slowly and almost imperceptibly I started to get better. The murky tunnel in which I’d been existing started to recede behind me. I could finally start to clutch the world around me and feel the sensations of each moment clearly. It was time to take in a ballgame.

***

Cupid's_Span_-_panoramio_wikimedia commons-2

When the T-Third Street train climbs out of the tunnel and onto the city’s surface streets, the sun emerges like a gift, and the vivid appearance of San Francisco’s people and textures makes you feel like you’re passing through the opening curtain of a sumptuous play.

It was a cloudless April afternoon. As our train poked its head out onto the Embarcadero, my very first sight was the magnificent, colorful “Cupid’s Span” sculpture sitting romantically on the shore, its red arrow partially drawn. Tourist boats and cargo ships went about their business. Scores of people strolled along the promenade towards the stadium, past the piers, past the palm trees, past the choppy waters of the bay. Most of them were dressed in orange and black, all of them hopeful and happy.

We got off near the main entrance to the ballpark. Our animated crossing guard was earnestly attentive to the elderly, and to parents with children. We all felt protected. Everyone was chatting. Our friend Mona remarked that just being there lifted her spirits. I said that it felt like we were about to enter the enchanting gates of Disneyland.

***

Once we got inside, Mona mentioned that it was our mutual friend Holly’s birthday. Holly was a fervent Giants fan who passed away from cancer 11 years ago at a much too young age. She was also a tequila lover, so we immediately determined that our very first order of business was to have some shots in her honor. Bellied up to the bar, we clinked a toast and Mona downed a shot of fancy tequila while Julie and I each slammed back a jigger of Maker’s Mark.  Moments later, as we weaved our way along, Mona blurted out that man, she was really feeling that tequila. I suddenly realized that I was almost blind with liquor. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I kept yelling, laughing.

It had been a long time since I had quaffed a shot of booze. I felt like a swaggering buckaroo in a Nevada saloon. The day got warmer.

***

People who claim that the best seats are right behind home plate are not necessarily true baseball fans, especially at the Giants ballpark. I recently heard Mike Krukow, one of the team’s announcers, say that if he could sit anywhere he wanted, outside of the announcer’s booth, he would sit in the upper deck, first base side.

I agree, and that’s my chosen spot. It gives me a bird’s-eye view of the entire stadium, the huge fiberglass glove and Coke bottle behind the left field bleachers, the retired numbers of the greatest Giants ballplayers, and the World Series flags whipping in the wind. Beyond lies the bay, dabbed with sailboats. The dramatic white span of the Bay Bridge is visible east of Yerba Buena Island. And standing far in the distance are the gently rolling hills of the East Bay.

***

I always insist on grabbing my Sierra Nevada beer and my Crazy Crab Sandwich early so that I can be at my seat when the National Anthem is played. And yes, I know that my favorite sports meal usually involves a hot dog. But there’s nothing in San Francisco quite like crab and sourdough.

The bread, I believe, might be the best thing about the crab sandwiches at the ballpark. The Boudin sourdough is cut thinly and spread with a mixture of garlic, parsley, and butter. Inside lies the sweet, tender Dungeness crab, mixed with a hint of lemon juice and a light bit of mayo to keep it together. Ripe red tomato slices rest on top of the crab. The whole thing is then toasted to a golden brown and served hot. God help me!

***

We were at our seats on time. A school band from Healdsburg began playing the Anthem. Hand on heart, I looked to the right of the scoreboard, out in deep center field just behind Triples Alley. Yes, our flag was still there.

I thought about the past six months and the unrelenting nerve pain that had sizzled through my body. I thought about all of the times I had considered giving up completely. Who would care, I actually wondered at one point. But working against that desperation was a reserve of patience, strength, and will that I never knew I had. And when I was at my very lowest, the phone would often ring. That does it. A surprise phone call. A suggestion. A kind word. My beautiful friends and family. “I believe in you,” one of them said. “I believe in your ability to cope.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.

***

Our seats were in full sun. I felt safe. I’d left almost all of my pain behind me in the tunnel.

Our long-postponed road trip to Kentucky would be happening soon. The thought made me smile.

A cool breeze came in softly off the bay. A lone seagull flew white against the blue sky.

The players had taken the field.

I settled back and slowly brought my cup of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to my lips. Its hue was a vivid amber, its fragrance clean like the clear crisp water of the Cascades. I took my first baseball sip. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

2019_04-10_Paula at Giants game-2

 

 

 

 

***

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.

3/11/72 [age 16]:

“My cold is still fairly bad but I am up here at Azama’s and Moore’s cabin anyway. . . . Skiing [at Bear Valley] wasn’t really that fun. Until lunch we were mainly trying to stay on our feet. It takes really long to get up if you fall. I was really a klutz, and Mrs. Espinosa was a chicken, so we stayed on the beginner’s slope. Mrs. Moore kept on repeating, “Why did you fall?” It made me mad. Then I got so hungry I could eat a bear. Luckily, lunch was fantastic. They had made us delicious sandwiches and I ate five of them. Miss Azama told me that skiing uses a lot of energy and that’s why I ate five sandwiches. After lunch we watched the Celebrity Ski Race, and I snuck under the tape and got pictures of Clint Eastwood and Peter Graves up close! Unbelievable! In the morning they made us something called sourdough pancakes and I had 13 of them. They were fantastic.”

2/7/72 [age 16]:

“Last year I saw a skiing movie in English called ‘Ski the Outer Limits’ and it was so beautiful I was hooked right then and there. Well, Miss Azama and Mrs. Moore asked Colleen, me, and Marie Ehrling, our Swedish foreign exchange student, to go up to their cabin for a weekend in March. I can’t wait. They’re going to teach us to ski. It’s going to cost us $15. They said the first day is the worst. I may, with my great coordination, find myself wrapped around a tree.”

2/6/72 [age 16]:

“This guy named Jerry in my English class has this crush on me. But I’m not going to spread it around like I did with Jeff last year. Jerry is kind of a baby but he’s nice. He’s played basketball with me a lot after school. And he sits in English and throws paper wads at me. Romantic, huh?”

2/5/72 [age 16]:

“You see, I don’t believe in finals. All they do is test a bunch of facts.”

2/4/72 [age 16]:

“We went to see ‘Dirty Harry.’ It was [my brother] Marc’s and mine first ‘R’ movie and [my sister] Janine saw it. Can you believe that? When I was eleven I got to see really good movies, like ‘The Love Bug.’ ”

 

Diamonds are forever

Diamonds are forever

“Son of a BITCH!!!”

Well, how odd. That was the entire, precise Facebook message, including caps and exclamation points, that suddenly appeared on my new smartphone at 3:15 p.m. on October 3, 2014.

Now I just had to figure out why in the world my friend Mona, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, had sent a message out of the blue shouting “son of a bitch!” at me without so much as a greeting or an explanation. How does one respond to such a thing? What did it mean?

Mona and I had gotten to know each other back in the 1980s, when she decided to sponsor my softball team. Other than my move to San Francisco in the 1970s, that team was the single most significant influence in my life. The lessons I learned, and the powerful friendships I made, informed my life’s course at a time when I most needed direction. And I have been blissfully bound in the mesh of those relationships, filament by filament, ever since.

Denver, August 1988
Mona, bottom center

As time went by, after Mona married and had a couple of children, we’d just naturally lost touch for a few years. She and I are very different in a million ways. She owned the first female-run network telecommunications company in the country and has been a serial entrepreneur ever since. She’s energetic, gregarious, and progressive. I’m more reticent and conservative, and I prefer the back of the stage rather than the front. She has a warm voice and a beautiful crinkly smile and she wears her feelings on her sleeve, while mine are often deeply concealed. But at our essence we’re both passionate and emotional, culturally similar. And as with all old friends, the bonds between us have abided.

Anyway, that October afternoon I was glued to the television watching a baseball game. When the “son of a bitch” message popped up, I’d been digging around in a wooden bowl for old maids. You know what they are – those partially popped kernels of popcorn at the bottom of the bowl that are so crunchy and satisfying. I’d just finished eating a sports meal, or at least my definition of one. A Paula Bocciardi sports meal consists of three items: a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. I prefer Hebrew Nationals, Pop Secret Homestyle, and Sam Adams Boston Lager.

As I sat on the couch, crunching on the last of those old maids, I racked my brain for some kind of meaning to Mona’s expletive. At first I figured it was a mistake. Maybe she hadn’t meant to send it at all. And why no explanation? Did she really expect me to understand what she meant, especially since we hadn’t spoken in so long? It must have been meant for someone else. Maybe she was sitting in a boardroom somewhere, seething about something, and she’d fired off the message to the wrong person.

But then I started laughing. I figured it out. It was right in front of my eyes. I was watching game 1 of baseball’s Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals. The Giants were ahead 3-0 going into the 7th inning when coach Bruce Bochy pulled out starting pitcher Jake Peavy – who had a shutout going – and brought in the ever-erratic reliever Hunter Strickland, who allowed back-to-back homers by Bryce Harper (whom I loathe anyway) and Asdrubal Cabrera.

It was after the homer by Cabrera, when the score was suddenly 3-2, that Mona flew into a baseball rage and messaged me.

Assuming that my clever deduction was indeed correct, I messaged her back. The exchange was exactly this:

M: Son of a BITCH!!!

P: No kidding!! Plus I hate Bryce Harper.

 M: Then I hate him too!

 P: He’s an a-hole. On the plus side, I love Joe Panik. i just gotta first iPhone. This is fun!

M: Panic is a fun player to watch. Strong infield, I love Brandons!

P: I agree! Now we need to suffer through 6 outs. I need some bourbon.

The beauty of the whole thing was the fact that someone knew me well enough to correctly assume what I was doing at a particular moment in time. And to assume that I would know exactly what she was talking about, despite the years since we’d last talked. Within seconds we had effortlessly relinked ourselves. That kind of friendship is a precious gift.

***

I probably have hundreds of ballpark memories, but my most cherished are those that were shared with friends whose hearts beat with the same love of sports. In the first season the new Giants ballpark was open, tickets were nearly impossible to get, but my good friend Julie R. and I developed an elaborate scheme to score some seats, part of which involved my cozying up to a workmate whose boyfriend had season tickets. Armed with a couple of his unwanted seats, Julie and I went to our first day game at what is now AT&T Park on June 14, 2000. What made that day almost unrivaled in San Francisco history is that the temperature was 103 degrees. For San Francisco, that means you have practically entered the gates of Hell. (The average temperature for that date, by the way, is 69 degrees.) I would send an e-mail to my sister-in-law Lori later that night, telling her that it was 91 degrees inside the house at 9:00 p.m. (no one has air conditioning here). I also reported that I’d been reading Rolling Stone magazine that evening, and that the inks on the cover had melted in the heat and run all over my legs.

In any case, Julie R. and I were not to be deterred from seeing that game. We were intrepid sports fans and we were not going to let the heat get to us, even if we boiled to death. Our seats were, of course, in the blazing sun; they were very close to the field, along the third base line. We endured the conditions as long as we could, but after an hour and a half, with sweat cascading off of us, we decided that our hearts were racing dangerously fast and we needed to seek shade. Only when we turned around did we realize that no one else in the stadium was sitting in the sun. And I mean no one. It was 111 degrees on the field, we had heard, and I believe that we were possibly close to death at that point. Plus we hadn’t had a thing to eat; as Julie later said, “My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.”

The fans, it seemed – at least, those who were still there – had crowded into any empty spots they could find in the shade. There was very little shade left for us, but we eventually managed to spot four seats under an overhang, and we quickly grabbed two of them. Shortly afterwards, however, along came the season-ticket seat owner. He was with only one companion, so we asked him if we could use his other two seats. It was then that we realized that he was drunk as a loon. He was stumbling and slurring, his zipper was half-down(!), and he declared that we could use his seats only if Julie R. gave him a hug! (She ended up being the one next to him, thank God.) So the typically reticent Julie had to close her eyes and reluctantly hug him. It was hard for me to control my laughter, and at the same time I was utterly relieved that he wasn’t sitting next to me. Anyway, whenever the Giants did something good, he would sort of put his arm around Julie, but she was sweating so much that he would then draw it back in revulsion. He did this repeatedly because he kept forgetting that he’d tried it earlier! Luckily, he left before the game was over and we were able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon baking in peace.

Whenever either of us recalls that game, we burst out laughing. It’s just a funny, funny memory that can never be replicated.

***

Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees at AT&T Park are, as one might expect, rare. In my estimation, the ballpark had to have been designed by a meteorological genius, because no matter how chilly and windy the San Francisco days and nights might be, inside the park it’s usually fairly temperate, as if you’ve entered another town altogether. The team’s former stadium, of course, was Candlestick Park, which was not so temperate and had a worldwide reputation for its blustery, howling winds. Longtime rumors have it that Giants pitcher Stu Miller was blown clear off the mound there during the 1961 All-Star game. Witnesses agree. Miller, though, claimed that he merely “waved like a tree” in the sudden gust.

In any case, my favorite Candlestick wind story was not Miller’s. My friend Erlinda and I were there for one of the rescheduled 1989 World Series games, and she told me about an acquaintance who had brought a little boy to the park for his very first game. When it was over, the boy gushed about what a great time he’d had, and she asked him what his favorite part of the game was.

“The flying napkins,” he answered.

***

Another only-in-San Francisco moment of a totally different nature came during a game in August of 2002. Barry Bonds hit his 600th homer that night. Julie S. and I were sitting in a good seat down the third-base line. A yo-yo sitting in the row on front of us, and slightly to the right, was constantly standing up and blocking my view of home plate. I could have stood up, too, but then I would have been obstructing the people behind me. It was very frustrating, and these two young guys beside me asked me if I could see. “Not at all,” I said glumly. They were peeved on my behalf. They shouted to the guy a polite request to please sit down, but he belligerently told them that he was going to do what he damned well pleased.

Their furious San Francisco response? “Well, that’s not very mature!!”

The next day, I ran the situation by my friend Carl – a Yankee fan and consummate New Yorker. I asked him what would have happened had a similar situation occurred at Yankee Stadium. His answer was that the scenario would have progressed thusly:

Man stands up and blocks people’s view.

Someone: “Down in front!”

Man does nothing.

Someone else: “Hey! Sit the f— down!”

Man does nothing.

A fight ensues and the man gets beat up.

***

The year after the ’89 earthquake, when many of my workmates and I were displaced from our damaged building, I somehow finagled a work situation in which I was allowed to edit manuscripts from home. (Remember, this was before the concept of telecommuting existed.) No one ever checked up on me, and I would steal away to Giants day games by myself at Candlestick. I was never caught, and in fact this is my first public confession of those crimes. (Honest as I was, though, I would always make up the hours and work late into the night after I got home.) I would walk two blocks to 19th Avenue and catch the 28 bus for its very circuitous route to Candlestick Park. (The bus schedule was dubious; I remember that one time the driver made us wait 20 minutes while he parked and bought something at a garage sale!) I shared the bus with five-foot-tall little old ladies from the Sunset, all of them wearing baseball caps adorned with pins marking some Giants event or another. They were hale and hearty and always undeterred by the Candlestick chill.

***

These days, I still go by myself go to all the Giants weekday afternoon games. I’m a loner, so that’s just fine with me. But sharing the games with others is so much better.

Last year, Mona treated me to a seat at the ballpark on Opening Day against the Dodgers. When Hunter Pence hit his grand slam, I believe I actually crawled up Mona’s arm. She paid me no mind. She also participated in one of my fantasy leagues last year, drafting an all-Latino team as her “strategy.” It was not a particularly successful strategy, but I wished I’d thought of it nevertheless.

***

Giants game, August 12, 2015_Mom, PaulaMy mother became a hardcore Giants fan in her later years, and I took her to a handful of games at AT&T Park, where she always insisted on having a glass of (bad) red wine with her crab sandwich on sourdough. She thought Brandon Crawford was a hunk. Those are some of my most beautiful memories.

During the 2012 playoffs, Mom was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, so we watched the Division Series together in her hospital room. When Buster Posey hit his grand slam against the Cincinnati Reds in game 5, we tried to maintain quiet and dignity so as not to disturb the other patients on the floor. Then we heard the whoops erupting from the other rooms and echoing along the hallways.

***

When the San Francisco Giants finally won the World Series in 2010, it was their first title since they’d arrived in the city in 1958. A lifelong fan, I wept for three days after that Series. My emotions partially sprang from the happiness I felt for the ragtag group of players who pulled off that improbable victory – especially for Andres Torres and Cody Ross, good-natured and grateful guys who had been put out to pasture until the Giants picked them up. But mostly I cried for the fulfillment of my 50 years of hope and longing.

Happy sailor kissing nurse in Times Square during impromptu VJ Day celebration following announcement of the Japanese surrender and the end of WWII.
August 14, 1945/Getty Images

That night Julie S. and I took the bus down to the Civic Center, where a celebration was brewing. All I could think of was the night the 49ers won their first Super Bowl in January of 1982. Cynthia and I had raced out of our 9th Avenue apartment into an exuberant crowd of celebrants. It was a spontaneous and delirious gathering. A young man – a stranger to both of us – suddenly swept Cynthia up in his arms and kissed her. We were all smiles; there was no harm or disrespect intended. The whole thing looked like that iconic World War II photo of the kissing strangers in Times Square – a sailor dipping a nurse and planting a joyful smooch on her when the news broke that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.

But the Civic Center in 2010 wasn’t like that. It was mostly a bunch of drunken college girls who may or may not have had any idea how the game of baseball is even played. We came home quickly, dejected. But the next day I was listening to Gary Radnich, one of my favorite Bay Area sports show hosts, on the radio. And he launched into a speech about how the lingering euphoria in the air was most decidedly not for the youngsters. It was not for the bandwagoners. It was not for the casual fan. It was, he said, for the battle-scarred veterans.

It was for the little old ladies with the pins in their caps. And frankly, it was for me, too.

***

People wax poetic about baseball all the time, and they often talk about the concept of renewal. Spring Training is a metaphor for that. It’s a way for the team to rebuild and refresh itself, and for the fans to revive their sense of optimism for the coming months. Everything starts all over again. I look at friendship that way. Sometimes it waxes and sometimes it wanes, but it can always be renewed. The ties, they bind.

The Giants take the field at AT&T Park in just a few hours for their 2017 home opener. The ticket prices were just ridiculous, so Mona and I decided to go to a sports bar instead and watch the game from there. It’ll be the two of us, then, throwing back some Boston Lagers and cheering our way through a 3-hour ballgame, tethered gently by 30 years of friendship and the beautiful, delicate filaments of memory.

2016_Giants game_Mona Alves, Paula

**********

For SF Giants fans, my latest Giants blog posts (most of which are dullsville) are at http://sportsspotlight.com/blog/author/paulabocciardi/

Begone, Marlins Man!

Begone, Marlins Man!

The World Series begins on Tuesday, and I for one cannot wait. For those of you who don’t follow sports very closely, it will involve two of the most storied teams in baseball: the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The Indians last won a World Series in 1948. But Chicago’s drought beats that dubious record by decades: the Cubs have not been to the Series in 71 years and have not won it since 1908. That’s a 108-year deprivation.

For me, though, this historic Series will be slightly marred by one thing. One guy, actually. His name is “Marlins Man.” And I loathe him.

I first became aware of Marlins Man last year, when he showed up at the All-Star game in July. He was constantly on camera because he sat right behind home plate, and he was wearing an orange Miami Marlins sweatshirt and an orange visor.

Then he became a fixture during the playoffs and World Series, always sitting behind home plate, always wearing the ubiquitous Marlins outfit. (Mind you, the Marlins were not in the postseason at all.) Of course, all of the other fans were wearing the colors of the two teams involved. But not Marlins Man. He really stood out. He was a blazing beacon in orange.

It amazed and intrigued me that one guy could somehow score a ticket – right behind home plate – to every playoff and World Series game. (Well, not every playoff game, obviously, because sometimes multiple games occur simultaneously and he had to choose one.) How can that even happen? It’s not that these tickets are easy to come by. And the chances of getting a coveted seat in a particular section on camera must be very, very slim.

So I did some research on the guy.

His name is Laurence Leavy, he’s 60 years old, and he owns a big law firm in Miami. And it’s not just baseball games he attends. He’s also inhabited choice seats at the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, etc.

So how does Mr. Leavy score the tickets? Generally he gets them off of StubHub – a site on which season-ticket holders sell their unused tickets. He apparently has no problem getting them because, as he boasts, “people will sell them for good money.” He says the price he’s able to offer is equivalent to an entire year’s worth of seats. So we’re obviously talking YUUUUGE bucks.

I use StubHub myself. That’s where I buy my tickets to all of the Giants weekday afternoon games. I set myself a price limit of $20-$40, and I sit in the highest-level seats, in sections 312–314 because they’re near the escalator and Tony’s Slicehouse Pizza, which also happens to sell Sierra Nevada beer. Nirvana.

Marlins Man, obviously, is in a far different league. He’s unbelievably wealthy. During the 2003 World Series, he apparently bought an entire section of seats and brought 104 people to sit with him. There was nothing wrong with that, of course; the Marlins were actually in the Series that year, and I am not one to unilaterally demonize the rich. He did a generous thing, and wealth in the hands of good people can do immense good.

Why, then, does Marlins Man bother me so much? I’ve asked myself that question many times.

marlins-man-cbs-sports-2
That stupid visor

First of all, I hate that he wears the same outfit to every game he attends. The same orange Marlins sweatshirt, no matter the weather, the event, or the location. And I hate that he wears a visor, for cryin’ out loud. Why not wear a baseball cap, as everyone else does? Visors are for accountants, bookies, blackjack dealers, high-society Napa ladies, and golfers (not that there’s anything wrong with any of those people!). To make matters worse, he often wears the visor sideways, which really gripes my keister. It just looks ridiculous.

I hate, too, that he hardly ever watches the game. He’s either blathering to the fans around him or obsessed with his cell phone. Since he has no particular allegiance to either team involved, he doesn’t feel a burning need to focus on the game. In the ninth inning of Saturday night’s Cubs victory, for example, while the Chicago fans were at once nervous and weeping with joy, he was turned with his back to the camera, taking selfies. What a jerk.

I’m not the only one who takes issue with this guy. During last year’s World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets, the Royals were royally miffed that he was there. They tried to bribe him with World Series paraphernalia if he would just jettison the *&^%$#@ orange sweatshirt. And they even offered to move him to a private suite. But he refused. After all, he’d paid $8,000 for his ticket. And he certainly was well within his rights to wear what he wanted and sit where he wanted. But still, it was almost a deliberate attempt to flaunt his power and show up the Royals fans. What a putz.

He also got into a beef with some Indians fans once, so this upcoming World Series should be interesting. After the incident (which is too unclear to recount), he actually engaged in a Twitter storm with Indians fans and somehow ended up tweeting something about the “Japs.” Lovely. What a bully.

It bothers me, too, that he feels he has to have seats directly behind home plate. In my view, those seats should go to diehard loyal fans. Instead, Marlins Man admits that he wants those seats so that he will be on camera for the entire game. If he fit in with the crowd, and didn’t make such an effort to call attention to himself, no one would notice him.  But what a shameless publicity hog.

Of course, Marlin Man’s ability to get those seats also means that someone is willing to give them up. This is what really puzzles me. If I had a World Series ticket, and the Giants were playing, and I could be sitting a few feet behind Buster Posey, would I sell my ticket to this obnoxious dude from Florida? That hypothetical recently prompted a conversation between Julie and me. I asked her to imagine that she had such a ticket and that Marlins Man offered her money to give it up. How much dough would it take? I declared that for me, it would take half a million dollars. Julie said that she would sell out give up the ticket for $10,000. (I was aghast.)

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He’s on the phone, as usual.

Mostly, though, what bothers me about Marlins Man is that this one wealthy guy can have continuing access to the most coveted seats at the most significant sporting events in the country. There are people throughout this nation who would give their eye teeth to go to one of those games, but they can’t afford even the least expensive of regular-season games, which are now – like everything else – beyond the means of so many. The concept he represents is what most of us know to be true – that wealth equals power, and part of that power is the ability to have anything one wants and to wield control, however subtly, over the less wealthy in the process.

I’m sorry, dear readers, to have put this guy’s visage in your heads, because if you tune in to the World Series, he is going to haunt you. I guarantee that he will be at every World Series game starting Tuesday, sitting in his usual spot, and you will not be able to avoid his garish presence. I’ve been thinking about sticking a Post-It note on my TV screen over his vile head.

But keep in mind that you will be witnessing history. I cannot wait to watch these two great teams play for the greatest title in the greatest American sport. My heart lies with the Cubs, because of family and friends and that 108-year dry spell. But I will not be dismayed by a Cleveland victory if that happens. These are two honorable teams, each of them deserving.

And if your eyes should fall on Marlins Man, just avert them. This rich, orange, entitled, self-besotted, intimidating cretin of a media hog may lurk around for a little while longer. But come early November, when the contest is over, we will be rid of him. And what a relief that will be.

***

By the way, I would love to hear from my readers as to how much money they would be willing to take for a coveted ticket. Don’t limit this to the World Series. Imagine it’s a ticket to something you revere. It could be the Super Bowl, or the NBA finals, or Wimbledon. It could be front-row seats to see Streisand or Springsteen. Or a chance to ride with the Blue Angels. Just let me know how much lucre it would take for you to sell your soul!

My heart’s still here . . . .

My heart’s still here . . . .

 

I’ll never forget the night I was sound asleep in my San Francisco apartment when the phone rang and a friend of mine demanded that I leap out of bed and rush immediately to the Symphony.

I had just started work for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, at a job I thought would be temporary but, as it turned out, lasted 26 years and netted me a pension. We worked only until 4 p.m. in those early days (ah, the 80s!), and my new co-workers told me about their “tradition” of periodically heading out to the Cliff House bar after work to quaff a few on a Friday night. I happily agreed to go along, and that night they introduced me to the delightful but merciless beverage called the Long Island Iced Tea. This insidious assassin of a drink contains five different alcohols, with a little Coke thrown in for good measure. I certainly hadn’t been a teetotaler up to that point – far from it – but I had no idea what that drink was. The very first sip was absolutely delicious – it tastes, of course, like iced tea – so I downed a tall one and then ordered another, unaware that the copious amounts of hidden alcohol in that lovely amber cocktail could kill a horse. About halfway through the second one, I realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.

So I stopped drinking and left for home, probably on a bus, because I’m sure I wasn’t driving. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but of course the minute I got home I decided it was time for bed.

I was already slumbering soundly when my friend Kay called. She worked as a marketing person for the San Francisco Symphony and had two tickets for the Symphony that very same night. In about an hour. Insisting that I go with her, she wouldn’t take my protestations seriously. “Good God, Kay,” I groaned, “I’m already in bed! My contact lenses are being disinfected and I already have my retainer in! And I’m sure my hair by now is a rat’s nest. Plus I just drank the equivalent of four liters of alcohol and can’t feel my feet! Forget it.” But one of Kay’s gifts was the power of persuasion, and for some reason I acceded to her demands and dragged my sorry self wearily out of bed.

I hardly had time to get dressed, but I managed to pull on some nylons, the only dress I owned, the only shoes with heels I owned, and the only coat I owned, which was a London Fog raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thought I should try to look elegant.

Mind you, I was not a Symphony type of gal. In addition to rock and roll, I definitely loved Big Band and the great American crooners. But to a great extent I’m a cultural philistine, and I keep my distance from the refined arts. So I had never been to the Symphony or the Opera and had intended to keep things that way. Still, I had heard a few classical pieces and thought to myself, “Well, some of that stuff can be rousing and might get my adrenaline going. How bad can this be?”

I’ll tell you how bad. What I didn’t know until the music started was that I was in for an evening of ancient chamber music, performed by a string quartet. Four people with violins on a stage. The best way I can describe the entire night is that it went like this:

Plink.

Plink.

Plink.

With an occasional:

Plunk.

Needless to say, it was neither rousing nor inspiring. It finally got to the point where, much to my amusement, I thought I heard the older gentleman next to me sawing logs. Then a loud snort came out of me and I realized, to my mortification, that I was the one who’d been snoring.

***

When Kay drove me home after the evening mercifully ended, I told her in no uncertain terms that she owed me BIG TIME. What I demanded in return was that she get us two tickets to see Tony Bennett when he appeared with the Symphony later that season. She thought I was joking. “Tony Bennett?? You’ve got to be kidding me. That old guy? What are you, a senior citizen?” But I would not back down. I loved the man, and she was going to take me to see him. She teased me about it for months and proclaimed my uncoolness to all of our friends, but I kept my resolve and won.

***

I had been a Tony Bennett fan for nearly my entire life. When we were kids, my mother kept a radio on top of the refrigerator, and it was on KABL night and day. Mom was first and foremost a Sinatra fan, but she certainly loved and appreciated all of the sophisticated adult (i.e., non-rock) music of the time. I absorbed all of it.

Sinatra, I thought, was an actor as much as a singer, and his style could practically conjure a feature film out of every song. Perhaps because of my age I wasn’t a fan of his woeful laments like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that he recorded when Ava Gardner was about to leave him. But I adored his big-band and swing tunes, Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra being an album I could listen to every day.

Tony Bennett, to me, was jazzier and less mercurial. He didn’t have Sinatra’s urban rakishness, but his voice was so good that flair was unnecessary. He could do ballads and he could do swing, with equal weight. He was never breezy. His voice had a hint of Italian huskiness to it, like a little bit of peppery seasoning on a tender filet.

Sinatra famously said Tony Bennett was “the best singer in the business.” Is there a greater endorsement?

***

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926. He studied music and painting in school but dropped out at the age of 16 because his family needed the financial help. During World War II he served on the front lines with the U.S. army infantry – an experience, by the way, that spurred him to become a lifelong pacifist. After the war, he decided to study singing and acting. Pearl Bailey discovered him in Greenwich Village, Bob Hope put him in his road show, and Columbia Records signed him in 1950. Lucky for us. Since then, he has sold more than 50 million records.

Tony’s life wasn’t without its problems. When music labels began demanding that singers record rock albums in the 1970s, he hated compromising his principles so much that he apparently would get sick before recording sessions. The rock records didn’t sell. His second marriage dissolved, his lack of business savvy brought him to near financial ruin, and he got involved with drugs. Fortunately, his son Danny helped him completely resurrect his career. He got Tony booked on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 and exposed him to a hip, younger crowd. The Unplugged album from that show won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Tony was hot again.

Tony Bennett is a gentle man, happy and grateful, with an artist’s sensibility and an abundance of class. He walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He’s an accomplished painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian. His paintings have been commissioned by the U.N. and he was named the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He is tirelessly involved with a host of charities. He and his wife founded Exploring the Arts (which promotes arts education) and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a high school dedicated to performing arts instruction. Right now he’s in the middle of a tour that runs at least through November and includes a show next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

On August 3, he turned 90 years old.

***

Most people don’t know that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written in 1953 by two gay World War II vets, George Cory and Douglass Cross. They lived in New York City after the war but strongly missed what George called “the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty [of San Francisco]. We never really took to New York.” They moved back to the Bay Area in the late sixties, and three years after Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 54, George took his own life. The coroner’s office reported that he was “despondent over failing health,” but I wonder about his broken heart.

After it was written, “I Left My Heart” languished until late 1961, when Tony was looking for a song to add to his repertoire while he was on tour. Not even realizing that the tune would be a hit, he sang it for the first time in December 1961 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where his tour culminated.  He recorded it in January 1962 and it was released as the “B” side to “Once Upon a Time.” The rest is history. It won the Grammy award for Record of the Year, and Tony won for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, his first Grammy.

San Francisco adopted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song in 1969. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

***

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On Friday, August 19, San Francisco organized a huge celebration for Tony by unveiling a statue of him in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The Giants game that night was dedicated to him as well. I had decided months ago to attend both events, and I was determined to follow through with the pledge, despite the fact that I was suffering from vertigo.

(Yes, I’ve been dealing with dizziness for about three months, on and off, and am not happy about it. It’s become clear that it has something to do with my ears – so I probably don’t have a brain tumor, which is always my initial assumption – and I’m going through the process of getting medical attention. But I’ve been living in a disoriented fog of dizziness, nausea, and general ennui on and off since May. It was so bad last week that I wasn’t able to work on my blog because I just couldn’t focus. I hated not posting something, but it also made me realize that there is no way I can come up with 52 good ideas a year anyway! So now I am reconciled to the fact that Monday Morning Rail won’t be published every single week. At least my misery has resulted in a revelation.)

Anyway, that Friday morning I found myself walking up Powell from Market Street towards the Fairmont. It may not have been the best choice of routes, because in that area Powell Street is so steep that you practically need climbing gear trying to summit it. I was huffing up the street at a pretty good clip, though, silently congratulating myself for being in such decent shape after not having exercised in many weeks because of the *&^%$# vertigo, when I looked to my left and a young woman and her three-year-old child went skittering past me up the hill like a couple of mountain goats.

I could probably write a 100,000-word love letter about San Francisco, and maybe I will someday. The subject, though, is probably much too broad and much too emotional for someone like me to adequately capture. I would undoubtedly lapse into clichés or drunken sentimentality. But let me just mention that the two hours I spent in front of the Fairmont were arresting. The fog, of course, was hanging over us, somewhat lightly, but enough to keep me cool in the almost constricting crowd. There were tourists, residents, babies, parents, old folks, and people of all colors. The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing melodiously and with grandeur. The San Francisco Chief of Protocol (I love that quaint designation) spoke, as did the mayor, and Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. Behind the blue birthday balloons – some of which were lurching and popping in the wind – the Fairmont’s procession of international flags lined its historic façade. I was thinking about the Fairmont and how it survived the 1906 earthquake, and how I loved the hotel’s tropically decorated Tonga Room and its thatch-covered floating stage and its exotic drinks, and how the Fairmont had been the site of our wedding reception and I had actually, truly, gasped when I first saw the view from the room. About then, a cable car stopped behind us and remained there for the ceremony, the conductor ringing its bells periodically with great spirit and joy.

View from Fairmont
The view from our reception room at the Fairmont, 2008

Three very elderly women were standing behind me, and I could tell that they were native San Franciscans – probably Italians. They spoke with a classic San Francisco accent, and yes, there definitely is such a thing among the old-timers. My cousin Jerry, who was born in San Francisco, used to speak with a combination of Boston and New York accents – an articulation cultivated specifically by the Irish and Italian Catholics who lived out in the Mission District. Sure enough, when one of the speakers joked that the world is divided into people who are Italian and people who want to be Italian, the ladies cheered. I knew it! Anyway, these women were about 4-1/2 feet tall at best, all dressed to the nines. And they had that unselfconscious way of speaking their mind and not caring who is in earshot – common to the elderly, I think. “The papers said this ceremony was going to be on the Fairmont lawn,” one of them declared loudly. “There’s no lawn at the Fairmont. What a bunch of crap!” She was right about that. When Dianne Feinstein came out to speak, one of them sucked in her breath at what she must have considered a fashion faux pas. “Oh, my,” she hissed, “can you believe she’s all in red?”

The sun finally broke through the fog, with its usual good timing. Tony Bennett walked out to much applause and his huge statue was unveiled, depicting him with his head thrown back and arms raised upwards, singing with great heart, as he always does. The real Tony choked up and told everyone, “You have been so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.” I felt embarrassed to be fighting back tears myself, but I stole a glance at the young man beside me and he was sobbing!

***

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That evening, Julie and I took the streetcar out to the ballpark for Tony Bennett Night. Tony didn’t sing, but he said a few words. The entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I had a crab sandwich on sourdough.

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After every Giants home victory, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is piped over the public address system at the ballpark. While most people file out of the stadium, I always stick around to listen to the song. For those three minutes, I relish not only the victory but my great fortune to have spent a lifetime loving both Tony Bennett and San Francisco.

That night, the Giants won 8-1.

***

You know, something else sticks with me about the day. Mayor Lee made a point of saying that while the city is facing new problems that need to be resolved soon, “we also need to celebrate what is right and what is great about San Francisco.” To me, everything about that day was right and great.