When it comes to the Negro Leagues, we mostly hear about how the association sprang up in response to Major League Baseball’s exclusion of Black players. We also hear about how Jackie Robinson’s departure to the MLB began a mass exodus of talent that ultimately led to the demise of the Negro Leagues as a whole. What we don’t hear, however, is how Black women were brought in to save the day.

Robinson played his first game as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947 and put the MLB on notice. As a result of his success, other teams followed Brooklyn’s blueprint and signed more Black players; leading to the collapse of the Negro National Team after the 1948 season. The Negro American League continued but struggled to put spectators in seats. Enter Syd Pollack, owner of the Indianapolis Clowns. After employing a number of promotional gimmicks, he signed Toni Stone in 1953. However, Stone was far more than a gate attraction. By the time she got to Indianapolis, the NAL had been reduced to just four teams and the second basewoman already had a few years of professional baseball under her belt. Born Marcenia Lyle Stone in West Virginia, she took on the name “Toni” while living and working in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. She had an affinity for the diamond at a very early age, and there are rumors that she would even skip school to play. Her parents sought help from the family’s priest, but he introduced Stone to the Claver Catholic Church boys’ baseball team in the Catholic Midget League — the equivalent to today’s Little League. Intrigued and looking for ways to become a better player, she took to reading rule books and watching St. Paul Saints manager Gabby Street’s baseball school.

Street later told EBONY Magazine that he couldn’t keep the precocious teen away. The game of softball was too slow for her, and by 16, she was being paid to play weekend games for the Twin City Colored Giants. She went on to star on two more semi-pro teams, the San Francisco Sea Lions and the New Orleans Creoles, before arriving in Indianapolis at the age of 32. Stone certainly drew a crowd while only playing in 50 of the Clowns’ 175 games during her time there. The box office responded well as she was featured prominently on team marketing materials. But with any pioneer comes tribulation. Several teammates were not too keen on sharing the dugout, or locker room, with a woman. Of course, she got the age-old sexist treatment; even being told once to play in a skirt to bring some sex appeal to the game. In addition to battling attempted sabotage from her own teammates, Stone often had to stay in brothels on the team’s road trips. Her contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs the following season – which ended up being her last. She batted an estimated .243 in her two seasons in the National American League.

Eager to strike while the iron was hot and with Stone starting to get sidelined by injuries, Pollack next signed pitcher Mamie Johnson. Much like Stone, the woman, affectionately nicknamed “Peanut” due to her small stature, spent time in church and semi-pro leagues before catching her big break with the Clowns. According to stories, Hank Baylis taunted Johnson from the batter’s box in her first game. “What makes you think you can strike a batter out? Why you aren’t any larger than a peanut?” Baylis allegedly sneered. One strike-out later and the name reportedly stuck. Born in South Carolina, the multisport athlete traveled to Washington at the age of 17 with a friend to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, not realizing the league never integrated. She and the friend left after being completely ignored. Enter the Clowns. Prior to leaving the team before the end of the 1955 season, the petite player compiled a 33-8 record as a pitcher and a .270 batting average over three seasons. Having earned a nursing degree from North Carolina A&T State University in the offseason, Johnson left the game to spend more time with her young son and worked in nursing for the next 30 years. She was the first female pitcher in professional baseball.

Unlike Stone, Johnson didn’t have to toil through her time in Indianapolis alone. After reading a newspaper article about the former, 19-year old Connie Morgan wrote to Pollack requesting a tryout. Fueled by Clowns manager Oscar Charleston’s glowing scouting report on Morgan, Pollack granted the tryout and signed her to play second base. She had already played five seasons for the North Philadelphia Honey Drippers – her hometown’s all-women team. She batted .368 while primarily playing catcher. After signing with the Clowns in 1954 and playing until 1955, she retired from baseball and returned to business school, completing her studies at William Penn Business Institute.

The three pioneers we have talked about faced a silent battle that many women in sports continue to fight to this day. While all three were phenomenal athletes, they were merely seen and used as commodities to save a flailing league. Pollack had already tried a number of corny tactics to sell tickets and saw having a woman on the roster as just another marketing technique. Johnson and Morgan were played at least once a game to get and keep spectator attention. There was never a major push to include women in the Negro Leagues as evidenced by the fact that there were only three female players. Black women were excluded by both race and gender with no place to truly showcase their talents. Although not adequately appreciated during their time, history has become kinder and more cognizant of their accomplishments, but there’s still room to grow. Stone was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1985 and has a city baseball field named after her in St. Paul. Morgan was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. Johnson was selected by the Washington Nationals when she and other players from the Negro league era were drafted by major league franchises prior to the 2008 MLB First-Year Draft. Some claim that Johnson was referenced in a scene in A League of Their Own when an actress in the stand threw a blistering ball to Geena Davis after a foul ball. If that’s true, it’s a slap in the face for her accomplishments to be diminished to a few seconds in a film.

Nevertheless, the impact of these three women is still present today. Mo’ne Davis was only 12 years old when she became the first girl to ever earn a win and pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series in 2014. Davis first met Johnson in 2012, and the two crossed paths a number of times in years after. “I would always remember everything she told me, [like], ‘Never throw it over the heart of the plate.’ So every time I pitch, that’s what I think about. She inspired me, and she’s one of the greats that I’ve modeled my pitching after,” said the star at the 2018 unveiling of a Negro Leagues mural that included Johnson. While the results may not always be tangible, the impact these women left on the generations after them will continue to manifest beyond the baseball diamond.