“Gabby” Street was an old-time catcher, manager, coach, and broadcaster who died the year I was born. I always assumed his nickname came from his talkativeness, but no, it came from his racist behavior. In his own words:
“We used to call the colored boys ‘Gabby’ down in Alabama, and when I wanted a new baseball thrown into the game I used to call, ‘Hey Gabby, where’s the baseball?’ . . . If you see a black boy and you want him, and you don’t know his name, you yell, ‘Hey, Gabby.’ It works in St. Louis, too, and if you don’t believe it, try it. To me all black boys have been ‘Gabby,’ and I got my nickname from the use of that word and not, as is commonly believed, because I am a chatterbox.”
I got this telling bit of information from the best book of social history I’ve read in some time, Martha Ackmann’s Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone: The First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Ackmann is a journalist and scholar who is on the faculty of the Gender Studies Department at Mount Holyoke College, teaching courses in women’s public writing, biography and Emily Dickinson; her previous book was The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. She’s also a lifelong baseball fan (she says in her acknowledgments that she’s “attended Boston Red Sox games for three decades”), and it shows; the book is suffused with the same love of the game that was the animating force in the life of its subject, Marcenia “Tomboy” (later “Toni”) Stone. But if it were just a well-written biography of a forgotten baseball pioneer, Curveball would be a specialized item for connoisseurs of women’s history and/or the Negro League. As it is, I recommend it to anyone interested in America’s difficult journey from the open, vicious racism of American before World War II to the subdued and hopefully fading racism of today, and the almost incredible courage and determination it took for a young woman obsessed with baseball but with the bad luck to be born in 1921 to fight not only the racism of society at large but the sexism of the sport she loved. Ackmann has a real gift for inserting background material seamlessly into her story, describing the (long vanished) Rondo neighborhood of Stone’s native St. Paul and the Fillmore district of San Francisco where she lived after she left home, explaining the workings of Negro League baseball in clear and affecting terms, and providing concise and illuminating footnotes on just about everything you might want added information on. She has miniessays on the effect of the war on the employment possibilities for blacks and women, the jazz scene of 1940s San Francisco, and much else. And the book is written in such a lively style that I would have devoured it more quickly if I hadn’t had to keep putting it down to get over the bitterness of reading about what she, and so many other people who just wanted to play a game and live their lives, had to deal with. I’m just glad Stone was able to enjoy some belated recognition before she died in 1996, and I’m very much looking forward to Ackmann’s next book, on Emily Dickinson.
(Thanks for the book, Sven and Leslie!)