“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!)


  1. John Emerson says
  2. Yeah, she hated those publicity photos.

  3. mollymooly says

    In Ireland, “sambo” is short for “sandwich”. In the 80s, Antrim hurler Terence “Sambo” McNaughten became a minor cult hero: a bald, overweight man playing for a historically weak team enjoying a purple patch. I assumed his nickname came from his impressive gut; but no, he acquired it in a childhood incident in which his face had got covered in engine oil.

  4. Another good biography dealing in part with the inherent racism in society is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
    I have yet to read it, myself, but apparently noöne has yet heard a bad word about it. Skloot has been interviewed on numerous podcasts and she blogs intermittently on Scienceblogs.
    Hearing just how poorly the Lacks family was treated by ‘the scientific establishment’ is saddening.

  5. Reading the linked material on HeLa and HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), I came across examples of a plural formation that I’ve often wondered about – here it was “HPV’s” for “Human Papilloma Viruses”. An “apostrophe-s” is appended to acronymic or numeric “words” such as “70” for “seventy”, as in “in the seventies” [temperature, 1970’s]. Recently, when I have written “in the 70’s”, I used the apostrophe although it might expose me to a charge of being unlettered or careless.
    The thing is, “70s” could be taken to be an acronym, or the name of a cellphone model, and so momentarily halt the flow of reading. Also, there is for me a bit of a genitive feel to some uses, as in “in the 70’s” – although I can’t clearly identify my reasons for feeling that. But whatever in the past may have been practice or doctrine regarding the use of an apostrophe before the “s” in plural forms, I suspect that the enormous number of acronyms, model names etc. that riddle texts nowadays make it advisable to use ” ‘s “. To return to my original example, “HPVs” without an apostrophe might have seemed to be a subtype of “HPV”.
    What do other people think about this use of an apostrophe in the plural of an acronym ?

  6. I’d be cautious about that apostrophe, it’s clearly peeve-bait. It’s a good idea, though– in a peeve-free context, a disambiguating apostrophe would be a useful innovation.

  7. I use the apostrophe occasionally but leave it out when it seems OK. I’m getting used to not using it.

  8. I (following the Chicago Manual) use the apostrophe before, not after, the decade abbreviation: the ’70s. And I don’t use it with plurals unless they have interior punctuation: URLs, but M.A.’s (although I would write MAs).

  9. the decade abbreviation: the ’70s
    Sigh. How could I have forgotten that … Now I see where my idea came from that there is a genitive somewhere in there: the ’70s of the 19th century, i.e. “the 19th’s 70s”.

  10. Thus 1871 was the 19th’s 8th decade’s first year.

  11. mollymooly says

    I write “Masters” for the degree but “barber’s”, “baker’s”, “grocer’s” for the shops.

  12. Sigh. How could I have forgotten that … Now I see where my idea came from that there is a genitive somewhere in there: the ’70s of the 19th century, i.e. “the 19th’s 70s”.

    What? No. The apostrophe there is of omission, as in ’tis or it’s, when they’re both short for “it is”. Not a genitive. (Not a left open quote either, despite what Microsoft Word and many advertising agencies think.)

  13. I’d be cautious about that apostrophe, it’s clearly peeve-bait.
    I love the idea of listing your pet peeves in The British Journal of Anesthesia. You’d just have to take care you didn’t bore anyone to death.

  14. dearieme says

    “What do other people think about this use of an apostrophe in the plural of an acronym ?” I used to use it but by dint of sheer guts, grit, and can-do spirit, have largely vanquished the addiction.

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