Barrier Breakers in Sports

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

You still have the opportunity to watch Toni Stone from the comfort of your home. Those who have purchased tickets to Toni Stone will receive an email with access to the recording. If you missed your chance to purchase tickets, visit bit.ly/ACTStreaming to see our video streaming options, available for a limited time.

Toni Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball with men. Her contributions to the sports industry were supported by many who broke barriers before her, just as she paved the way for those who came after. Here we note some outstanding athletes whose dedication and perseverance overcame prejudice. Their efforts on and off the field continue to create a fairer and more diverse sporting community.

Baseball player Toni Stone, the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Tidye Pickett
Home: Chicago, Illinois
Born: November 3, 1914
Known For: First Black American woman to compete in the Olympics
It was not until 1928 that white women were permitted to compete in track and field events in the Olympics. Women of color were forced to wait even longer. Both Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes qualified for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but they were pulled from their races and replaced by white runners with slower qualifying times. Athletic excellence and persistence over prejudice won out, and both women competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Jackie Robinson
Home: Cairo, Georgia
Born: January 31, 1919
Known For: First Black American to play Major League Baseball (in the modern baseball era)

Jackie Robinson was the first UCLA athlete to letter in four sports, but due to financial demands, he left college before graduating and enlisted in the US Army. After being honorably discharged, Robinson began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. He was identified by the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, who was interested in integrating the league, and was drafted for the Dodgers’ minor league farm team. Robinson played just one season on the Montreal Royals before he was moved up to the Major Leagues. Like Toni Stone, he played second base. Despite enduring persistent heckling during games and threats off the field, Jackie Robinson won Rookie of the Year and went on to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player award two years later.

Jackie Robinson.

Racine Belles
Home: Racine, Wisconsin
Established: May 17, 1943
Known For: First World Champions of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL)
During World War II, Major League team owners created women’s teams because male baseball players were being drafted into the military, and the owners worried that they would have too few players to field teams and draw in fans. The trailblazing Racine Belles, as well as the other three teams that made up the AAGPBL, faced continued sexism throughout their professional careers. Despite the fact that they were playing by Major League rules, they were nearly deprived of their right to call themselves baseball players in favor of the term “softball.” Their uniforms were short, flared dresses with shorts underneath, which were not conducive to sliding or squatting. Each player received a beauty kit they were expected to use. They were also required to attend evening charm school classes. None of the trustees who determined the rules or created the league were women.

The 1944 Racine Belles. Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

Renée Richards
Home: New York City, New York
Born: August 19, 1934
Known For: First transgender player accepted into a professional sports league
Renée Richards had a notable tennis career long before she broke a barrier for trans athletes. In 1953, she played in the US men’s nationals. After completing her transition, Richards entered the 1976 US Women’s Open but was denied entry when the US Tennis Association required a chromosome test for women entries for the first time in history. She refused to take the test and sued the USTA for discrimination. Richards won her case and competed in the 1977 US Open, making it to the final round in doubles.

Sheryl Swoopes
Home: Brownfield, Texas
Born: March 25, 1971
Known For: First signed professional female basketball player

Sheryl Swoopes’s basketball career took off in college when she won the National Player of the Year award in 1993 in winning the NCAA Championship with the Texas Tech Lady Raiders. When the Women’s National Basketball Association formed in 1996, Swoopes was the first player signed to the Houston Comets. In 2005, Swoopes also became the first professional basketball player to come out as gay. She has won every individual and team achievement she qualified for in college, professional, and international play, including three Olympic gold medals, four WNBA titles, and three Most Valuable Player awards. She is also the first woman basketball player to have Nikes named after her: the Air Swoopes.

Sheryl Swoopes.

Jason Collins
Home: Northridge, California
Born: December 2, 1978
Known For: First openly gay male player in any of the four major American sports
Jason Collins was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in 2001 and played center for six different teams. It was not until 12 years into his NBA career, when he was a free agent and unattached to any team, that Collins felt comfortable enough to come out. He wrote a story for Sports Illustrated coming out as the first openly gay male athlete in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Collins is an advocate for gay rights politically and within sports, choosing to wear jersey number 98 in remembrance of the year that Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, Wyoming, for being gay.

Jim Abbott
Home: Flint, Michigan
Born: September 19, 1967
Known For: Notable physically disabled player in MLB

Despite being born without a right hand, Jim Abbott pitched his first no-hitter in Little League at the age of 11. His athletic prowess won him a Major League offer in high school, but he turned it down, doubting his ability. Abbott silenced both the doubts and his critics by winning an Olympic gold medal before he began his professional baseball career with the Angels in 1989. Abbott regularly volunteered for organizations that support children with disabilities, though he was met with criticism from teammates and team owners for not focusing enough on the game. He pitched one of the 302 no-hitter games in MLB history.

Jim Abbott.

This article originated in Roundabout Theatre Company’s UPSTAGE guide, produced for the world-premiere production of Toni Stone in 2019. We are grateful to Roundabout’s marketing and education teams for their great work and generosity. It is also excerpted from the Toni Stone edition of Words on Plays. Want to read more? Order your copy here.

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