August 2, 2014
Lexington-Hamline, Summit-University, Midway, Como
Athletes and sports have played a big part in Saint Paul history. In recent years much of the recognition has gone to those from Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Decades ago, however, several neighborhoods, especially the East Side and the Midway were well-known for their athletes and teams. One of the best baseball players to come out of any Saint Paul neighborhood is not who you think. It happened to be an African-American woman named Toni Stone. I knew a little about Toni Stone and her baseball legacy and I learned more with a stop at the stadium that bares her name.
Most sources credit Toni (given name Marcenia Lyle Stone) as the first woman to play in the Negro American League, with the Indianapolis Clowns, in 1953.(1) I found conflicting information while researching Toni Stone. Some of the confusion was intentional-to enhance Stone’s appeal to fans. For example, promoters claimed she was 10 years younger than her actual age and was paid much more than she truly made.(2) However, Toni’s given first name is spelled differently on two signs at the field baring her name. Compare the previous two pictures to see what I mean.
Toni was born in Saint Paul in 1921, seemingly on a baseball diamond. By the time she was 16, she was pitching for the men’s semipro Twin Cities Colored Giants. Other stops during her career were with the semipro San Francisco Sea Lions and New Orleans Creoles and the Negro American League’s Indianapolis Clowns and Kansas City Monarchs. After one season each with the Clowns and Monarchs, Toni Stone retired from the Negro Leagues after the 1954 season with a .243 batting average but continued to play amateur ball for many years.
Never having been inside Toni Stone Field and finding the gate locked, I felt it my duty to climb the fence next to the bleachers to gain access, not for me, but for you, the followers of my blog.
As you can imagine, Toni faced the same race-based adversity as male players in the Negro Leagues. But she also endured the hardships of being the only woman on the team, including being shunned by many teammates.
Toni Stone died in California on November 2, 1996 at the age of 75 but thanks to her groundbreaking success in baseball and this field, she’ll be remembered for years.
The Wilder Foundation headquarters is at the southwest corner Lexington Avenue and University. Wilder is a philanthropic organization started in 1906 by Saint Paul businessman Amherst H. Wilder to “relieve, aid and assist the poor, sick and needy people of the city of St. Paul.” (3)
In more than 100 years since its inception, the Foundation has provided many health and human services to Saint Paul residents, including some that weren’t available anywhere else in the City. Examples of the Wilder services from the first several decades of the 1900s are public health nurses and the Wilder Baths and Pool, which gave those with inadequate or nonexistent bathing facilities a place to clean up.(4)
The Wilder Center is linked to Saint Paul’s baseball history in that it sits on the spot of Lexington Park, home of the original Saint Paul Saints from 1897 through the 1956 season. (5) A brass marker commemorating Lexington Park sits on the spot of the stadium’s home plate (although I couldn’t find it.)
(6) The original Saints moved to Midway Stadium for 1957 and the ‘new’ Saints played the last game ever at Midway last August.
McMurray Athletic Fields are 32 acres of softball, soccer and football fields between Como Avenue on the north, Jessamine to the south and Lexington on the east. Como Avenue separates McMurray from the southern edge of Como Regional Park.
These athletic fields opened in 1927 and named two years later for William McMurray, an Irish-born tea merchant. McMurray was a benefactor of money to many good causes as well as the donor to the City of 25 acres of land along Battle Creek that became part of the park with the same name. (7)
I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence or not, but the Saint Paul office of the Animal Humane Society at 1115 Beulah Lane is next door to Animal Control.
As I rolled by, I met Faith Donovan, a Humane Society volunteer officially known as a “dog adoption support person,” who was walking a puppy named Lexi.
Faith explained reason for volunteering with the Humane Society this way, “In Duluth I have four dogs and I miss them a lot and I can’t have dogs where I’m living currently, so I come and volunteer at the Humane Society. That way I can get my dog fix and then go home.”
Faith added, “I just find that animals are really healing and very therapeutic and when you know you’re having a bad day, to just get to walk dogs and play with them, it’s just really relaxing.”
Faith mentioned that the Humane Society started a program for dogs who aren’t ready for adoption. “Walk Stars” go through rehabilitation for behaviors like guarding their food or a history of biting, so ultimately they can be adopted. She added, “…they started up this program so that they could reduce the amount of euthanization that they have to do.”
Beulah Lane is less than a block long. It runs into Como Avenue and Como Park. That’s where I came upon the obviously new sign for the park’s outdoor classroom.
I didn’t see any historical marker or other explanation about the fireplace or its significance. Not until I researched the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom did I discover the fascinating account of this monument.
In the 1930s, Saint Paul Parks Department officials proposed setting aside a small slice of woods in the southwest part of Como Park as an arboretum. Parks Superintendent William LaMont Kaufman designed the arboretum, with the stone fireplace and some gentle waterfalls as focal points. (8)
In 1935 the United States was still mired in the Great Depression-unemployment sat at just over 20%- so Kaufman sought and got funding from the Kilmer Post of the American Legion for the project. Men in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, began construction of the arboretum, including the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Fireplace, that same year. Less than a year later the arboretum and Joyce Kilmer Memorials were dedicated. Kilmer is best known for his poem “Trees”, which begins “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.”
The fireplace and waterfalls, called the Joyce Kilmer Cascade, were very popular and well-used for decades. By the 60s, however, the fireplace and surrounding arboretum became a nighttime hangout for ne’er do wells. Move ahead to the 80s and the Kilmer Cascades had been, for all practical purposes, destroyed by vandals and the arboretum overgrown. The fireplace also showed its age but not to the same extent.
In 2003 local volunteers pitched in to clean up the garbage and invasive species in the arboretum. Three years later planning began in earnest to formally restore the area, but it took until 2010 for the project to land funding. The fireplace rededication ceremony took place on May 19, 2011.
Also on Como Avenue, less than a block east, is the revitalized Como Pool. More a water park than traditional municipal pool, the lively and colorful Como Pool reopened in June 2012. (I would have enjoyed a swim today.)
From the Como Park Pool, I basically went around the McMurray Athletic Fields, continuing east on Como, south on Lexington, then back to Jessamine and west again.
Continuing west, Jessamine ends at Pascal Street where a large parking lot is filled with semi-trailers. Just down the street and around the corner on Brewster Street, there are two unique public charter schools. The first is the Metro Deaf School.
The Hmong College Prep School is next door at 1515 Brewster.
Around the corner, on the East Snelling Avenue frontage road, is the lot of semi-trailers and garages filled with school buses.
The ride-by of the West Snelling Frontage Road concluded the discoveries for the ride. The map of the entire journey is here:
1. Stew Thornley, SABR Baseball Biography Project http://sabr.org/bioproj/park/7a06f6cb
5. Stew Thornley, SABR Baseball Biography Project http://sabr.org/bioproj/park/7a06f6cb
(7) The Street Where You Live: A Guide to the Place Names of St. Paul, Donald Empson
(8) Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom website http://www.comowoodland.org/joyce-kilmer-memorial-fireplace.html
(9) Kilmer Fireplace Rededication booklet, Sharon Shinomiya, Deb Robinson and Katie Plese; Como Woodland Advisory Committee ©2011
(10) Saint Paul Pioneer Press; January 15, 1995