Toni Palermo (

Toni Palermo

This article was written by Mary Shea

Toni Palermo ( though her nickname was “Peanuts” in view of her small physical stature, there are two words that would better define Toni Ann Palermo throughout her life – fearless and accomplished.

Born in Forest Park, Illinois, on February 15, 1933, she was named Antoinette Palermo when she was adopted along with her sister Mary Ann. Toni’s father, Alfredo Samuele, or Fred, was a salesman and had worked for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). Her mother, Elvira (née Suglia), was a seamstress and homemaker. Both were from Palazzo San Gervasio, Italy; only Italian was spoken in the home.

Toni Palermo honed her baseball skills at an early age growing up in Forest Park, mostly playing ball with the boys in her neighborhood. She considered it a good place for girls to be involved in sports – they were not held back. The family did not have a lot of money, but she recalled that her parents were able to buy her a bike so she could ride around and hang out with her baseball pals.

When Palermo was nine, she was invited to play with a boys’ team by the coach. By age 11, she was playing for the Parichy Bloomer Girls, a professional softball team in Forest Park. She was already being scouted by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, or AAGPBL, which was launched in 1943. She was even asked to travel to Cuba for spring training with the professional women’s league in 1947 but decided against it.

On June 2, 1946, Palermo was dealt a tremendous challenge – the loss of her mother. Her father would eventually remarry, and she would acquire six other siblings, along with a challenging relationship with her new stepmother.

At age 14, Palermo was asked to join training with the AAGPBL in South Bend, Indiana. She fearlessly navigated all the travel on her own, as she had not really asked for permission from her family to make the trip. It was there that she signed a contract with the league, and she was able to send money back home during her playing days. She also had the opportunity to play at historic Wrigley Field.

In 1949, Palermo was recruited to play for the Chicago Colleens, one of the league’s travel teams. The following year, she played for the Colleens and then joined its other travel team, the Springfield Sallies. She was too young to play for the regular league, as were many of the other young women she played with. These two teams were developed for public relations and promotion of the league; they barnstormed through 33 states, including pregame exhibition games at three other legendary ballparks: Yankee Stadium, Griffith Stadium, and Ebbets Field.

Palermo, at about 5-feet-2-inches and 100 pounds, was always a fast, slick-fielding shortstop with a strong arm. Usually a traditional leadoff hitter, she was almost always expected to go from first to third if she was on base, which was often. She also was one of the stolen base leaders and was never afraid of sliding into a base and getting a “strawberry,” a large painful bruise often suffered from sliding in a dress, which was the AAGPBL uniform. The grounds crews often used a caustic lye compound to mark the lines on the field, making the wounds worse. She was told she was a smart player for her young age, and she always hustled. One of her coaches was Max Carey, a Hall of Famer who blazed around the basepaths himself. He taught her how to turn double plays and field grounders aggressively, not “letting the ball play you.”

By this point, the AAGPBL had transitioned from softball, with some baseball rules, to baseball, with overhand pitching and a 10-inch ball, close to the 9-inch traditional baseball. The bases were 72 feet apart, with 55 feet separating the pitching rubber from home plate. The league had abandoned the mandatory charm school attendance, but there were still some rules, and the players still had to play like men, but in dresses.

Palermo recalled memories of mostly traveling on buses with no air conditioning. The travel was hectic, and there was little time to sleep with all the time devoted to riding the buses, practicing, and playing the actual games. They would take turns sleeping, using each other’s laps as pillows. But she remembered good fans and large crowds attending the games. A downside was the racism, both in the league, as Black women were not allowed to play, and outside of the games, especially evident in the Jim Crow south. She was raised by her family to have respect for all, so this was especially disturbing to her.

A highlight of Palermo’s career was a short exhibition game played on August 11, 1950, at Yankee Stadium between the Colleens and the Sallies, preceding the major league contest between the Philadelphia A’s and the Yankees that day. The players found themselves sharing the dugout with some of the Yankees greats from that era. The following is from a SABR Baseball Research Journal article about this historic game, written by Tim Wiles:

“Toni Palermo played shortstop, recalling that Phil Rizzuto loaned her his glove—and she used it in the game. She also could not recall game details, but noted, ‘I just know that I really enjoyed it, that I had his glove and I felt like a star out there. I was a confident player. I wanted every ball hit to me, no matter what the situation, and with his glove, I felt even more powerful.’ Palermo also recalled Casey Stengel working with her on double plays before the game, teaching her to time the approaching ball, get it on the hop she wanted, and to just kick the corner of the bag. ‘And it made a difference,’ she recalled.”1

Palermo returned for a stint with the Parichy Bloomer Girls and played briefly for other professional and semiprofessional softball teams, while also graduating from Proviso Township High School in 1951.

While still a teenager, she experienced a calling to become a nun, joining the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “God has had his hand guiding me on this journey since day one. If anyone should have never entered the convent, it was yours truly,” joked Sr. Toni Ann. “When we were on tour, my roommate was a staunch Catholic and she would say, ‘Toni, get up, we’re going to Mass’ … most of the time I had to get up because she was forceful.” She would give up playing the game she loved, thinking that if she kept playing, she would never fulfill her commitment to enter St. Joseph’s convent. Meanwhile, the AAGPBL would wind down and play its last season in 1954.

As with most barnstorming teams and leagues outside of the major leagues, there are not a lot of statistics available. But anecdotally, it is clear that Palermo was a promising young player. Her brief but successful playing career occurred at such a young age that it prompts speculation as to what she could have accomplished if she had continued to play into her 20s, what most likely would have been her prime.

However, she did not give up playing sports—she displayed her athletic ability and excelled playing softball and somewhat competitive tennis, playing in and winning national tournaments, sometimes against former pros. She even became an accomplished dancer and choreographer, which she thought was very similar to playing ball. She said, “You have to play with a rhythm.”

Sr. Toni Palermo devoted her adult life to her own education, teaching at all levels, and continually helping those in need. She earned an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in English, history, and math from Alverno College in Milwaukee, then taught grade school and high school for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. In 1970, she attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison, eventually earning three master’s degrees in psychiatric social work, kinesiology, and physical education and educational policy. She also completed an interdisciplinary doctorate in counseling, adult education, administration, supervision, educational policy studies, and communication arts.

She taught courses in the physical education department and School of Social Work at UW – Madison, and during her time there, she had the opportunity to have a radar gun clock her throws, which came in at over 80 mph. For decades, she was an ardent supporter of Wisconsin Badgers women’s sports, including softball, basketball, volleyball, and hockey, often attending the games. Spending most of her life in Wisconsin, she would become a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers.

For many years, Sr. Toni was a lost player of the AAGPBL Players Association, because she had assumed a customary alternate religious name, Sr. Mary Concetta. In a remarkable twist of fate, she ran into another former player, Mary Froning O’Meara, at her church. After they realized they had both played for the league, Sr. Toni was reconnected to the organization. She became a great advocate of girls and women in sports, including baseball, and served as the Vice President of the AAGPBL Players Association. The league has continued its mission to preserve its history and support girls and women in baseball. Sr. Toni has been honored for her accomplishments in sports, education, and ministry with several organizations. She was even a contestant on the ABC show, “To Tell the Truth,” in 2019.

How did she do it all? She credited baseball, saying, “Baseball taught me discipline and how to be coachable. In life, we have to be coachable. We really have so much pride and can’t take any suggestions and just don’t grow. In every sport I’ve been in, you have to be coachable. That’s truly how our lives go.”2

Sr. Toni battled illness for several years, until passing away on April 5, 2024, always maintaining her positive attitude. She continued to inspire all those who were lucky enough to meet her, especially the girls and women playing her favorite sport.



Special thanks to Sr. Toni Palermo for her memories and initial fact-checking. This biography was adapted from Mary Shea’s article for the March 2024 newsletter of SABR’s Ken Keltner Badger State Chapter. This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Natalie Montanez and fact-checked by Paul Proia. I am very grateful for their help.



Along with the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted:

All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Website:

Palermo, Toni. Grand Valley State University Digital Collections (Interview Transcript and Video, September 26, 2009.

Sr. Toni Palermo. Personal Interviews, 2014-2024.

Photo credit:



1 Tim Wiles, “We Were the Only Girls to Play at Yankee Stadium,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2023.

2 “Sister, Doctor, Baseball Star,” The Catholic Herald, November 3, 2016 (

Full Name

Toni Ann Palermo


February 15, 1933 at Forest Park, IL (USA)


April 5, 2024 at Fitchburg, WI (USA)

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