MILWAUKEE — Although baseball season is over, the faithful gathered at Miller Park’s Gehl Club the evening of Oct. 27 to honor Sr. Toni Ann “Peanuts” Palermo, a School Sister of St. Francis, for the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee’s Values in Action award ceremony.
Also honored at the event was Major League Baseball Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig and Fr. Jerry Herda, pastor of St. Monica and St. Eugene parishes, who took a ride down Bernie Brewer’s slide after he received the most contributions in his name for the “Give for the Glide” donation derby.
“Part of our thinking was to honor her (Sr. Toni Ann) for her long career as a vowed woman religious living out the charism of the School Sisters of St. Francis through her various teaching assignments,” said Tom Heinen, executive director for the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. “Part of it was to honor her for her work with the poor and for her work supporting and empowering women.”
Born in in Forest Park, Illinois, Sr. Toni Ann began playing professional softball with the Parichy Bloomer Girls at age 11. One year later, she was invited to spring training in Cuba with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), and at 14 was asked to go on tour with the AAGPBL from 1949 to 1950, playing shortstop for the Chicago Colleens and the Springfield Sallies, respectively.
In 1982, she was inducted into the National Women’s Baseball Hall of Fame and was honored at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
“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.”
Sr. Toni Ann attributes her Sunday morning fatigue to the rigorous schedule she followed while on tour with the league.
When comparing her experience in the AAGPBL to the film, “A League of Their Own,” based on the AAGPBL, Sr. Toni Ann notes Hollywood’s use of dramatic liberty.
“We were much better players than what was portrayed in the movie; we were skilled. We would not have been in the condition of Rosie O’Donnell (Doris Murphy in the film),” she said. “But the movie was important because it brought attention to the league that nobody knew anything about.”
Prior to entering the convent in 1954, Sr. Toni Ann was invited to play for the South Bend (Indiana) Blue Sox, the reigning league champions. She had gone to spring training in Indiana, but had committed to going to the convent in September of that year because she felt another calling to serve God.
“While I was there (Indiana), all of sudden I thought, ‘Oh God, if I stay I will not enter the convent in September,’” said Sr. Toni Ann. “I struggled because I loved baseball so much; I ate, drank and slept baseball. Now what was I going to do?”
Upon joining the School Sisters of St. Francis, Sr. Toni Ann was tutored in the fundamentals of Catholicism, because she never received a formal religious education and her mother, who was Catholic, died when the future nun was 11 years old.
“When I grew up, I really did not know the faith and so when I entered the convent they did testing on the dogma and one of the things they asked was to list all the holy days of obligation and I looked at it and thought they meant the holidays,” said Sr. Toni Ann. “All the things one would know, I wasn’t exposed to.”
Sr. Toni Ann earned a bachelor’s degree in English, history and math from Alverno College. From 1956 to 1970, she taught elementary school and high school theology in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.
In 1970, she began studies at UW-Madison and received three master’s degrees in psychiatric social work, kinesiology and physical education and educational policy.
She also earned an interdisciplinary doctorate from UW-Madison, which incorporates six program areas: counseling, adult education, administration, supervision, educational policy studies, and communication arts.
“I’ve always considered people to be multifaceted; we do more than just one thing,” said Sr. Toni Ann. “My professor at Madison encouraged me to pursue an interdisciplinary doctorate because he felt I could help more people.”
Today she tutors children in reading, math and phonics in Madison. She is also a psychotherapist and a licensed electrologist, removing unwanted facial hair for women.
“I consider electrolysis to be a therapeutic ministry; I can be a source of healing for them,” said Sr. Toni Ann. “It helps them to feel better about themselves. A lot of the women come in with their heads hanging down because they feel ashamed. I bought a lady a pair of red earrings after I was done treating her because she wanted to show everyone her face.”
She also helps people with a troubled past find new jobs, housing and to manage their money.
“Every one of us can do so much more; most of the people I meet are tired all the time,” said Sr. Toni Ann. “I think they’re tired because they’re not energized; they’re not out there helping people because when you help people you really do get energized. What can I do? What haven’t I done, in a small way, to get involved?”
She hopes her life and service can be a source of inspiration for young women in the church.
“There’s nothing like youth and the energy that they can bring; they need to see the needs that are around them. They could be small, but become involved and connect with the church, give 100 percent of your freedom to God,” she said. “We’re not born here just to sit and do nothing, and you have to keep doing something that is going to bring life to one another.”
She also credits her time playing baseball as a strong influence on her ministry.
“Baseball taught me discipline and how to be coachable,” she said. “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.”