“The curves won’t be all on the ball when pretty Jackie Mitchell … takes the mound” was just one of a slew of remarks in national newspapers ahead of the exhibition game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the mighty New York Yankees on April 1st, 1931. But the misogynist headlines were no April fools joke, and neither was 17 year old Jackie, as she took to the mound to pitch against two of the best hitters to ever swing a bat.Embed from Getty Images
Jackie Mitchell was born August 9th, 1913 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to Virne Wall Mitchell and Dr. Joseph Mitchell. Her father took her to the local baseball diamond as soon as she could walk, teaching her the basics of the game. Jackie had another baseball mentor in the form of future hall of fame pitcher Dazzy Vance. Vance was the Mitchell’s neighbour and, having pitched in the majors, helped Jackie to hone her skills and taught her to throw what would eventually become her most effective pitch, the “drop ball” (what would be known in today’s game as a sinker). Despite the support of her father and neighbour, her mother didn’t approve of her playing ball. “Now you may as well realise you are not going to play ball with those boys this afternoon,” Virne Mitchell told her daughter, according to a story in the Chattanooga Daily Times in 1933. “Well, all right,” Jackie said, “but they’ll be a man short if I don’t.” Jackie became a prolific ball player, with reports saying she was a “decent hitter and good with the glove.”
By the age of 17, Jackie had begun playing for a women’s baseball team in Chattanooga, known as the Engelettes and travelled with the team to a training camp in Atlanta, Georgia. During this time, Jackie’s skills drew the attention of the owner and president of the Chattanooga lookouts, Joe Engel. Jackie signed a professional contract, becoming only the second woman ever to do so; The first known female player was Lizzie Arlington who signed to play with the Reading Coal Heavers of the Atlantic League in 1898.
Many people use the fact that Engel was fond of theatrical, wacky publicity stunts to draw crowds to diminish Jackie’s prowess on the mound, saying that her mere presence in the game was a ploy to draw in a larger crowd. Engel, however, was prone to more outlandish and overt methods of promotion. Such as raffling off houses and cars, having the players ride onto the field atop elephants on opening day and even trading the team’s shortstop for a turkey that he then cooked and served to members of the press that had “been giving him the bird.”
The press were not giving grief to just Engel; Jackie was subject to many biased headlines from local and national news. One reporter wrote that she “has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick.” and the New York Daily News reported, “I suppose in the next town the Yankees enter they will find a female impersonator in left field, sword swallower at short and a trained seal behind the plate. Times in the South are not only tough but silly.” Whether Jackie took these headlines to heart is unknown, but it is clear that she did not let them affect her performance. She even had some fun of her own with the press when she was warming up by taking out a mirror and checking her makeup before her most famous appearance as a Lookout.Embed from Getty Images
That most famous appearance would be when the Lookouts took to the field in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, a match-up that made plenty of news of its own. In amongst the theatrics and headlines stood a 17-year-old girl, ready to take on the world’s best sluggers. She proved she was far from another one of the owners’ sideshows.
The Lookouts and their new pitching heroine were slated to take on the mighty Yankees on April 1st 1931, but a rain delay pushed back the first pitch to the following day. A sellout crowd of 4000 people were in attendance on the day. The game began with starting pitcher Clyde Barfoot on the mound, but he was quickly pulled after giving up a double and a single early in the first inning, making way for the femme phenom. A line in the Washington Post read “without so much as powdering her nose or seeing if her lipstick was on straight, Jackie strode to the mound.”
To fully understand the gravity of Jackie’s situation, it is important to break down just who she would be facing, the infamous Murderers Row. The top 6 of the Yankees’ batting order were nicknamed after a section of the old Tombs jailhouse in New York City that housed those awaiting trial for murder. Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri were afforded their iconic moniker due to the damage they could do to an opponent’s pitching staff. Arguably the most well known (to the baseball novices at least) is the Bambino himself, George Herman “Babe” Ruth.Embed from Getty Images
Babe Ruth began his career as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, but in an attempt to get more regular playing time, Ruth made the switch from the mound to the outfield. The Red Sox allowed the switch and earned themselves a World Series title as a result, after which Ruth was sold to the Yankees and began Boston’s long wait for another title. Meanwhile, Ruth went from strength to strength with the Yankees and etched his name on baseball history, becoming a member of the first inducted class to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Amongst all the accolades and records set, Ruth became a very confident man, famously so; When asked how he felt about making more money than the president at the time, Ruth responded, “why not? I had a better year than he did.” Humour was not lost on Ruth, and neither were the regular press meetings that come with being a professional ball player. When asked about his upcoming game against the Lookouts and facing their teenage celebrity, Ruth said, “The newspaper men say that there’s a girl in Chattanooga that’s been pitching for them there. They’ve asked me what I thought of that, I told them I don’t know what’s gonna happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course they will never make good. Why? Because they’re too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.” Jackie set out to prove Ruth, and all her doubters, wrong. Jackie stood on the mound, ready to take her place in history.
Engel originally planned for Jackie to pitch every time Ruth came to bat, but due to a sore arm that Jackie had been recovering from for the previous few days, the plan changed. She was going to face to Ruth in the first inning and stay in the game as long as she could. Mitchell pitched her first pitch, a side arm delivery that fell outside of the strike zone for a called ball. A curveball followed, and Ruth swung for the fences aiming to drive for a home run. He missed. Jackie threw another breaking ball, Ruth swung on and missed again. Ruth then asked for the home plate umpire to inspect the ball, which the umpire found to be free of any illegal substances that would help its break/change of direction. The ball was put back in play, and the game could continue. Jackie then decided to run the gauntlet against the Sultan of Swat and threw him a fastball right down the middle of the plate, a bread and butter pitch for Ruth that he would regularly send into orbit. But Ruth was not expecting the pitch, and it sailed over the plate as he watched, the Great Bambino was called out on strikes. He was incensed. He threw his bat to the ground, glared at the umpire and stomped his way over to the Yankees bench.
Up next was the equally legendary Yankee, Lou Gehrig. A player that would go on to bat with a .341 batting average and hit as many home runs as his legendary predecessor in the lineup for that season.Embed from Getty Images
Henry Louis Gehrig (born Heinrich Ludwig Gehrig) played his entire baseball career, from childhood to the major leagues, for teams based in New York City (barring parts of two seasons in the minor leagues, for the Hartford Senators in Hartford, Connecticut). Unlike Ruth, Gehrig was not known for his position play. He opted to play first base, a position often taken up by power hitters with a weaker fielding ability. But make no mistake, Gehrig was a great baseball player, with many scouts dubbing him “the next Babe Ruth.”
Gehrig enjoyed an illustrious career with the Yankees, Winning six world series titles, was a member of the All Star team seven times and was three times the leader in home runs in the American League. Gehrig also holds a relatively unique accolade from a game on June 3rd 1932 by becoming only the third player in professional baseball history to hit four home runs in a single game (the list of players to equal this achievement has since expanded to 18).
Much like Ruth, Gehrig was known by an interesting nickname. On June 1st, 1925, Lou stepped onto the field as a pinch hitter, beginning what would become the longest streak of consecutive games played, at 2,130, earning him the nickname of “The Iron Horse.” The record stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it in 1995.
Gehrig was, without a doubt, an incredible hitter and an amazing ball player. However, in his at-bat against Jackie Mitchell, Lou would swing and miss on three straight breaking balls. It was reported in the Baltimore Sun that “Lou could hear Jackie’s girlfriends squealing delightedly.”Embed from Getty Images
The sore arm caught up with Mitchell in the end, and after walking the next batter, Tony Lazzeri, she was pulled from the game. Her time on the mound ended. As she departed, Jackie was met with rapturous applause and cheers, after having struck out two of the greatest players in baseball history. The New York Times headline read, “Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig” later adding, “the prospect grows gloomier and gloomier for misogynists.” Afterwards the reporters snubbed Mitchell, instead flocking to Babe Ruth for comment. Another New York Times writer argued that “Ruth performed his role very ably by striking out. While Gehrig took three empty swings as his contribution to the occasion.” Ruth and Gehrig themselves never confessed to purposely botching their plate appearances, and Yankees pitcher “Lefty” Gomez further quashed the rumour by saying that manager Joe McCarthy would never instruct a Yankee to purposefully strikeout. Lazzeri went as far as to say that, had the pitches he faced been called strikes, he would have swung for a hit.
As a result of Jackie’s part in the game against the Yankees, alongside the publicity it drummed up, it is rumoured that the acting commissioner of Major League Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, voided Jackie’s contract and declared women unfit to play professional baseball due to the game being “too strenuous”. The validity of the claims of the commissioner’s actions is up for debate, but what is known is that the president overseeing the minor leagues was not happy about the event. He described the event as a “lamentable burlesquing of the nation’s favourite sport. Like a greased pig contest or a hotdog eating competition.” Jackie had to find somewhere else to play professionally, which was hard work to find for a woman in the 30’s.
For a while, Mitchell returned to playing for the Englettes before signing for a “barnstorming” baseball club in 1933, The House of David in Benton Harbour, Michigan. Barnstorming was the combination of sports and showmanship Teams travelled from town to town playing baseball sporting their own gimmick. “There were teams of fat men, teams of one-legged men, blind teams, all brother teams, teams that performed tricks and teams that rode animals onto the field.” The House of David was a religious society that needed a recreational outlet. This led to them forming a barnstorming baseball team to help spread the word of their group. The team garnered attention partly due to their decent ability within the game as well as their extremely long hair and beards. After the breakup of the religious side of the team, the baseball playing aspect of the team continued. At the age of 19 Jackie signed with the team and took home a cool $1000 a month (more than $21,000 in today’s money). Jackie travelled the country with the House of David, even playing a game against the St Louis Cardinals, which they won 8-6. Jackie had become something of a celebrity since her days playing against the best in the world. Reportedly, she had fan letters arriving to her house addressed “To the Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth.”
Despite the hefty payday, the showman nature of barnstorming took its toll on Jackie’s patience. After playing multiple games in a fake beard to match the rest of the team, she had finally had enough when she was asked to pitch a game while sitting atop a donkey. Jackie retired from professional baseball in 1937 at the age of 23 and returned to Chattanooga to work in her father’s optometry office, living out the rest of her life in quiet anonymity. Major League Baseball officially banned female players in 1952, a ban which stood until 1992 when the Chicago White Sox drafted Carey Schueler ahead of the 1993 season.
The city of Chattanooga never forgot about their ball-hurling heroine, with the lookouts inviting Jackie to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of their 1982 season. In 1985 she was invited by the Atlanta Braves to join the team in the dugout; she got the chance to meet her favourite players, with one of them reportedly asking if they could have the honour of kissing the cheek of the woman who struck out Babe Ruth. Jackie Mitchell died in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, on January 7, 1987; she is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Chattanooga.
People still debate the legitimacy of Jackie’s strikeouts against Ruth and Gherig. Many think a young woman would not have the skill to do so against two of the all-time greats. However, Ruth led the league for five years in strikeouts and Jackie’s unusual pitching style and off-speed pitch would have given the pitcher a huge advantage against the men. Previous comments from Yankees players Lefty Gomez and Tony Lazzeri further fuel the argument that the strikeouts were legitimate. When her teammates were asked about Jackie’s ability, catcher Eddie Kenna said, “I was impressed with Jackie’s skills. She was twice as good as I’d imagined. Her signing with the Lookouts certainly wasn’t a joke as some people think.”
Jackie is quoted as saying that the only instruction the Yankees received was “to try to avoid lining the ball straight back at her.”
In amongst all the headlines and rumours surrounding her story, stood a woman facing two of the greatest the game would ever see. And when others doubted her, Jackie never doubted her own ability; “Why, hell, they were trying. Damn right. Better hitters than them couldn’t hit me, why should they have been any different?” Jackie said when asked about the legitimacy of the strikeouts. We will never know for certain how hard Ruth and Gherig were trying against Mitchell. However, we do know that by its very nature that baseball is a game where anybody can beat anybody on any given day. It is because of this that baseball is everybody’s game, and it certainly was Jackie Mitchell’s game to play. After all, they’d have been a man short if she did not.