Jackie Mitchell, the girl who took on Ruth, Gehrig and the world of baseball

It’s National Library Week and I’m feeling the nostalgia of my elementary school days when we had a whole week of reading celebrations. We would keep track of all the books we read throughout year and if you read over 12  books, you would win tickets to a Nashville Sounds Baseball game. I’m pretty sure I won it every year that I was eligible. I vaguely remember the games but baseball never stuck with me as much as football.

I honestly think its because I can’t keep track of all the wild and wacky names. For instance, in Albuquerque, our team is the Isotopes and was, fun fact, named by Homer Simpson. Seriously. On “The Simpsons,” the Springfield team was named the Isotopes and, in the episode “Hungry, Hungry Homer” which aired in 2001, Homer tries to stop the team from moving to Albuquerque by going on a hunger strike. After the episode aired and the public was asked for suggestions to replace the team name from the Cannons, 67% percent of 120,000 people said Isotopes. So there you go.

Image Credit: Giphy

In Savannah, we are the Bananas. I’m pretty sure that origin just goes back to the good ole rhyming dictionary.

So, because I get all twisted up and turned around in contemporary baseball, baseball history is especially daunting. However, I do know about a single event in baseball history that happened on April 2, 1931: Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old girl, struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (I do know enough about the sport to know these guys). However, most of the few people who have heard of her attempt to discredit her feat. 

But before we get into that, let’s talk a little bit about Jackie first.

Born Virne Beatrice Mitchell on August 29, 1913, Jackie was encouraged by her father to take up any sport she pleased. When the the family moved to Memphis while Jackie was still a young girl, they ended up living near Charles Arthur “Dazzy” Vance, a minor-league pitcher who would eventually lead the National League in strikeouts seven seasons straight. He took a liking to Jackie and would spend hours tutoring the little girl how to pitch.

After that, she briefly went to a training school in Atlanta where she caught the attention of Joe Engel, the new president of the Chattanooga Lookouts known for his showman antics. He asked her to join the team and, soon, Jackie’s family moved to Chattanooga where Jackie received one of the first professional baseball contracts given to a woman.

Image Credit: National Women’s History Museum

Shortly after Jackie began to impress Chattanooga with her sinking curveball, Engel managed to book two exhibition games with the Yankees as they traveled back north after their spring training.

The minute newspapers caught wind of the match-up, which included two of the greatest baseball players of all-time and a 17-year-old girl, they went crazy. However, few had anything truly good to say about Jackie. Most of it was along the lines of “the curves won’t be all on the ball when pretty Jackie Mitchell takes the mound,” as one newspaper read.

To many, Jackie’s joining the team was seen as a giant stunt. When women began to get involved in baseball around the 1860s, many of the more prominent games featured actresses who were recruited by male owners to put on a show instead of a genuine baseball game. When women who could actually play ball began to take to the scene around the turn of the century, many men didn’t know what to make of it. To the crowd of 4,000 who watched the first Lookouts game against the Yankees on April 2, 1931, Jackie might as well have been an actress hired by Joe Engel to put on a good show.

When Jackie was put into the game to pitch, she stepped up to the mound to face perhaps the most famous of the Yankees’ “Murderers’ Row”: Babe Ruth.

He tipped his hat to Jackie and “assumed an easy batting stance,” as one newspaper reported. Jackie wound up and threw her signature pitch, known as “the drop.” Ruth let it go but on the second pitch, he swung and missed the ball completely before missing yet again. Finally, he asked for an inspection of the ball. After all appeared fine, he readied himself again, only to miss the last pitch. He threw his bat to the ground and left the field.

Lou Gehrig was up next and, he too, missed all three of Jackie’s pitches and the crowd went wild. Unfortunately, after Jackie walked the next batter, Tony Lazzeri, she was pulled from the game. Nonetheless, the country went nuts over what had just happened: a 17-year-old girl had struck out not one, but two of the best baseball players ever.

Image Credit: Baseball Essential

“Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig,” read one newspaper. Another reported, “without so much powdering her nose or seeing if her lipstick was on straight, Jackie strode to the mound.” However, they also were just as obsessed with the fact that she had failed to strike out Lazzeri and said “Jackie probably remembered by that time that she was a woman, and after all the excitement, she undoubtedly wanted to go off and have a good cry so they let her retire from the game.”

UUUUUUUGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

After the game, it was rumored that Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a baseball commissioner, voided Mitchell’s contract, believing that baseball was too hard on women. Ruth had made a similar claim before the game, saying that women “will never make good” in the sport because “they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”

Instead of doing anything to boost the idea that women could hold their own against men in baseball, Jackie’s performance did the opposite. Suddenly, people left and right, including the president of the organization that oversaw the minor leagues, began to spout that a female player was nothing more than a “lamentable burlesquing of the national pastime.”

After leaving the Lookouts, Jackie played for a couple of other amateur teams before joining an ersatz troupe called the House of David. They played baseball but mixed in vaudeville and circus elements such as riding on animals and growing shoulder length beards. These were the only kinds of teams at the time that would accept colored or female players. Jackie played until 1937, when she retired from the sport and began to work for her father in the optical business.

Image Credit: Washington Post

However, she gave to baseball one of the biggest controversies of the sport: whether or not Ruth and Gehrig staged the strikeout.

As I mentioned before, many people thought that Jackie’s presence on the mound that game was just a show designed to sell tickets and that Ruth “performed his role very ably” while Gehrig “took three hefty swings as his contribution to the occasion,” as one newspaper reported.

Jackie held on to a newsreel of her pitching but it’s too blurry to make out the speed and sink that she had on her pitches, factors that my inadequate baseball knowledge assumes could tell whether or not they were genuinely too good for both Ruth and Gehrig. Neither of the men ever commented on whether or not it had been a stunt.

Pretty soon, people associated with the game were taking sides, saying whether they thought Ruth and Gehrig would have it in them to pretend to lose to a girl. Ben Chapman, the next up to bat after Lazzeri, after Jackie was pulled from the game, suspected that Ruth and Gehrig had planned to strike out as a good show.

However, Lefty Gomez, a Yankees pitcher, didn’t think that his manager, Joe McCarthy, would have instructed them to strike out because he was so competitive. Tony Lazzeri said that they were legitimate strike-outs. A biographer of Gehrig believed that he was a man who could not be easily bought and strictly obeyed the rules.

Close to her death in 1987, Jackie said that the only prior discussion about the pitch was to ensure the Yankees avoided sending the ball straight back to the mound, which might have hurt Jackie. She went on to say, “Why, hell, they were trying, damn right. Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”

Image Credit: Rejected Princesses

Historians have now taken up the cause, arguing over whether or not the strikeouts were legitimate. Many have argued that Jackie was left-handed and pitching to left-handed batters, a matchup that, apparently, gives the pitcher an advantage. They have also pointed out that Ruth led the league in strikeouts five times and that nobody ever made a big deal over the other 1,330 times he had done so. They only got in a tizzy when it was a girl. 

I could continue to give you quote after quote after quote about opinions of whether or not the strikeouts were legitimate but, instead, I’m going to argue that going back and forth on this issue, even to argue that Jackie did strike both men out, is damaging to the role of women in baseball or male-dominated sports in general.

What we are essentially saying is that if the strikeout wasn’t genuine, then Jackie’s whole purpose on the team was to put on a good show, which is incorrect because nearly everyone was in consensus that she was a brilliant player. However, to truly prove that she was a brilliant player, we are asking her to beat some of the greatest athletes of the sport. Why is that the benchmark for a woman to be noteworthy? Isn’t it enough that she was able to secure a job on a minor-league team playing a sport she loved at a time when it was remarkable for a woman to get a job anywhere in the workforce?

Don’t worry, I’ll step down from my soapbox now but my last point is that whether or not Jackie Mitchell truly struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, she has my profoundest respect for her talent, her passion and her resilience in an industry that, to this day, wants to remain male. 

I’d also like to point out that this prestigious industry that thinks it’s too good to let a woman play also let one of their teams be named by a cartoon character. Just sayin’.

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