Jackie Mitchell image

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth watch Jackie Mitchell demonstrate her fastball during spring training in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 4, 1931. (Getty Images)

On April 2nd, 1931, Jackie Mitchell made her mark mark in baseball history when she struck out two of baseball’s greatest players in succession: the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the deadliest hitting duo in baseball history. To her further achievement, this feat took only seven pitches. In reference to this, Tony Horwitz wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine that, ‘Of all the strange baseball exploits of the Depression era, none was more surprising than Jackie Mitchell’s supposed feat.’

Jackie Mitchell (1913-1987) is famous for being one of the first female pitchers in professional baseball history, pitching for the Chattanooga Lookouts of Tennessee, a Class AA minor league baseball team, in their 1931 season.

Mitchell’s foray into baseball began at an early age. Not long after she had learned to walk, her father, Dr Joseph Mitchell, took her to her first baseball field where he began to teach her the basics of the game. When she was about five or six years old, Mitchell’s next door neighbour Dazzy Vance – a future major league pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball Hall of Famer – recognised her natural talent and taught her how to pitch. It was during this teaching that Vance showed her his ‘drop ball’ Рa pitch that would come in at one level and then, as its name suggests, would drop right before it reached the plate.
By the age of sixteen, Mitchell began to play for the Engelettes, an all-women’s team in Chattanooga and later attended a baseball training camp in Atlanta, Georgia. It was here that her signature sinking curveball caught the attention of Joe Engel, owner and President of the Chattanooga Lookouts. At the time, Engel was known for his publicity stunts which he would use to draw in the crowds during the Great Depression: he saw Mitchell as a way to draw attention to the Lookouts. So, on March 28th, 1931, he signed her as a pitcher and offered her a contract to play the entire 1931 season.

Meanwhile, the New York Yankees had just finished their spring training in Florida and were on their way back to New York. As in previous years, they planned to stop in Chattanooga to play the Lookouts. When Ruth learned that he would be playing against a 5’8’’ girl, he reportedly told the New York Times,
‘‘I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.’’

On April 2nd, 1931, Mitchell appeared in her first professional game playing against the New York Yankees. In doing so, she became of the first women to play either professional or semi-professional baseball (following on from the likes of Lizzie Arlington who pitched for the Reading Coal Heavers in 1898; Dr. Alta Weiss who pitched for the Vermillion Independents from 1907; Lizzie ‘the Queen of Baseball’ Murphy who played for the Providence Independents and the All-Stars of Boston, and Josie Caruso who captained the Caruso All-Stars of New York).

When Mitchell faced Ruth, her first pitch sailed too high, however, her next three pitches were strikes: her final pitch even dropped across the plate for a called third strike. Gehrig, meanwhile, tried to swing through the first three pitches, but each was a strike. In that moment, Mitchell became famous for striking out two of the greatest baseball players in history. The 4,000 strong crowd went wild for Mitchell and, over the next few days, news about her strikeouts spread across the country and fan mail began pouring in. Reportedly, she even received an envelope of fan mail which had no address – instead, it was addressed to ‘The girl who struck out Babe Ruth’.

In their report on the game, the New York Times concluded that: although Mitchell was too inexperienced for the majors, she would be fine in the minors. They even acknowledged that in baseball, ‘The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists.’

In spite of her praise and admiration from both the press and the public, Mitchell’s contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts was voided a few days after the game, as a result of baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis claiming that baseball was ‘too strenuous’ for a woman. However, over the next few years Mitchell continued to pitch, working on the travelling men’s team, House of David. The team was known for their long hair, beards and combination of performance and sport. When touring with House of David, Mitchell would even occasionally sport a fake beard in games for publicity.

In 1937, Mitchell retired from baseball at the age of 23. Although she was invited to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League when it was formed six years later in 1943, Mitchell declined to come out of professional retirement and join them. However, she was back pitching for the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1982 after she was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch on their season opening day. Fitting considering that, in both the history of the Chattanooga lookouts and the history of baseball, Jackie Mitchell will forever be remembered as the girl who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a single game.

-Emma Bryning
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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