The girl who struck out Babe Ruth

posted by Pretty Tough
Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 1:30pm EST

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My hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, doesn’t do a particularly good job covering women’s sports, but today there was an interesting post in an on-going series about sports legends. Author Brian Cronin takes a look at Jackie Mitchell, a female pitcher who struck out baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back nearly 80 years ago.

I’d heard of Mitchell before and had always been intrigued by what a pioneer she was. With baseball season practically upon us, it’s great to revisit her story.

On March 28, 1931, the then 17-year-old Mitchell signed a contract to ptich for the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Class AA minor league team. Five days later, on April 2, 1931, in front of 4,000 fans, she struck out two of the greatest hitters in baseball history.

As a young girl, Mitchell lived in Memphis, Tennessee where her next-door neighbor was minor league ballplayer Charles “Dazzy” Vance. Dazzy (who would later play for the Brooklyn Dodgers) taught her how to throw  the “drop pitch,”  a pitch that came in at one level but dropped right before it reached the plate.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s (around the time of the stock market collapse and economic depression), Major League Baseball clubs would play exhibition games against minor league affiliates during spring training. During that time, the Yankees scheduled an exhibition game against the Chattanooga Lookouts on their way back up North. Cronin’s extensive research reveals this coverage by the New York Daily News:

The Yankees will meet a club here that has a girl pitcher named Jackie Mitchell, who has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick. I suppose that in the next town the Yankees enter they will find a squad that has a female impersonator in left field, a sword swallower at short, and a trained seal behind the plate. Times in the South are not only tough but silly.

Silly, indeed.  With the back-to-back duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the Yankees line-up, the Lookouts manager called for his rookie lefthander. Mitchell threw ball one to Ruth, but the Bambino swung and missed at the next two pitches (all breaking drop balls). The next pitch caught the corner for strike three. Then  Gehrig came up to the plate and promptly struck out swinging on three pitches! The Yankees ultimately won the game 14-4 but when Mitchell was pulled from the game shortly after her strike-outs, she received a standing ovation.

Babe Ruth was quoted after the game as stating “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.”

A few days later, Major League Baseball Commissioner Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract, claiming that baseball was “too strenuous” for her. That was more or less it for women in professional baseball.

Mitchell continued to play baseball as a barnstormer, but eventually grew sick of the circus-like atmosphere  and retired at  age 23 to work in her father’s office. She refused to un-retire when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the league made famous in the feature film “League of Their Own”)  was formed in 1943.

Mitchell threw out the first pitch at a Chattanooga Lookouts game in 1982 and passed away in 1987.

Thanks Brian, for reminding us of the story and for these other legends about female athletes dealing with adversity…

Learn about the first female polo player (who broke in pretending to be a man!).

Find out about the Olympic athlete who won a Gold Medal five years after being declared dead on the scene of an accident.

See the aforementioned tale of how Eleanor Engle lost her chance at being a professional baseball player.

Discover the Olympic athlete who won a medal years after losing the use of her legs!

Related Posts:
Female knuckleballer honored by Hall of Fame
LA teen tries out for USA Baseball Women’s National Team
Curveball: The remarkable story of Toni Stone

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