“Batter up,” sports fans, the 2015 Major League baseball season kicks off on April 5th! While baseball isn’t normally a subject I would choose to write about, today I am going to throw you a curve ball! This past week I came across a baseball story that made my history-loving heart skip a beat. That’s really saying something because I’m not a huge fan of organized sports, mostly because of my lack of eye-hand coordination. My regular softball team position in high school P.E. class was that of “way-way-out-roving right field.” I was strategically positioned so far away from the action that I customarily used game time to collect specimens for my biology class bug collection.
While my personal baseball skills may be lackluster, I do enjoy a big slice of Americana from time-to-time! And the subject of this story is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Today, I’m going to tell you about a girl named Jackie Mitchell, the pitcher who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. You heard me right. . . Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
On the Ball
Open up any parenting magazine today and you’ll probably find at least one article dealing with how to NOT gender stereotype your child. But, when Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell was born, in 1913, there were no parenting magazines and most parents weren’t terribly concerned with developing their children’s fragile little identities, anyway. Jackie’s father didn’t need anyone at a parenting magazine to tell him that little girls could play baseball. He had already made up his mind. Jackie was going to learn how to play baseball, and he patiently waited until she could toddle around without falling over before taking her out to a baseball field. (Yes, I am sort of wondering if the nickname her father gave her and his determination that she learn to play baseball might indicate that he had been hoping for a boy. But, whatever! He still didn’t need a parenting magazine!)
An interesting turn of fate is that Jackie’s childhood neighbor was none other than the future Baseball Hall of Famer, Dazzy Vance. Dazzy, who was the only pitcher to lead the National League in strikeouts for seven consecutive seasons, taught Jackie how to throw his trademark “drop ball,” when she was only five-yrs-old. That was a skill Jackie never forgot.
A Ball Park Figure
When other girls were having Sweet Sixteen parties, Jackie was joining a woman’s baseball team in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was seventeen when she caught the eye of a man named Joe Engel, the owner and president of the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Class AA men’s minor league team. In 1931, Jackie signed on and it was evident to everyone on the team that she was a minor league player with a major talent and a wicked sinkin’ curveball.
I don’t want to take anything away from Jackie Mitchell and her tremendous talent—for she was truly talented. But, under normal circumstances, even her great talent wouldn’t have gotten her signed with a men’s baseball team. However, in 1930, the circumstances were far from normal.
When Engel took over the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1929, he could never have predicted the stock market crash, which would occur just a short few weeks later. Suddenly, tickets to America’s favorite pastime weren’t selling. Engel had to get creative to draw crowds to the stadium. Pretty soon the marketer in Engel took control and he became known as the “P.T. Barnum of Baseball,” for his knack of combining baseball and some very unusual marketing tactics. One of those tactics was the signing of a teenage girl as a pitcher.
A Whole New Ballgame
The game was originally scheduled for April 1, but a rainstorm pushed it to April 2. On that day, Jackie Mitchell donned her jersey and got ready to face the biggest names in baseball. A Chattanooga newspaper quoted Babe Ruth as having said: “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.”
Four thousand people showed up for the game, and filled the stadium to capacity. Maybe they came to see one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Maybe they came to see what the Baltimore Sun called a, “snip-nosed blue-eyed girl,” going up against one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Regardless of the reasons why, the crowd came.
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig graciously posed for some publicity photos with Mitchell shortly before the game. But during the game, the Great Bambino became noticeably less gracious! The first pitch to the Sultan of Swat was a ball. The next three pitches, Babe swung and missed. While the crowd went wild, Babe Ruth yelled at the umpire to inspect the ball before being led off the field by his teammates.
Next up was Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse. He was less dramatic about it, but the results were the same. Ssssssteeerrrrriiiiiiiike three! He was outta there! Not a bad day’s work for snip-nosed, blue-eyed 17 year-old girl!
On that day, the Yankees won the game, 14-4, but it was Jackie Mitchell that had won the hearts of the crowd.
Thrown a Curve Ball
It was reported that baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Jackie’s contract just a few days after she robbed the Yankees of some of their pride. Landis reportedly said that women were unfit to play baseball and that it was “too strenuous,” for them. That’s a great story, but it’s probably not quite how it happened because the source for that story can be traced back to just one reporter. We do know that Jackie went on in the game of baseball, playing for the Chattanooga Junior Lookouts, another of Engel’s clubs, through the spring of ’31.
We also know that Jackie Mitchell played professionally with The House of David, an all-Jewish barnstorming baseball team that toured rural America, playing amateur and semi-pro teams in exhibition games. They were famous for their long hair and beards. There were a lot of P.T. Barnum wannabes in baseball, in those days!
Jackie soon grew tired of being treated like a side-show entertainer, instead of the main event, and in 1937 she retired from baseball. She was just twenty-three years old. Jackie could not even be persuaded to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League when it formed in 1943. For her, the game was over, and she was going . . . going . . . gone!
Out of Left Field
Plenty of people have tried to discredit Jackie Mitchell’s story as nothing more than a publicity stunt. But, it appears that she was the real deal, and she didn’t have a single publicity-seeking bone in her body. If she had, I’m pretty sure that a whole lot more people would know her story today!
Jackie Mitchell, the girl who once struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, died in 1987. But, her little slice of Americana lives on.
Watch this interesting video with documentary footage of Jackie in action!