On April 2nd, 1931, the unthinkable happened. Two of the greatest baseball players in history went to bat against a rookie female pitcher.
And they both struck out.
The hitters were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The pitcher was 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell.
Despite her young age, Jackie had a surprising amount of experience with the sport1. She’d grown up as neighbor to “Dazzy” Vance, a pitcher for the major leagues. He’d taught her to throw a “drop ball” (nowadays called a sinker) — a type of pitch that is hard to master and harder to hit. The fact that she was left-handed made her pitches that much deadlier. She honed her skills in Chattanooga women’s baseball teams and camps, until she met Joe Engel.
Joe Engel was one of baseball’s more eccentric characters. A pitcher turned raconteur, this “Barnum of Baseball” did everything he could to drum up audiences for the minor league team, the Chattanooga Lookouts. He’d have his players ride in on elephants. He placed singing canaries in the grandstands. He traded one of his players for a turkey2. In 1931, he decided to give Jackie a spot on his roster as a publicity stunt3, pitting her against the venerable New York Yankees — which was boasting one of the best team lineups in the history of the sport, a fearsome group dubbed “Murderers’ Row.”
And before the first inning was over, she’d struck out their two biggest stars.
The coverage of the event was face-palmingly sexist. The Washington Post noted that “without so much powdering her nose or seeing if her lipstick was on straight, Jackie strode to the mound.” She proceeded to strike out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back, then walked Tony Lazzeri, the next hitter. Following her poor performance with Lazzeri, she was benched, prompting the Post to write, “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.” The Lookouts lost 4-14, but nobody could stop talking about Jackie.
The question that arose, and remains, is: was the game rigged? Many to this day believe that Ruth and Gehrig threw the game in an arrangement with Engel — the bout was, after all, originally to take place on April 1st, or April Fool’s Day. But a couple factors throw doubt on that theory:
- Ruth appeared legitimately pissed off when he struck out.
- Gehrig was not a man who was easily bought. One biography said of him, he “thought the rules had to be strictly obeyed.”
- Lazzeri claimed they were legitimate strike-outs.
- The Yankees manager was so competitive, pitcher Lefty Gomez said, he would never have okayed striking out.
- The next hitter in line, Ben Chapman, said he “had no intention of striking out” when it looked like he was going up against Mitchell.
The years following this stupendous feat unfortunately did not see things go Jackie’s way. Many papers reported that the baseball commissioner voided her contract and banned women from baseball shortly thereafter, on the grounds that it was “too strenuous for women” — although it’s unlikely this actually happened4. Jackie went on to play for a few other teams, although most treated her more as a novelty than a real player. Reportedly, she was once asked to pitch while riding a donkey. By 1937, she’d quit the sport.
Still, the legend of the girl who struck out Murderers’ Row persisted through the years. By 1982, interest in her story had been revived sufficiently that she got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Chattanooga Lookouts. In 2009, she got her own baseball card.
She died in 1987. She maintained all her days that she’d struck out Ruth and Gehrig fair and square.
- And other sports, too — she loved playing basketball. She was actually at a basketball tournament in Dallas when she heard about the opportunity to join the minor leagues. She dropped out and sped off to Chattanooga immediately. Girl’s gotta have priorities. ↩
- Which he then served to beat sports writers — giving them the bird, as they’d done to him so many times. ↩
- Making her, according to many articles, the second woman ever to join a minor league team. The first, I believe, was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Murphy, known as the “Queen of Baseball,” whose career predated Jackie’s by about a decade. ↩
- These claims seem to come down to one reporter’s possibly over-enthusiastic column. Nobody has been as yet able to verify this part of the story. Women were banned in 1952, as part of the case of Eleanor Engle of Pennsylvania. George Trautman, the commissioner of the minor leagues at the time, said of female players that it was “not in the best interest of baseball that such travesties be tolerated.” This ban lasted until 1992. It is the stance of this author that Trautman was a real turd burglar. ↩
- This is the exact field that they were playing in — down to the Coca-Cola ad in the outfield. The colors for the uniforms and the stadium itself should be pretty accurate.
- In the foreground stands Ruth, in shadow. That’s his number.
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Float like four butterflies, sting like you’re bringing down a dictatorship.