Why you should care
Because baseball isn’t the all-guy sport you think it is.
It started out like just another day for America’s favorite pastime. Only on this particular April afternoon in 1931, a crowd came out in Chattanooga in force to see baseball royalty: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
And then a tiny figure in an oversize Lookouts uniform stepped up to the mound. She’d just applied a fresh layer of makeup, and she was here to kick some ass.
The mighty New York Yankees were on tour playing the Chattanooga Lookouts, a minor league team no one’s still ever heard of, and in front of 4,000 onlookers a 17-year-old girl on a Double A contract struck out the greatest names in baseball. Though she only played for a few minutes, her six perfect pitches put Ruth and Gehrig back on the bench — and shot her into the headlines.
Jackie Mitchell was in a long but little-known line of talented female baseball players — a roster that included Maude Nelson, Lizzie Arlington, Alta Weiss, Ruth Egan, Myrtle Rowe and Elizabeth Murphy — who played on all-women’s teams or who signed with men’s teams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says women’s baseball historian Debra Shattuck. “She was a superb player.”
But Mitchell wasn’t destined for the shining legacy of the men she struck out that spring day. Today, many of the most ardent baseball fans don’t know her name — or, indeed, that women ever played the game. Yet Mitchell’s story reveals an unexplored side of sports history and raises some powerful questions about how different male and female athletes really are.
Generally, Shattuck explains, men’s baseball teams signed women to draw crowds. But for the women who played, “it was an opportunity to earn money doing something they loved — playing baseball — at a time when opportunities for women in the workforce were quite limited.” That was the case for Mitchell, who grew up in Chattanooga playing baseball with her dad. Mitchell caught the eye of Joe Engel, the entrepreneurial owner of the Lookouts, who National Baseball Hall of Fame senior curator Tom Shieber says was “a cutting edge kind of guy. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that he would’ve done something that was, at the time, audacious.”
She struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with six neat pitches, then walked Tony Lazzeri.
Even with an established history of women in baseball behind her by 1931, Mitchell was an audacious choice. She was slim, left-handed and sounded every inch a normal teenager. In a New York Times interview shortly before her big game against Ruth, in fact, Mitchell said, “Yes, I think I can strike him out” — before breezily going on to reveal that she hadn’t actually pitched in months. (She’d been too busy playing on her high school basketball team.)
When the day finally arrived, Mitchell switched in for the first inning. According to newspaper reports, she struck out Ruth and Gehrig with six neat pitches, then walked Tony Lazzeri. Some surviving newsreel footage shows Ruth throwing his bat to the ground in frustration after his called third strike. The Yankees went on to trounce the Lookouts — but the crowd, the press and Mitchell went home satisfied.
There’s some debate about whether or not the strikeouts were legitimate. It’s likely Ruth and Gehrig allowed themselves to be struck out as a publicity stunt, says Shattuck, who stresses that Mitchell’s athleticism and talent are not to be underestimated. But as any ballplayer can tell you, Mitchell did have some advantages that could’ve made the strikeouts likely. “Jackie was a left-handed pitcher and both Ruth and Gehrig were left-handed batters, so it slightly worked in her favor,” Shieber notes.
Mitchell stayed in professional baseball for many years, playing for men’s teams and exhibitions. Yet her career wasn’t a roaring success. Ruth’s words after Mitchell struck him out would long dog her and other women in baseball: “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.”
Career players like Toni Stone and Ila Borders have since proved Ruth wrong in spades. And while Mitchell may only have been a footnote in the histories of baseball greats, she has laid groundwork for every girl who didn’t want to give up baseball for softball just because the boys say so. For some today, like Ghazaleh Sailors, college baseball’s only female player who became her team’s captain this year, that can mean the world.