By Elissa Blattman, NWHM Intern
It’s baseball season! My favorite time of the year! I grew up in a big time baseball-loving household, where the topics of our dinner conversations regularly centered around baseball trivia. I feel like I know my fair share of baseball history, however, this is something I had never heard about until today.
Did you know Jackie Mitchell, the second female ever signed to a professional baseball contract, struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back to back on April 2, 1931? I didn’t!
Growing up, Jackie Mitchell was an all-around athlete who played tennis, basketball, and boxing, among other sports. But her favorite was baseball. As a child, she lived next to future Baseball Hall of Famer, Dazzy Vance, who coached her and taught her the “drop ball” pitch. She played in sandlot games and for an all-girls team in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and attended a baseball camp in Georgia.
Photo credit: Library of Congress
During the 1930s, Joe Engel, owner of the AA minor league team, the Chattanooga Lookouts, was always looking for ways to fill the Lookouts’ seats with baseball fans. Engel, known as the “Barnum of Baseball,” frequently used publicity stunts as a way to get larger audiences into his stadium, as attendance dropped due to the financial hardship of the Great Depression. Engel caught wind of Mitchell and he figured he could garner more publicity for the Lookouts if he signed her to the team. On March 25, 1931, Engel signed 17 year old Jackie Mitchell to the Lookouts, so he could promote his team as being the only one in professional baseball with a female pitcher. By April 2, Mitchell was called to the mound in her first professional game.
During the 1930s, it was common for major league teams to play exhibition games against minor league affiliates. On their way back to New York from their Spring Training facility, the New York Yankees stopped in Chattanooga to play an exhibition game against the Lookouts. Pitcher Clyde Barfoot started the game for the Lookouts, but was pulled by the manager after giving up hits to the first two Yankees hitters. Mitchell was called into the game to face the next two hitters in the lineup: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Mitchell’s first pitch to Ruth was a ball. Ruth then swung and missed the next two pitches and was caught looking for strike three. Gehrig struck out swinging on three consecutive pitches. Mitchell only had the “drop ball” in her pitching repertoire, but she used it successfully to strike out two of the greatest hitters in baseball history in just seven pitches. The crowd of 4,000 gave her a minutes-long standing ovation. She walked the next batter, though, at which point Barfoot returned to the game to replace her – and ended up losing 14-4.
Jackie Mitchell with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe Engel. Photo credit: Library of Congress
Babe Ruth, especially, was not happy about the outcome of his at bat against Mitchell. He allegedly yelled at the umpire, kicked the dirt, and threw his bat after being called out on strikes, and told a Chattanooga newspaper after the game, “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 everyday.” Major League
Baseball Commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, took Ruth’s side on the issue and voided Mitchell’s contract to play with the Lookouts, claiming baseball to be “too strenuous” for women. Major League Baseball officially barred all women from the game on June 21, 1952. Though not allowed to play in the MLB, the women who played in what is now known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954) proved that the game of baseball is not “too strenuous” for women to participate in competitively.
Sources: The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, LA Times, CNN, Baseball Almanac