National News

Overlooked No More: Jackie Mitchell, Who Fanned Two of Baseball’s Greats

Posted November 7, 2018 9:16 p.m. EST

Women have cleared many barriers in sports but few exploits are as stunning — and shrouded in mystery — as the day Jackie Mitchell struck out two of baseball’s giants, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

It was April 2, 1931, 4,000 people filled the stands and Mitchell, all of 17, was on the roster of the minor league Chattanooga Lookouts, which just a week before had signed her to a contract. The New York Yankees were in town for an exhibition game as they made their way from spring training back to New York.

Mitchell took the mound in the first inning, in relief. “The Babe performed his role very ably,” the New York Times reporter William E. Brandt wrote. “He swung hard at two pitches then demanded that Umpire Owens inspect the ball, just as batters do when utterly baffled by a pitcher’s delivery.”

The third pitch was a strike that left Ruth looking. When the umpire called him out, the Bambino flung his bat away, “registering disgust with his shoulder and chin,” The Times reported. Gehrig took “three hefty swings” and struck out, too.

Mitchell received a standing ovation. “That completed the day’s work for Pitcher Mitchell,” Brandt wrote.

The rest of the game was of little note. Another pitcher replaced Mitchell and her team lost 14-4 to the Yankees.

The next day, The New York Times article was headlined, “Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig.” Mitchell is pictured standing on the mound, baseball glove in hand, smiling slightly.

But what happened that day remains in question. Was the strikeout real, or was it orchestrated by Joe Engel, the Lookouts owner, as a publicity stunt?

“There’s a huge divide in beliefs,” said Leslie Heaphy, an associate professor of sports history at Kent State University and the author of “Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball” (2016).

Engel, who was widely known to seek publicity, first noticed Mitchell at an Atlanta baseball training camp in 1931. With Mitchell, the Lookouts would become the only professional baseball team to have a female pitcher at the time. Engel was trying to fill their stadium during the Great Depression, and surely, he thought, the novelty of a female pitcher would bring fans to the stands and give the minor league team some major league press.

So, Heaphy said, many argued that Engel orchestrated the newsmaking strikeout. Strengthening the case is the presence of Babe Ruth himself, “another man who was known for doing things to elicit a reaction,” she said.

And it just seemed implausible to many that a 17-year-old girl could strike out two of the best hitters of the game.

But Mitchell’s defenders argue otherwise.

Verne Beatrice Mitchell was born on Aug. 29, 1913, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and learned to play baseball with her father, Joe Mitchell, in a park near their home. The family lived near the future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance, who was considered the premier strikeout pitcher of the 1920s. Mitchell credits Vance for teaching her how to pitch a “drop ball,” perhaps better known today as a sinker.

“Think about a pitcher coming in they’ve never seen before,” Heaphy said. “She’s a lefty with a very deceptive pitch from all accounts.”

And being a lefty against the two left-handed sluggers gave her an advantage.

Another point for the defense: Lou Gehrig was no Babe Ruth. “He was a very serious player who did not take anything lightly,” Heaphy said.

Was he in on the hoax? “I personally find that one hard to believe,” she said.

The game against the Yankees completed Mitchell’s career with the Lookouts. It is believed that baseball’s commissioner voided Mitchell’s contract after the famous game, perhaps embarrassed by the upset.

Mitchell’s story is also representative of a chapter in the history of women in baseball. Only one other woman had signed a professional contract for organized ball, Lizzie Arlington in 1898 for the Reading Coal Heavers of the Atlantic League.

Women played baseball on “Bloomer Girls” teams from the 1890s through the 1930s, barnstorming the United States to play men’s teams. The women’s teams — which each had at least one male player — were thought of as entertainment more than sport. The last of the leagues disbanded in 1934.

It would be another nine years until Philip Wrigley started the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and not until the 1990s that the American Women’s Baseball League was formed. The earlier league was the subject of the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.”

Little is known of what Mitchell did after the game against the Yankees. She is said to have continued to play, pitching on another one of Engel’s teams, the Chattanooga Junior Lookouts, through the summer of 1931 and traveling across the country for the following two years to capitalize on offers to play in exhibition games. In 1933, she signed with another traveling team, the House of David.

In 1937, at age 23, Mitchell hung up her glove and went to work at her father’s optometry office in Chattanooga.

Details of the rest of her life are few and far between. She died in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, on Jan. 7, 1987, and had no immediate survivors, just a nephew and several cousins, according to a brief obituary published by The Associated Press. She was 74. Her nephew, Spencer Melton, 69, of Miami, said in a telephone interview that he did not know much about his aunt. Nor was he able to demystify the events of that day on the field in 1931. “I heard she liked baseball but that’s the extent I knew about Jackie,” he said.

In an interview shortly before her death, she stood her ground about the legitimacy of the strikeouts. “Why, hell, they were trying, damn right,” she said in 1987. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”

Elizabeth Maurer, the former director of programs for the National Women’s History Museum, said that Mitchell’s story fits a narrative that many people find attractive.

“They like to find these women from the past who didn’t just succeed in male-dominated professional fields but they beat the men,” Maurer said.

“But the problem with that is that Jackie Mitchell didn’t actually win,” she added. “She didn’t get to keep that contract.”

Ten years after Mitchell died, Ila Borders become the first woman to pitch in a regular season professional game, with the minor league St. Paul Saints in Minnesota.

And in 2014, Mo’ne Davis became the first girl to throw a shutout in Little League World Series history.