Throwback Thursday: Female Ace Jackie Mitchell Strikes Out Babe Ruth

Dan CarsonTrending Lead WriterApril 2, 2015

Babe Ruth is seen in an undated photo.  (AP Photo)
Associated Press

The boys club of professional sports is a smelly, mahogany-lined institution.

Since women started participating in competitive leisure activities, the lodge house of male-dominated athletics has continued collecting cigar smoke under the old roof of a "you can play but over there" non-agreement.

It's a separate, but unequal, arrangement based mostly on fear—fear of product dilution, fear of losing personal space and fear someone could get hurt.

It's these fears that have all but guaranteed we'll never see another moment like Jackie Mitchell's performance in 1931, when the teenage girl struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in quick succession.

In honor of throwing it back this Thursday, Baseball Almanac dug up a clip written by the Pinstripe Press' Michael Aubrecht in 2003. The piece centers on Mitchell, who on today's date 84 years ago notched a pair of K's against some of the Yankees' greatest hitters and shattered a window in the gender/sports conversation.

Aubrecht writes that the singular showdown occurred during an offseason minors-versus-majors matchup between the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts and the New York Yankees:

In 1931, the owner of the Southern Association's AA Chattanooga Lookouts signed a talented, 17-year-old pitcher named Jackie Mitchell. Desperate for an "edge" to increase ticket sales, Joe Engel opted to bill his team as the only club to feature a female on the mound, and the demure Mitchell fit that bill. Although she was not the first female player to sign in the minor leagues, as Lizzie Arlington had broken through that barrier in 1898 while pitching a single game for Reading PA's team against neighboring Allentown, she was by far the best and would soon prove it to herself (and the world) against three of the greatest.

Mitchell had one trick in her bag: the sinker—a looping curveball she could make nosedive over the plate with devastating efficiency.

When the Yankees rolled into town on April 2, Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff immediately threw Mitchell to the wolves after watching his starter give up a flurry of hits in the first inning. Her first customer of the day? A grinning Babe Ruth.

This was, and probably still is, literally the worst nightmare any rookie pitcher could imagine. If you asked a panel of pro hurlers, "Of all batters throughout history, who is the last person you would want to start your rookie campaign against?" Ruth's name would have to come up more than once.

Nevertheless, Mitchell acquitted herself admirably. The 17-year-old threw a ball for her first pitch but watched the grin leave Ruth's face as he missed on his next two swings. Ruth received his third strike when Mitchell tagged the corner on him. According to Aubrecht, Ruth then threw his bat and stormed back to the dugout in a huffy rage.

Next up was Gehrig, who whiffed on three consecutive pitches and was retired. In seven pitches, Mitchell struck out Gehrig and the Great Bambino. She would go on to walk Tony Lazzeri and be pulled from the game. She was not used again.

Of course, a woman striking out two of the world's greatest hitters caused a stir through the larger sporting world—so much so that Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract several days later, saying the sport was "too strenuous" for a woman.

Mitchell would sign on with the House of David—a barnstorming team with a punishing cross-country schedule known for its beards and circus antics. She'd play five more seasons of professional ball before retiring to a desk at her father's company.

Here's to you, Jackie. You played against a loaded deck, and you still had your moment. And you wiped that smug look off Ruth's face. That’s worth more than gold or contracts.

 

Dan is on Twitter. He thinks MadBum and Mitchell would be a great duo.