The Brief Wondrous Career of Jackie Mitchell
By Tamar Chalker
October 19, 2021
There has and will continue to be a lot of conversation about what needs to happen this offseason to get the Yankees back to the team we have come to expect. Suffice it to say, I believe there are some big changes that need to be made, but I don’t want to dwell on what may or may not happen. Instead, this offseason, I am going to take a look at some of the baseball history stories, Yankees and otherwise, that remind me why I love baseball so much. So, without further adieu, here is the story about Jackie Mitchell’s short, but notable, baseball career.
Jackie Mitchell was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on August 29, 1913. Much like my own father, as soon as she could walk, Jackie’s father had her learning the game. He would take her over to a nearby baseball field and drill her on the basics. Jackie also had the luck of having a future Hall of Fame pitcher as a neighbor, Dazzy Vance.
Vance made his MLB debut with the Pirates in 1915 (also appearing with the Yankees that season and in 1918), but it wasn’t until 1922 that he broke into the majors for good, playing ten seasons with Brooklyn before stints with the Cardinals and Reds. He ended his career in 1935 with the Dodgers. Vance taught Jackie how to throw his “drop ball,” a pitch that would serve her well in her career.
In 1930, at the age of 17, Mitchell started playing with a local women’s team in Chattanooga, the Engelettes. Through this, she attended a training camp in Atlanta and caught the attention of Joe Engel, who was the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts (currently the Reds Double-A team).
Initially, I was struck by how many options there were for women to play baseball in 1930 when I read this, however, Engel was known for his penchant for publicity stunts. It was the Great Depression and he did whatever he could to draw a crowd to watch the Lookouts and so in March of 1931, he signed Mitchell to her first professional contract.
On April 1st, the Lookouts were scheduled to play an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. It was rained out, however, and Mitchell’s debut was delayed by a day. Clyde Barfoot started the game for the Lookouts, but after he gave up a double and a single, Mitchell was called to replace him with Babe Ruth coming to bat.
Ruth doffed his cap to the young pitcher before digging into the batter’s box. Mitchell’s first pitch was a ball, but Ruth swung and missed at the next two pitches. He held off the third, however, the umpire called the strike and Mitchell had her first strikeout of her professional career against one of the greatest hitters of all time.
The Babe, on the other hand, lost all of his politeness from before the at bat and immediately tore into the umpire, eventually requiring his teammates to come out and drag him back to the bench. Lou Gehrig was the next batter and he struck out swinging on three straight pitches.
Ruth was quoted in the Chattanooga paper the next day as saying, “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.” A few days later, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner at the time, voided Mitchell’s contract. His reasoning was purportedly because the game was “too strenuous” for women, and while this hasn’t necessarily been confirmed, this would hardly be a surprise from Landis.Of course, in the years after, the veracity of Mitchell striking out two of baseball’s greatest sluggers has been called into question and I’ll get into that more in a minute.
No longer able to play for the Lookouts, Mitchell was undeterred and played for the barnstorming team House of David, which had hosted players such as Grover Cleveland Alexander, Satchel Paige, and Mordecai Brown. House of David’s team was known for having long hair and beards, due to the religious connection of the team, along with conducting other publicity stunts. Mitchell sometimes played in a fake beard (as did other male players) and was once asked to pitch in a game while riding a donkey. Yes, you read that right.
Perhaps, it is not so surprising that Mitchell retired from the game in 1937 at the age of 23, having tired of feeling more like a sideshow attraction than a real baseball player. She returned to Chattanooga where she purportedly worked in her father’s optometry practice. Attempts to draw her out of retirement during World War II, when the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League started, were rebuffed and in 1952 baseball formally banned contracts for female players.
The Lookouts have had an impressive longevity in the minor leagues, and Mitchell threw out the ceremonial first pitch for their opening day in 1982. She would pass away in 1987 at the age of 73.
Now, back to Mitchell striking out the Babe and Gehrig. As I previously stated, the Lookouts’ owner was known for publicity stunts and certainly a hometown 17-year old woman pitching would draw attention. The fact that the game she appeared in was initially scheduled for April Fools’ Day, making people question if it was supposed to be some kind of joke, but it ended up being played the next day.
Personally, I don’t know that having a woman pitch would have drawn any more fans than I’m sure went to the park that day just to see Ruth, Gehrig and the rest of the Bronx Bombers. While Ruth was known to enjoy getting involved in some shenanigans, it wasn’t really in Gehrig’s character to purposely strike out. I think that Ruth’s anger at the strikeout, along with his comments afterwards, show that he was far more upset than he would have been if he had planned to strikeout against Mitchell. In fact, I love the picture above, where it looks like Ruth looks focused and slightly perturbed while Mitchell is throwing. Gehrig, meanwhile, has his classic smile. Despite Ruth’s comments, I like to think they both look like they respected her game to some extent.
Also, the guy in the hat behind them should just be photoshopped into random photos from now on.
Mitchell was a lefty with a sidearm style throw, giving her the advantage against both Ruth and Gehrig. When you consider they had never seen her pitch before and she likely wasn’t blistering fastballs by them, rather utilizing the drop ball Vance taught her, it’s not surprising that she managed to strike them both out. In fact, Ruth and Gehrig never denied that they struck out fairly against Mitchell, though Ruth had some thoughts about the umpire.
Having outlived both of these legends, Mitchell had a parting shot for them. In 1987 she stated, “Why, hell, they were trying, damn right. Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”