Current Issue
May 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Days after Jackie Mitchell (center) struck out Yankee superstars (from left) Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, the duo watched the female phenom demonstrate her fastball during spring training in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 4, 1931. (Getty Images)

The Woman Who (Maybe) Struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig

Of all the strange baseball exploits of the Depression era, none was more surprising than Jackie Mitchell’s supposed feat

But other women continued to play on barnstorming teams, including Negro League squads, and after 1943 in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (featured in the movie A League of Their Own). Then in 1952, another woman followed Mitchell into baseball’s minor leagues. Eleanor Engle, a softball player and stenographer in Pennsylvania, joined the Harrisburg Senators and was pictured in uniform in the team’s dugout. But she never took the field, and the president of the minor leagues stated that no contract with a woman would be approved because it was “not in the best interest of baseball that such travesties be tolerated.” This prompted a media flurry and a tongue-in-cheek protest from Marilyn Monroe. “The lady should be permitted to play,” said the actress, who would soon marry Joe DiMaggio. “I can’t think of a better way to meet outfielders.”

Only in recent decades have women gained a degree of acceptance playing alongside men. In the 1970s, a lawsuit won girls entry into Little League. In the 1980s, women broke into men’s college ball and in the 1990s, Ila Borders joined the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. But no female player has yet reached the majors, or come close to matching Mitchell’s feat of striking out two of the game’s greatest hitters. Which raises a question that has lingered since the day she took the mound in 1931. Did her pitching really fool Ruth and Gehrig, or did the two men whiff on purpose?

The Lookouts’ president, Joe Engel, clearly signed Mitchell to attract publicity and sell tickets, both of which he achieved. And some news reports on the game hinted at a less than sincere effort by Ruth and Gehrig. Of Ruth’s at bat, the New York Times wrote that he “performed his role very ably” by striking out before the delighted Chattanooga crowd, while Gehrig “took three hefty swings as his contribution to the occasion.” Also, the game was originally scheduled for April 1 and delayed a day because of rain, leading to speculation that Engel had plotted Mitchell’s outing as an April Fools’ Day prank.

If Ruth and Gehrig were in on an orchestrated stunt, they never said so. Other Yankees later gave mixed verdicts. Pitcher Lefty Gomez said the Yankees manager, Joe McCarthy, was so competitive that “he wouldn’t have instructed the Yankees to strike out.” Third baseman Ben Chapman, who was due to bat when Mitchell was pulled from the mound, said he “had no intention of striking out. I planned to hit the ball.” But he suspected Ruth and Gehrig agreed between themselves to strike out. “It was a good promotion, a good show,” he said. “It really packed the house.”

Mitchell, for her part, held to her belief that she’d genuinely whiffed the two Yankees. She said the only instruction the Yankees received was to try to avoid lining the ball straight back at the mound, for fear of hurting her. “Why, hell, they were trying, damn right,” she said of Ruth and Gehrig not long before her death in 1987. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”

She also saved a newsreel of her outing, which shows her hitting the strike zone on three consecutive pitches to Ruth. On two of them, Ruth flails wildly at the ball, and his fury at the called third strike looks theatrical. But the images are too blurry to tell how much speed and sink Mitchell had on her pitches, and whether they were good enough to miss the bats of both Ruth and Gehrig.

Debra Shattuck, the historian of women in baseball, is skeptical. While Mitchell may have been a good pitcher, she says, “I really doubt she could hold her own at that level.” But Tim Wiles, the Hall of Fame research director, thinks it’s possible the strikeouts were genuine. “Much of batting has to do with timing and familiarity with a pitcher, and everything about Jackie Mitchell was unfamiliar to Ruth and Gehrig,” he says. Also, Mitchell was a lefty side-armer facing lefty batters, a matchup that favors the pitcher. And Ruth striking out wasn’t a rarity; he did so 1,330 times in his career, leading the league in that category five times.

Wiles also wonders if sportswriters and players who suggested that the strikeouts were staged did so to protect male egos. “Even hitters as great as Ruth and Gehrig would be reluctant to admit they’d really been struck out by a 17-year-old girl,” he says.

John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, vigorously disagrees. He believes Ruth and Gehrig were in cahoots with the Lookouts’ president and went along with the stunt, which did no harm to their reputations. “The whole thing was a jape, a jest, a Barnumesque prank,” he says. “Jackie Mitchell striking out Ruth and Gehrig is a good story for children’s books, but it belongs in the pantheon with the Easter Bunny and Abner Doubleday ‘inventing’ baseball.”

He adds, however, that a great deal has changed since Mitchell’s day and that there are fewer obstacles to women succeeding and being accepted in professional baseball today. No rule prohibits them doing so, and in 2010, Eri Yoshida, a knuckleballer who has played professional ball in Japan, trained with the Red Sox at their minor-league camp. A year later, Justine Siegal became the first woman to throw batting practice for a major-league team.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus