One spring day my son came home from school and asked, “Do you know about the girl who struck out Babe Ruth?”
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I smiled indulgently at this playground tall tale. But he insisted it was true. “I read a book about her in the library,” he said.
“Must have been fiction,” I churlishly replied, before consulting the Baseball Almanac to bludgeon my 10-year-old with bitter fact.
Instead, I discovered the astounding story of Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old southpaw who pitched against the New York Yankees on April 2, 1931. The first batter she faced was Ruth, followed by Lou Gehrig, the deadliest hitting duo in baseball history. Mitchell struck them both out. There was a box score to prove it and news stories proclaiming her “organized baseball’s first girl pitcher.”
For a lifelong baseball nerd, this was like learning that a hamster once played shortstop or that Druids invented our national pastime. The Sultan of Swat and the Iron Horse couldn’t hit a girl? Why had I never heard of her?
This led me, a month later, to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where I learned that Jackie Mitchell’s story was even stranger than I’d supposed, with subplots involving donkeys, long beards and a lingering mystery about what transpired when she took the mound in 1931.
The Hall of Fame remains a pretty macho place, filled with plaques and exhibits honoring thousands of men who have played the game. But after touring the Babe Ruth Room and paying homage to Lou Gehrig’s locker and Stan Musial’s bat, I found a small exhibit on women in baseball, titled “Diamond Dreams.” As with so much of baseball history, determining “firsts” and separating fact from lore can be tricky. All-women teams competed against each other as early as the 1860s, and in later decades traveling squads such as the Blondes and Brunettes drew paid spectators. But most of these early players were actresses, recruited and often exploited by male owners. “It was a show, a burlesque of the game,” says Debra Shattuck, a leading expert on women in baseball.
Around the turn of the century, however, women athletes of real ability began competing with men and sometimes playing on the same teams in bygone semipro leagues. The first to appear in baseball’s minor leagues was Lizzie Arlington, who wore bloomers while pitching for the Reading (Pennsylvania) Coal Heavers against the Allentown Peanuts in 1898.
So Jackie Mitchell wasn’t the first woman to play organized baseball, but her appearance on the mound in 1931 became a Depression-era sensation. As a girl in Memphis, she’d allegedly been tutored in baseball by a neighbor and minor-league pitcher, Charles Arthur “Dazzy” Vance, who would go on to lead the National League in strikeouts for seven straight seasons. Mitchell’s family moved to Chattanooga, where she became a multisport athlete and joined a baseball school affiliated with the city’s Class AA minor-league team, the Lookouts, and attracted attention with her sinking curveball.
The Lookouts’ new president, Joe Engel, was a showman and promoter whose many stunts included trading a player for a turkey, which was cooked and served to sportswriters. In 1931, he booked the Yankees for two exhibition games against the Lookouts as the major leaguers traveled north from spring training. A week before their arrival, he announced the signing of Mitchell to what’s believed to be one of the first professional baseball contracts given to a woman.