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

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)
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The prospect of a 17-year-old girl facing the mighty Yankees generated considerable media coverage, most of it condescending. One paper wrote, “The curves won’t be all on the ball” when “pretty” Jackie Mitchell takes the mound. Another reported that she “has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick.” The tall, slim teenager, clad in a baggy Lookouts uniform, also posed for cameras as she warmed up by taking out a mirror and powdering her nose.

The first game against the Yankees, before a crowd of 4,000 fans and journalists, began with the Lookouts’ starting pitcher surrendering hits to the first two batters. The Lookouts’ manager then pulled his starter and sent Mitchell to the mound to face the heart of a fearsome lineup that had become known in the 1920s as “Murderers’ Row.”

First up was Ruth, who tipped his hat at the girl on the mound “and assumed an easy batting stance,” a reporter wrote. Mitchell went into her motion, winding her left arm “as if she were turning a coffee grinder.” Then, with a side-armed delivery, she threw her trademark sinker (a pitch known then as “the drop”). Ruth let it pass for a ball. At Mitchell’s second offering, Ruth “swung and missed the ball by a foot.” He missed the next one, too, and asked the umpire to inspect the ball. Then, with the count 1-2, Ruth watched as Mitchell’s pitch caught the outside corner for a called strike three. Flinging his bat down in disgust, he retreated to the dugout.

Next to the plate was Gehrig, who would bat .341 in 1931 and tie Ruth for the league lead in homers. He swung at and missed three straight pitches. But Mitchell walked the next batter, Tony Lazzeri, and the Lookouts’ manager pulled her from the game, which the Yankees went on to win, 14-4.

“Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig,” read the headline in the next day’s sports page of the New York Times, beside a photograph of Mitchell in uniform. In an editorial, the paper added: “The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists.” Ruth, however, was quoted as saying that women “will never make good” in baseball because “they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”

Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis evidently agreed. It was widely reported (though no proof exists) that he voided Mitchell’s contract on the grounds that baseball was too strenuous for women. The president of the organization overseeing the minor leagues later termed the appearance of “a female mound artist” a lamentable “Burlesquing” of the national pastime, akin to greased pig contests, hot dog-eating competitions and other ballpark promotions.

Mitchell’s unusual baseball career, however, wasn’t over. In an era before televised games, when blacks as well as women were unofficially barred from major-league baseball, an ersatz troupe of traveling teams barnstormed the nation, mostly playing in towns that lacked professional squads. Barnstorming mixed sports with vaudeville and circus. “There were teams of fat men, teams of one-legged men, blind teams, all-brother teams,” says Tim Wiles, director of research at the Hall of Fame library. Some teams didn’t just play standard baseball; they also performed sleight-of-hand tricks, like the Harlem Globetrotters, and rode animals onto the field.

One such team was called House of David, named for a religious colony in Michigan that sought to gather the lost tribes of Israel in advance of the millennium. The colony’s tenets included celibacy, vegetarianism and a devotion to physical fitness, which led to the creation of a talented and profitable ball team. In accordance with House of David beliefs, players had shoulder-length hair and biblical beards. The eccentric team was so popular that it spawned spinoffs, including an all-black Colored House of David.

Over time, the colony’s teams also recruited players from outside their community, and in 1933 a House of David squad signed Jackie Mitchell, who was then 19 and had been playing with various amateur teams since her outing against the Yankees. Chaperoned by her mother, she traveled with the team and in one game pitched against the major-league St. Louis Cardinals. According to a news report, the “nomadic House of David ball team, beards, girl pitcher and all, came, saw, and conquered the Cardinals, 8 to 6.”

Little else is known of Mitchell’s time with House of David, though according to some sources she became weary of the team’s “circus-type” antics: for instance, some players donning fake beards or playing ball while riding donkeys. In 1937 she retired from baseball and went to work for her father’s optical business in Tennessee.


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