How a teenager named Jackie Mitchell struck out two of baseball’s greats and why her story has historians puzzled.
Jackie Mitchell knew that her presence on the mound was something of a spectacle.
Wearing an oversized Chattanooga Lookouts uniform that puffed around her tiny frame, the 17-year-old pitcher would powder her nose for the press before stepping onto the baseball diamond.
The papers ate it up, snapping photos and writing that “curves won’t all be on the ball” in this game.
With all the attention, Mitchell realized her baseball contract — one of the first ever offered to a woman — was mostly intended as a publicity stunt. But there’s no question her talent was very real.
And up until the day she died, Mitchell insisted the game she played on April 2, 1931 — the game she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig — was real, too.
Growing up in Memphis, Mitchell had been taught to pitch by her neighbor, Charles Arthur Vance, better known as “Dazzy.” Charles would go on to become the only pitcher to ever lead the National League in strikeouts for seven seasons in a row. His brother “Dizzy” was also an accomplished pitcher, to say the least.
After moving to Chattanooga, Mitchell’s curveball caught the eye of Lookouts skipper Joe Engel.
Engel was well-known for his eccentric promotional style. He hosted events like, ostrich races, raffled off a house to a lucky ticket-holder, and once traded a shortstop for a large turkey. The week before the Yankees’ were scheduled to come to town, Engel signed Mitchell.
Some 4,000+ fans showed up to Engel Stadium on that cloudy day in April when the Yankees came to town. And after the Lookouts’ regular pitcher surrendered two hits, Mitchell was sent to the mound.
Babe Ruth took his spot in the batters box.
The first pitch was a whizzing sinker, and Ruth leisurely let it slip by for a ball. At the next two, though, Ruth swung wildly, missing both pitches for strikes. He stepped out of the box and asked the umpire to check the ball for tampering.
The next pitch whizzed just inside the box. No swing for a called strike three!
Ruth theatrically threw his bat down, glaring both at the umpire and then at Mitchell, before yielding the batter’s box to the world’s second most iconic hitter, Lou Gehrig.
Gehrig didn’t fare any better and swung at every pitch Mitchell threw, missing them all.
Mitchell walked the next batter and was promptly removed from the game. The Lookouts ultimately lost the exhibition 14-4 and Mitchell’s contract came to an end a few weeks later due to pressure from then commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He said baseball was too strenuous and unfit for women to play.
The minor leagues thought otherwise.
Jackie Mitchell kept playing ball, albeit in the aforementioned minor leagues. She signed with a squad named House of David — a team of bearded, long-haired men who were members of a religious sect in Michigan.
The team — as strange as they were — was incredibly talented. Mitchell played and barnstormed with them for five years, once leading them to victory against the mighty St. Louis Cardinals. She retired from baseball in 1937, taking a job in her father’s optical business.
The five-foot-eight teenager’s besting of two of the sport’s greatest batsmen made headlines across the country. “The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists,” wrote The New York Times.
Ever since, Mitchell’s feat has been spoken about with tentative skepticism. Baseball historians and fans alike question whether the incident had been a publicity stunt. The game had been, after all, initially scheduled for April Fool’s Day. The switch to April 2 was made due to bad weather.
Gender aside, it still seems unlikely that a young minor league player could use seven pitches to strike out the world’s best players, one after the other. Especially when that player was working for someone as unconventional as Joe Engel.
But neither Ruth nor Gehrig ever admitted to striking out on purpose. And their Yankees teammate Lefty Gomez claimed that the team’s manager had too much respect and integrity for the game, even during barnstorming events, to have ever instructed players to miss any pitches on purpose.
Perhaps they felt like having some friendly fun, agreeing beforehand to give the girl a moment to treasure. It certainly did nothing to hurt their legacies (or coffers).
But that seems unlikely.
Or maybe, just maybe, the larger-than-life legends tried their hardest and got beat. Maybe the pitches, likely slower than what the men were accustomed to, perhaps with more break, landed in the catcher’s mitt with an honest, incredible, and well-deserved smack.
That’s certainly how Jackie Mitchell saw it.
“Why, hell, they were trying, damn right,” she said 56 years later. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”