“Why, hell, they were trying, damn right. Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”
~Jackie Mitchell, Throwing Shade at Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig
In every way, outside of the action on the field for like 95% of games, baseball is the most exciting American sport. Well, that might not be true, but the history of baseball is definitely more fascinating than the history of any other sport. At least it’s fascinating to us. We’ve got an entire section of all the crazy hijinks that happened in early American baseball history. So why did it take us this long to talk about the teenage girl that struck out two of the best batters of all time? Well, because it happened forever ago, sorry, we’re not all-knowing wizards with encyclopedic knowledge of every single instance of American lore, or at least we recognize that we aren’t when we’re mostly sober.
But yes! Jackie Mitchell, when she was just seventeen years of age, somehow managed to strike out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. That’s a thing that happened. And we’re going to have to talk about it.
Jackie Mitchell: The Seventeen-Year-Old Girl Who (Probably Legitimately) (Shut Up Let Us Have This) Struck Out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig
Jackie Mitchell was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on August 29th, 1913, during a time when female athletes were generally regarded as somewhere between “something fiction had yet to invent” and “what you described sounds like…is it a witch? Are you describing a witch?” Despite the disadvantage of her female gender (mainly existing in a time where women had about as many rights as most coniferous trees), she was exposed to the game of baseball at an early age. Like an early age, as in, as soon as she learned how to walk, her dad began teaching her the basics of the sport.
Now, considering that this was a time where most fathers idea of “raising a daughter” combined a healthy combination of drunk neglect and “only sort of making sure the kid doesn’t get dysentery,” Mitchell was substantially luckier than many girls of her era. Adding to that good luck, of course, was her humble neighbor who decided to teach her how to pitch. That pitcher? Hall-of-Famer Dazzy Vance, who taught her his “drop ball” which was known to dazzle and confuse hitters in every level of the game. So armed with two almost impossible-to-find resources (a supportive father in the 1910s and a world class athlete as a neighbor) she began her baseball career.
Now, keep in mind, this era was the baseball equivalent of the Wild Wild West. Shit was crazy, with the MLB existing alongside dozens, if not hundreds, of amateur or semi-professional leagues and teams. So as a 16-year-old, Mitchell became a multi-sport athlete at her high school, which just happened to be connected to the Chattanooga Lookouts, the class AA minor-league team associated with the school. Yes, Minor League teams would just grab players from the local high school back then, apparently.
The team still exists, and their logo is pure insanity.
Joe Engel, the owner of the Lookouts was known for his inventive marketing practices (read as—dude was gimmicky as fuck). He kept his eye on young Jackie Mitchell, who pitched well on her High School team (against male players), often tricking hitters with her deceptive off-speed pitching. On March 25th, 1931, Engel signed Mitchell to the Lookouts at the ripe age of 17. She would play in only one professional game, but it proved to be a doozy. On April 2nd, the New York Yankees came up north from Spring Training to play one of two exhibition games scheduled against the Lookouts, and Mitchell was on the roster.
When the first two batters of the game reached base on hits, the starter was pulled and Mitchell came to the mound, only the second woman to play in a professional baseball game. And who did she get the pleasure to face as her first batter? None other than Babe fucking Ruth. Her drop ball missed for a ball on the first pitch, but the next two pitches had Ruth swinging and missing badly, before the third strike just caught the corner, striking out the legend. Ruth threw his bat in disgust, and yes this all was captured on film.
Following Ruth was Lou Gehrig, coming off a season he batted .379 with 41 home runs and a lead-leaguing 171 RBIs. He struck out in three pitches.
“Eat my dust, boys.”
Mitchell was pulled after walking the next batter, and that ended her career with the Lookouts. The team would go on to lose the game 14-4, but no one cared about the final score. They cared about Jackie Mitchell, who became a sensation for her two strikeouts. Numerous articles with headlines like “Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig” were written, and even the baseball greats themselves commented on her performance. While Gehrig wasn’t quoted in the articles about Mitchell’s feat, Ruth was at least gracious in defeat. Oh wait, scratch that, he said that women could never play a whole season of baseball because they are “too delicate.”
A few days later, her contract was voided by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, since baseball was “too strenuous” for women, to which Mitchell responded by coughing into her glove and shouting “bullshit” repeatedly. That did not end her baseball career, however. In 1931, there were dozens of roving unsanctioned baseball teams, playing exhibitions and sideshows across the country. Mitchell signed onto the House of David (or rather, one of the copycat teams. We’ve written about these guys before. They’re crazy). She would sometimes play with a fake beard, begrudgingly, for publicity, and at one point was asked to pitch while riding a donkey, but she also got to face major league talent in 1933 when she pitched in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals (which the House of David won, 8 to 6), but eventually the gimmicky nature of the team left her feeling unfulfilled, and she left the team in 1937, retiring at the age of 23.
Now, you might be thinking about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the one from A League of Their Own, right now. Yes, Mitchell could have pitched in that league—in 1943 she would have been just 30-years-old, but she refused, partly out of frustration with how she had been treated during her career. She went back to Tennessee to work for her father’s business, and in 1982 would throw out a ceremonial first pitch for the Chattanooga Lookout’s opening day. She passed away in 1987 at the age of 73, content with the knowledge that she had the stuff to strike out some of the best ballplayers of all time.
Now, there is speculation that both Ruth and Gehrig struck out on purpose, to help further the publicity behind the gimmick of “girl pitcher faces Yankee greats.” Baseball historians are split 50/50 on that possibility, with some saying there’s no way she could have stumped both Ruth and Gehrig so effectively, and others saying that she was a pitcher they had never seen before with a breaking ball she learned from a Hall-of-Famer, so fuck yeah she struck them out. We’re not here to declare which side is right, but no she totally struck them out, it was 100% legitimate, don’t you dare take this awesome story away from us.
So there you have it, America. The second ever woman to pitch a professional baseball game (Lizzie Arlington pitched for the Reading Coal Heavers in a Minor league game in 1898) faced just three batters, with two strike outs and a walk. But those strike outs were two of the best 10 players to ever play the game. No big deal. *watches Jackie Mitchell wipe some dirt off her shoulder*