86 years ago today, April 2, 1931, 17-year-old southpaw Jackie Mitchell, the second woman to play baseball in the all-male minor leagues, pitched an exhibition game against the NY Yankees and struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the most feared hitting duo in baseball history, back to back. The next day, the Baseball Commissioner voided her contract, claiming baseball was too strenuous for women.
According to a Smithsonian article written by “lifelong baseball nerd” Tony Horwitz about Jackie and this legendary day, “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.”
However, women athletes with real ability began competing with men and sometimes playing on the same teams in semipro leagues around the turn of the century. The first to appear in baseball’s minor leagues was Lizzie Arlington and Jackie Mitchell was the second.
“They are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.” – Babe Ruth, on women in baseball
Horwitz goes on to explain how Jackie got into baseball, “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.”
In 1931, the Chattanooga Lookouts’ new president, Joe Engel, “a showman and promoter” known for orchestrating stunts, booked the NY Yankees for two exhibition games against his team. As Horwitz recounts, “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.”
When word got out that this 17-year-old girl would be facing the mighty Yankees, a media frenzy ensued (Twitter may have actually broken if social media existed back then). One paper wrote, “The curves won’t be all on the ball” when “pretty” Jackie Mitchell takes the mound.
On game day, April 2, 1931, Jackie seemingly played to the cameras, “as she warmed up by taking out a mirror and powdering her nose.”
The Lookouts’ first game against the Yankees was played in front of a crowd of 4,000 fans and journalists. It began with the Lookouts’ starting pitcher surrendering hits to the first two batters. Horwitz writes, “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.’”
As Jackie took the mound, first up to hit was Babe Ruth and then Lou Gehrig. She struck them both out in succession. When she walked the next batter, Tony Lazzeri, Jackie was pulled from the game. The Yankees went on to defeat the Lookouts, 14-4, and the following day, the Baseball Commissioner voided Jackie’s contract on the grounds that baseball was too strenuous for women.
Today, the legitimacy of this historic moment is the subject of great debate as many claim Jackie’s domination over these two baseball greats was nothing more than a PR stunt orchestrated by Ruth, Gehrig and the Lookouts’ president. Though others argue this explanation is nothing more than a cover up to shield their massive male egos after being shut down by a girl.
In his Smithsonian piece, which is a truly fascinating read, Mr. Horwitz goes through all of the theories that have been thrown around over the years surrounding this event. It seems it’s a mystery that may never be solved, but makes for a really great story about a captivating moment in women’s (and sports’) history.
Whether fact or fiction, Jackie Mitchell has her rightful place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, in a small exhibit on women in baseball titled “Diamond Dreams.”
Lead image: Jackie Mitchell, the 17-year old star of the Chattanooga Lookouts, shakes hands with NY Yankees greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig before their big game on April 2, 1931.