November 9, 2018
The New York Times has recently tried to correct a historical oversight, by publishing the obituaries of women and people of color whose stories went unreported at the time. Yesterday, the Times wrote about Jackie Mitchell.
Mitchell was the only female on the roster of a minor baseball team called the Chattanooga Lookouts. According to her Wikipedia page, Mitchell was signed chiefly as a publicity stunt during the Depression, but there’s no doubt she could bring it. She grew up near the home of future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance, who taught her how to pitch a “drop ball” (what today is referred to as a sinker).
She made national news on April 2, 1931 when, at the age of 17, she pitched in an exhibition game matching the Lookouts against the powerful New York Yankees. In the first inning of the game, she faced Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, in succession.
And she struck them both out.
The lingering question is whether it was all a stunt. The contemporaneous Times article is equivocal. The writer notes that “Ruth performed his role very ably,” that he “swung hard at two pitches,” and that he then demanded that the umpire inspect the ball “just as batters do when utterly baffled by a pitcher’s delivery.” But Ruth was a notorious showman. On the other hand, Gehrig, who “took three hefty swings” was less likely to join in on such a hoax and, after Gehrig struck out, Mitchell then pitched to Yankee second baseman Tony Lazzeri, who tried to bunt the first pitch, then took four straight balls and walked to first base. If it was a stunt, why walk Lazzeri?
Shortly before she died in 1987, Mitchell insisted that the strikeouts were legitimate. “Hell,” she said, “better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”