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With historic K's, Mitchell carved own legend

Teenage girl pitches for Lookouts, whiffs Yanks' Ruth, Gehrig
Yankees legends Lou Gehrig (left) and Babe Ruth look on as Chattanooga pitcher Jackie Mitchell warms up. (AP Photo)
April 2, 2020

There are many legends surrounding Babe Ruth and his mighty bat, his larger-than-life persona that commanded every ballpark and every camera. But this tale is about the Great Bambino striking out and the pitcher who maybe fooled him. This is a story about a girl named Jackie.

There are many legends surrounding Babe Ruth and his mighty bat, his larger-than-life persona that commanded every ballpark and every camera. But this tale is about the Great Bambino striking out and the pitcher who maybe fooled him.

This is a story about a girl named Jackie.

On March 28, 1931 Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engle signed Jackie Mitchell to pitch for his Double-A squad against the Yankees in an exhibition game. Jean Patrick, author of "The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth," says it was common back then for teams like New York to stop in Minor League towns on the train ride home from Spring Training in Florida.

"But what was different of course was that Jackie was playing," Patrick said.

The game was originally scheduled for April 1. The April Fools' Day date may have been enough to raise questions, but people were even more suspicious that this was a publicity stunt due to the fact that it was Engle who set it up.

"He was the P.T. Barnum of the bush leagues. He was known for sometimes extravagant promotions," said Andy Broome, author of "Her Curves Were Too Much for Them."

"During the Depression, he once gave away a home with a car in the garage. He traded a player once for a turkey. He did some amazing publicity and promotions for Minor League Baseball."

While Broome recognizes Engle saw the money-making potential in signing Mitchell, he believes the owner also saw talent.

At 17 (or, according to some reports, 18), Mitchell had a few years of semi-pro ball under her belt, playing for both men's and women's teams in Chattanooga and working with Major Leaguer Dazzy Vance. Many took notice of Mitchell when she struck out nine men at the age of 16, per Patrick. Mitchell was very athletic and also played semi-pro basketball, added Broome. The left-hander was training in Atlanta with former Major Leaguer Kid Elberfeld when Engle observed and formulated a plan.

"[Engle] brought her in. He knew this could actually work," Broome said. "He knew this was more than a publicity stunt, that she wasn't going to go out there and get embarrassed."

April 1 came and so did the rains, pushing Mitchell's big debut to the following day. In front of a crowd of 4,000, Clyde Barfoot got the start for the Lookouts. But after Earle Combs doubled and Lyn Lary singled him in, Chattanooga manager Bert Niehoff placed a call to the bullpen.

Thirty-three years after Lizzie Arlington became the first woman to play pro baseball and 12 years before the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League would form, Mitchell toed the rubber against the Yankees.

First up: arguably the greatest hitter of all time.

Ruth stepped into the box, and took a high first pitch for a ball. After swinging through the next two pitches, the Sultan of Swat took the fourth pitch for strike three. Ruth slammed his bat down in anger and turned back to the umpire, likely to argue the call.

"What a lot of people said about her was that she had an uncanny knack to outguess the batters," Patrick said. "She had phenomenal control and she could make that ball drop, whether it was a sinker or a form of a curve that dropped -- I mean, who knows exactly what it was."

Mitchell could exhale, but only for a second. Another legendary batter was coming up in Lou Gehrig. The reliever got the Iron Horse to whiff on three pitches for the second punchout of her fabled debut. And after walking Tony Lazzeri on five pitches, Mitchell's outing was done. Broome says the southpaw was supposed to pitch longer, but she had overworked her arm in preparation for the big game.

"I am glad of having the pleasure of pitching against Mr. Ruth and Mr. Gehrig. I think they are both fine men and great ballplayers," Mitchell told reporters, per Patrick. "I see nothing strange about my striking them out. At least stranger things have happened. Not even the best batters can hit them all. I only tried to do my best and I am the happiest girl in the world."

Mitchell went on to play for other professional teams as well as House of David, the barnstorming baseball team of a Michigan commune that put on Harlem Globetrotter-like exhibition games to raise money.

Debate still swirls over how her contract with the Lookouts was terminated or if it was just for one day in the first place. Many say commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided the contract (potentially for sexist reasons), though John Thorn -- Major League Baseball's official historian -- said a commissioner wouldn't get involved with a Minor League contract. Broome follows the theory that Mitchell herself wanted out of the contract. He also speculates that a wire service probably picked up the idea of the commissioner voiding the contract, which would put that idea in papers across the country.

In a 1933 interview with the _Muscatine Journal and News, _Mitchell's father, Dr. Joe Mitchell, said, "She is still the property of Chattanooga… She was loaned to the House of David club for the summer, just as she has been loaned to many other clubs."

The biggest question surrounding Mitchell's 2/3 inning though is whether Ruth and Gehrig struck out on purpose.

"There's no question that it was a stunt, that it was prearranged," Thorn said. "Joe Engle, who's a master showman certainly positions this as a stunt and invited both Gehrig and Ruth to play their parts. It's important to remember that Ruth had appeared in several movies, so he was an experienced actor. As you can see from the way he flung his bat away after taking strike three."

Along with noting the originally scheduled date of the game, Thorn added that when watching the footage, "you can see how hilarious it is to think that her 65-mph fastball fooled anybody."

On the contrary, Patrick thinks the low speed worked in Mitchell's favor, likening it to an inexperienced kid coming in to pitch against players who are used to seeing speeds much faster. Ruth and Gehrig were prepared to face pitches in the 90s.

Another point of contention Patrick brings up is why either would do this, as neither needed the money. She argues that Ruth was not known to respect women while Gehrig was too "upstanding" to falsify any game. Patrick does concede that they probably could have figured Mitchell out with another at-bat. Broome added that Mitchell never tried to profit off her story and always maintained it was real.

"Not one person ever said that this was a setup or that they were told to do something or not do something on both sides, Yankees and the Lookouts," Broome said. "In fact, some players that were asked about it [like] Tony Lazzari made the comments, 'The only thing I was told was, "Don't hit one up the middle and kill her. Don't kill her with a line drive," he said. 'That's all they told me.'"

Thorn thinks it is just another example of how society builds up historic figures.

"People will say things. People will believe things. And it's a function of hope and perhaps ideology to make more of certain historical pioneers than their life stories might merit," he said. "The rise of women in sport, which is commendable and genuine, will sometimes look to its roots and pretty up the story in ways that are ahistorical."

Whether it's a David vs. Goliath tale, a case for seeing history the way we want to, or simply, a woman with a wicked curve, people will always wonder what story lies beyond the box score.

But no matter what "really" happened, Mitchell remains a legend in her own right.

The Lookouts continue to honor her legacy -- having her to throw out the first pitch in 1982 and more recently creating a bobblehead of her -- so that future generations can remember what was possible on that fateful April day.

"It is an incredibly inspirational story," Patrick said. "That no matter what the odds, don't ever, ever, ever give up."

Kelsie Heneghan is a reporter for Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.