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Today in Herstory: Jackie Mitchell Strikes Out Baseball’s Greats

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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April 2, 1931: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig struck out today, felled by a teenager who needed only seven pitches to earn herself a place in baseball history.

Jackie Mitchell, signed for the season on March 28th by Tennessee’s “Chattanooga Lookouts,” a Class AA minor league team, pitched her legendary “sinker” in an annual exhibition game with the New York Yankees, on their way home from Spring Training in Florida.

Since Major League baseball teams are an Eastern and Midwestern phenomenon (no clubs farther South than Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati and none farther West than St. Louis), Southern fans always pack the stands for the rare opportunity to see big league ballplayers locally even if it’s only for practice. The contest here always attracts a good deal of attention from the local press and comments made yesterday by the “Sultan of Swat” clearly increased the public’s interest even more.

Gehrig, Ruth and Mitchell, earlier today as she was warming up.
Gehrig, Ruth and Mitchell, earlier today as she was warming up.

According to Ruth: “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they let women play in baseball. Of course, they never will make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.” Despite his confidence, he did seem concerned enough to ask a reporter: “By the way, how big is she?” When told she was five feet eight inches tall, he simply said: “Well, I don’t know what things are coming to.” He found out today.

After the starting pitcher gave up a double and a run-scoring single, Mitchell was sent in just as it became Ruth’s turn at bat. Her first pitch was a ball, but the next two were right over the plate. Though the Bambino gave them his best swings, it was to no avail. He then demanded that the umpire inspect the ball. It was found to be in perfectly legal condition, so whatever tricks it was playing on the Babe were due solely to the pitcher’s skill.

Mitchell then shot another pitch, which Ruth apparently thought wasn’t quite in the strike zone, so he ignored it. But the umpire saw it as a third strike and the Home Run King, who hit 49 round-trippers last year and had a .359 batting average, vigorously disputed the call, then flung away his bat and trudged to the bench.

Next up was Lou Gehrig, who hit 41 home runs and batted .379 last year against the American League’s best pitchers. But he proved no match for Mitchell. The “Iron Horse” went down swinging at all three pitches.

Taught to play ten years ago by neighbor Dazzy Vance, who now plays for the Brooklyn Dodgers, this wasn’t Mitchell’s first time pitching against males. Last year, when she played for the Engelettes, a girls’ team from Chattanooga, she threw nine strike-outs in seven innings against a boys’ team. Though she only pitched 2/3 of an inning today, relieved after letting Tony Lazzari walk, it was a great day for baseball fans – and for women in sports.


UPDATE: Soon afterward, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract and justified his ruling by alleging that baseball was “too strenuous” for women. The ban would later become a formal rule of Major League Baseball from 1952 until 1992.

But Mitchell did manage to play ball for an independent male team known as the House of David, that did exhibition games around the country. Though she chose not to come out of retirement to play for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943, she always remained interested in the game and in 1982 threw out the ceremonial first pitch for her old team, the Chattanooga Lookouts.

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