By Michael LeCompte
Jackie Mitchell grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee and learned to love the game of baseball, especially pitching, from a neighbor. She primarily threw a “drop pitch” or what today would be considered a 12-6 curveball, that dropped out of the strike zone as it crossed the plate.
In 1931 at the age of 17 Mitchell was signed by the Chattanooga Lookouts, a double-A team. The Lookouts President Joe Engel added her to the team as a depression-era publicity stunt and the move was not well received in the press, with one paper commenting that “the curves won’t be all on the ball.”
The Yankees stopped in Chattanooga for two games against the Lookouts on their way home from spring training in 1931. In the first game Mitchell accomplished the monumental feat of striking out two of the greatest baseball players of all time, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, back to back.
After the first two batters of the game the Lookout’s starting pitcher was pulled and Mitchell was brought in to face the Sultan of Swat and the Iron Horse in front of 4,000 fans.
Her first pitch to Ruth was low for a ball. He swung through the next two, and then was called out on a pitch over the outside corner of the plate that he didn’t swing at.
Mitchell then struck Gehrig out on three straight pitches, with him swinging and missing on all three.
After walking the next batter Mitchell was pulled from the game and the Lookouts went on to lose 14-4.
Mitchell’s performance was the stuff of instant legend and was profiled in the national newspapers of the time. However, the strikeouts were seen as nothing more than a publicity stunt by some, with the New York Times writing that Ruth, “performed his role very ably” and that Gehrig “took three hefty swings as his contribution to the occasion.”
Critics of Mitchell’s accomplishment, in 1931 and since, point to the fact that the game, played on April 2, was originally scheduled for the previous day, April Fool’s day, before being rained out and therefore it must have been a stunt.
Only Ruth and Gehrig could have quieted the critics who claimed they intentionally struck out. Gehrig was always silent on the matter and all Ruth ever said about being struck out by a woman was “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball.”
Shortly before her death in 1987 Mitchell reiterated what she had always believed, that her strikeouts were legitimate, by saying of Ruth and Gehrig, “why hell they were trying, damn right.”
If they were legitimate strikeouts then perhaps they are not that surprising. Mitchell was left-handed, as were both Ruth and Gehrig. The lefty vs. lefty matchup naturally favors the pitcher. Ruth may have been one of the greatest home run hitters ever, but he was also a free swinger who struck out over 1300 times in his career.
Hitting a baseball is about timing and familiarity. Ruth and Gehrig had certainly never faced Mitchell before, so perhaps their swinging strikes were not so unexpected.
Myths, memories, and half-truths are part of any legend, including baseball. From Abner Doubleday supposedly inventing the sport to Babe Ruth perhaps calling his shot and the possibility of a farmer’s goat cursing a team, sports legends may be grounded in fact, parts of them may be embellished, but they are still part of the game, comprising its colorful history.
Likewise, Mitchell may have been signed as a publicity stunt, but it’s also probable that both Ruth and Gehrig underestimated her skills as a pitcher and that she legitimately struck them out.
Although Mitchell retired from baseball in 1937 to work for her family’s optometrist business, her time on the diamond resulted in the memory of a lifetime, that of striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back to back.