Mitchell was a 17-year-old pitcher in 1931 when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game, but questions about that exploit linger.
Women have cleared many barriers in sports, but few exploits have been as stunning, and steeped in mystery, as the day Jackie Mitchell struck out two of baseball’s giants, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
It was April 2, 1931, and Mitchell, all of 17, was on the roster of the otherwise all-male Tennessee minor league team the Chattanooga Lookouts, which had signed her to a contract just a week before. The Yankees were in town for an exhibition game as they made their way from spring training in Florida back to New York, and 4,000 people had filled the Lookouts’ stands.
Mitchell took the mound in the first inning, in relief. “The Babe performed his role very ably,” William E. Brandt, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote. “He swung hard at two pitches then demanded that Umpire Owens inspect the ball, just as batters do when utterly baffled by a pitcher’s delivery.”
The third pitch was a strike that left Ruth looking. When the umpire called him out, the Bambino flung his bat away, “registering disgust with his shoulder and chin,” The Times reported. Gehrig took “three hefty swings” and struck out, too.
Mitchell received a standing ovation. “That completed the day’s work for Pitcher Mitchell,” Brandt wrote.
The rest of the game was of little note. Another pitcher replaced Mitchell, and her team lost 14-4.
The next day, The Times article was headlined, “Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig.” Mitchell was pictured standing on the mound, baseball glove in hand, smiling slightly.
But what actually happened that day remains in question. Was the strikeout real, or was it orchestrated by Joe Engel, the Lookouts’ owner, as a publicity stunt?
“There’s a huge divide in beliefs,” said Leslie Heaphy, an associate professor of sports history at Kent State University and the author of “Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball” (2016).
Engel, an inveterate publicity seeker, first noticed Mitchell at an Atlanta baseball training camp in 1931. With Mitchell, the Lookouts would become the only professional baseball team to have a female pitcher at the time. Engel was trying to fill his ballpark during the depths of the Depression, and surely, he may have thought, the novelty of a female pitcher would draw fans as well as some major-league press coverage.
Many contended that Engel had orchestrated the strikeouts of the Yankee greats. Strengthening their case was the very presence of Ruth himself, “another man who was known for doing things to elicit a reaction,” Heaphy said.
And it just seemed implausible to many that a 17-year-old girl could strike out two of the best hitters in the game.
But Mitchell’s defenders argue otherwise.
Virne Beatrice Mitchell was born in Chattanooga on Aug. 29, 1913. She learned to play baseball under the tutelage of her father, Joe Mitchell, in a park near their home. The family lived near the future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance, who was considered the premier strikeout pitcher of the 1920s. Mitchell credits Vance with teaching her how to pitch a “drop ball,” better known today as a sinker.
“Think about a pitcher coming in they’ve never seen before,” Heaphy said. “She’s a lefty with a very deceptive pitch from all accounts.”
And being a lefty against the two left-handed sluggers gave her an advantage.
Another point for the defense: Lou Gehrig was no Babe Ruth. “He was a very serious player who did not take anything lightly,” Heaphy said.
Was he in on a hoax? “I personally find that one hard to believe,” she said
The game against the Yankees completed Mitchell’s career with the Lookouts. It is believed that the baseball commissioner voided Mitchell’s contract after the game, perhaps embarrassed by the episode.
Mitchell’s story is representative of a chapter of the history of women in baseball. Only one other woman, Lizzie Arlington, had signed a professional contract — in 1898, to play in Pennsylvania for the Reading Coal Heavers, of the independent Atlantic League.
Women played baseball on “Bloomer Girls” teams from the 1890s through the 1930s, barnstorming the United States to play men’s teams. The women’s teams — each of which had at least one male player — were thought of more as entertainment than sport. The last of the leagues disbanded in 1934.
It would be another nine years before Philip Wrigley started the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the subject of the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own”), and it was not until the 1990s that the American Women’s Baseball League was formed.
Little is known of what Mitchell did after the game against the Yankees. She is said to have continued to play, pitching for another of Engel’s teams, the Chattanooga Junior Lookouts, through the summer of 1931 and criss-crossing the country for the next two years to capitalize on offers to play in exhibition games. In 1933 she signed with another traveling team, the House of David.
In 1937, at age 23, Mitchell hung up her glove and went to work at her father’s optometry office in Chattanooga.
She died in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., on Jan. 7, 1987, leaving a nephew and cousins as her only survivors, according to a brief obituary by The Associated Press. She was 74.
Ten years after Mitchell’s death, Ila Borders become the first woman to pitch in a regular season professional game, with the minor league St. Paul Saints in Minnesota. And in 2014, Mo’ne Davis became the first girl to throw a shutout in Little League World Series history.
Mitchell’s nephew, Spencer Melton, 69, of Miami, said in a telephone interview that he did not know much about his aunt. Nor was he able to demystify the events of that day on the field in 1931. “I heard she liked baseball, but that’s the extent I knew about Jackie,” he said.
Elizabeth Maurer, the former director of programs for the National Women’s History Museum, said Mitchell’s story fits a narrative that many people find attractive.
“They like to find these women from the past who didn’t just succeed in male-dominated professional fields, but they beat the men,” Maurer said.
“But the problem with that is that Jackie Mitchell didn’t actually win,” she added. “She didn’t get to keep that contract.”
In an interview shortly before her death, Mitchell stood her ground in defending the legitimacy of her fanning Ruth and Gehrig.
“Why, hell, they were trying — damn right,” she said. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”