When Babe Ruth went down on strikes in an exhibition game in Chattanooga in 1931, it was at the hand of a pitcher described as having “a swell change of pace,” as well as a “mean lipstick.”
That pitcher was teenage left-hander Jackie Mitchell, one of the most talented female hurlers ever to take the mound, and a pioneer for women in the sport, despite being run out of professional baseball just as her career was starting.
A talented athlete from an early age, Virnett Mitchell answered to “Jackie,” and at the age of seven or eight, received pitching pointers from future Hall of Fame right-hander Dazzy Vance. Encouraged by her father, Mitchell participated in many sports, excelling at tennis, basketball, boxing, and running, as well as shooting. Being left-handed made her a commodity on the pitcher’s mound, where reportedly she once struck out nine men consecutively as a teenager in a sandlot game.
It was the “Barnum of Baseball,” Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel, who made Mitchell a professional ballplayer. Engel, a former big league player who scouted for the Washington Senators after his playing days, was known for his innovative, entertaining, and often zany promotional stunts. He once traded his shortstop for a 25-pound turkey, and then invited sportswriters to his house to eat the turkey for dinner.
Engel inked Mitchell to a minor-league contract in 1931, after spotting her in a baseball camp in Georgia. With the 17-year old Mitchell under contract, Engel promoted his Lookouts as the only club with a female pitcher. An exhibition game was scheduled between the Lookouts and the New York Yankees for April Fool’s Day. However, rain forced the game to be played on April 2, and Mitchell would make her debut against professional competition one day later than planned.
In the first inning, after starter Clyde Barfoot surrendered hits to the Yankees’ first two batters, Mitchell was called upon to face the heart of “Murderers’ Row,” Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
The Chattanooga News provided a scouting report on Mitchell: “She uses an odd, side-armed delivery, and puts both speed and curve on the ball. Her greatest asset, however, is control. She can place the ball where she pleases, and her knack at guessing the weakness of a batter is uncanny.”
That uncanny knack came in handy when Mitchell faced Ruth, who watched her first sinker dart low for ball one. Mitchell followed with a sinker on the outside corner, which the Babe swung through and missed. Grinning, the “Sultan of Swat” swung at the next offering and missed for strike two. The next pitch was another sinker on the corner of the plate, which Ruth watched sail by for called strike three. At that point, according to The Baseball Chronology, the Babe “kicked the dirt” and “gave his bat a wild heave” as he stormed unhappily to the dugout.
“After I threw the second strike, I settled down a little. I figured then that it wasn’t going to be so hard for me to get the ball over the plate,” Mitchell said years later in an interview.
Next up was Gehrig, who promptly missed three straight dipping sinkers, swinging early each time. On seven pitches, Mitchell had struck out Ruth and Gehrig, two of the game’s greatest sluggers. The Chattanooga crowd responded with a rousing standing ovation. Mitchell faced the next Yankees’ batter, second baseman Tony Lazzeri, who tried to bunt the first pitch but failed. Lazzeri eventually walked and Mitchell was removed from the game. Engel had maximized her gate appeal by using her to face the heart of baseball’s greatest lineup. The 17-year old had squared off against three future Hall of Famers, striking out two of them. The next day, one newspaper would speculate that “maybe her curves were too much for them.”
Unfortunately for Mitchell, her game against the Yankees turned out to be her last as a professional in organized baseball. Within days, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract and declared that baseball was too strenuous for women. But her fame was not voided. She was “The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth,” a fact that Engel capitalized on. Mitchell landed a contract with the Engelettes, an all-female team in Chattanooga. In subsequent years, Mitchell played in the outlaw Piedmont League, toured with female golfer/athlete Babe Didrikson, and pitched for the famous “House of David” barnstorming teams of the 1930s. In 1937, at the age of 23, Mitchell retired from baseball and exited the spotlight. When the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League debuted less than a decade later, Mitchell resisted offers to get back into the game. Forty-five years later, in 1982, the 68-year-old Jackie threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Chattanooga Lookouts on opening day. She died in 1987.
Various sources disagree as to whether Mitchell’s strikeout performance against Ruth and Gehrig was legitimate or part of an orchestrated ruse. Lazzeri was on record as saying: “I had no intention of striking out, I planned to hit the ball.” According to the Hall of Fame’s Amanda Pinney, a Mitchell expert who has researched the incident, Jackie maintained to her dying day that the strikeouts were real. “They [Ruth and Gehrig] had no intention of striking out,” Pinney said. “The game was an exhibition, but the only instructions the players got were to not hit the ball back up the middle against Jackie.”
Ruth and Gehrig never had to worry about hitting the ball up the middle. They never even made contact.