I have to admit I knew nothing about who Jackie Mitchell was. I ran across her name through reading another blog and that inspired quite a conversation with and inspired this post some time ago.
In 1931, the owner of the Southern Association’s AA Chattanooga Lookouts signed a talented, 17-year-old pitcher named Jackie Mitchell. Desperate for an “edge” to increase ticket sales Joe Engel opted to bill his team as the ONLY club to feature a female on the mound and the demure Mitchell fit that bill. Although she was not the first female player to sign in the minor leagues as Lizzie Arlington had broken through that barrier in 1898 while pitching a single game for Reading PA’s team against neighboring Allentown, she was by far the best and would soon prove it to herself (and the world) against three of the greatest.
As was customary back in the day, major league teams often traveled the country playing against members of their minor league’s farm system. This gave the locals an opportunity to see big league players in towns that did not boast big league franchises. It also kept the players in off-season shape – both in body and mind. In April of ’31, the New York Yankees stopped in Chattanooga for an exhibition game, on their way home from spring training down south. Billed as a huge event due to the appearance of “Murderers Row”, over 4,000 fans turned out along with scores of newspaper reporters and photographers.
Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff initially started the game with Clyde Barfoot, but after he surrendered a double and a single, the signal was sent out for Jackie Mitchell. Imagine the expressions on the Yankees’ faces when the rookie southpaw (in a custom-made baggy white uniform) stepped up on to the mound to face their team. Even worse, imagine the pressure she endured, as the first batter of her baseball career was none other than the “Sultan of Swat” Babe Ruth!
Mitchell’s pitching arsenal consisted of only 1 pitch – a dropping curve ball known as a “sinker” and she used it like no other ace had before (or after). A grinning Bambino took ball one, and then swung at (and missed) the next two. Jackie’s fourth pitch caught the corner of the plate for a called-strike infuriating an embarrassed Ruth who promptly threw his bat and stomped back into the Yankees’ dugout.
Next up was non-other than “The Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig who followed the Babe’s lead and swung at three in a row for “K” number two. In just seven pitches, Mitchell had sat down two of the greatest sluggers ever to don the pinstripes. After a lengthy standing ovation, Jackie walked Tony Lazzeri and was pulled in favor of the returning Barfoot. Despite her historical performance on the mound, the Yankees went on to win the contest 14-4.
A few days later, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract, claiming that baseball was “too strenuous” for a woman. It was a gross injustice and an obvious ploy to curb the embarrassment of their bruised male egos. (MLB formally banned the signing of women to contracts on June 21, 1952).
Determined to press on, Jackie began barnstorming, traveling across the country pitching in exhibition games and in 1933, she signed on with a men’s team known as the House of David (for their long hair and beards). Mitchell traveled with them until 1937, but eventually became disenchanted with the recurring “circus-type” antics that she was called upon to do like playing an inning while riding a donkey. Fed up with baseball, she later retired at the tender age of 23 and took an office job with her father’s company.
Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday spotslights…Jackie Mitchell.