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Jackie Mitchell: beyond Babe Ruth

Jackie Mitchell is best-known for striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but the rest of her career proves far more important.

Reading Times, July 21, 1933, pg. 11.

The year was 1933, and all the world had gathered in Chicago. Vast displays of science and technology filled the city’s World Fair Century of Progress Exhibition. In a country years separated from social and economic progress, people flocked to Chicago, intent on witnessing spectacles providing hope for the future. As an added bonus, Major League Baseball gathered its brightest stars on the same field for the first time, offering its fans a true extravaganza. But due to the country’s harsh economic conditions, millions of people could not afford to travel great distances, and so as those fortunate few returned to their homes and the eager ears of their neighbors, various pieces of the exhibit began to tour the country. And so 700 miles and a lifetime away, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Jackie Mitchell sat in the world’s largest high chair, still too small to reach her dreams.

Growing up, Jackie had always dreamed of being a professional baseball player. From a young age, she received lessons from her neighbor, future Hall of Famer Charles Arthur “Dazzy” Vance. At the age of 16, she joined a women’s team in her hometown Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Engelettes. By this time — over 35 years since the creation of the Boston Bloomer Girls, and over 70 since that of the all-black women’s team the Philadelphia Dolly Vardens — women had carved out a position for themselves in baseball, demonstrating that in addition to the formation of girls’ teams, they were able to compete among boys and men at the amateur and semi-pro level. But beyond these relatively scarce opportunities, there was nothing. Since Lizzie Arlington’s appearance with the minor league Reading Coal Heavers in 1898, it was understood that women must have no place in professional baseball.

Then the Great Depression hit. Teams became desperate to create business, and there it was: opportunity. Joe Engel, owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts and master of publicity stunts, approached Jackie at a tryout, immediately signing her to a contract and promising her an appearance in the coming exhibition game against the New York Yankees.

But two years into the Depression — and 32 years into the unofficial ban of women in baseball — opportunity without support was not enough. Leading up to the performance, Mitchell’s appearance was already described as a one-off, the “climax to a brief but spectacular career.”[1] Other papers instantly belittled Mitchell, labeling her a girl “who has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick,” indistinguishable in validity from other circus stunts such as sword swallowing.[2]

Only one publication, the Chattanooga Times, focused on Jackie Mitchell the pitcher, providing a scouting report: “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.”[3] For most, it was to be a true David vs. Goliath battle, in which many were rooting for Goliath.

The outcome of the appearance is well-known; Mitchell struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig before being lifted from the game after walking Tony Lazzeri. Immediately after, newspapers questioned the validity of these strikeouts: “But a ‘catch’ was seen in the act when the Babe politely tipped his hat when he came to bat, swung wildly at a couple of pitches that fans thought he might have hit easily, and let the third go past for a called strike. And Lyn Larry on first base did not try to steal while Jackie took a long windup.”[4]

Ruth himself added to this narrative, telling newspapers, “Don’t you say anything to hurt this little girl! She’s all right. I got perhaps 50 fan letters asking me if I was ‘going to let her strike me out.’ Four boy scouts personally asked me the same question at Chattanooga.”[5] Jackie Mitchell obviously could not have struck out Babe Ruth without his consent.

On the heels of this outing and likely in an effort to protect his stars from embarrassment, MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract with the Lookouts and banned her from major and minor league baseball, asserting that the sport was “too strenuous” for women to play. But women, on the heels of Mitchell’s appearance, did play. Vada Corbus, a catcher, signed on April 28th with the Joplin Miners, a minor league team in Missouri, and had goals of playing for a major league team. Corbus, however, met the same fate as Mitchell; as soon as the National Association learned of her, they forbid her from appearing in any games. Landis, the players, and the owners hoped that eliminating these female players would further perpetuate the illusion that women could not play baseball.[6]

Nonetheless, now an established spectacle, Jackie was selected by Kid Elberfeld to be a part of his traveling band of all-stars, a selection of former players and promising youths. Though Mitchell’s contract had been voided, she was still professional property of the Lookouts, who agreed to loan her out for the remainder of the season. A testament to her performance as well as an indictment on the status of women in America, newspapers titled Mitchell “the most talked-about woman in America,” urging people to attend her team’s games and view this “female attraction.”[7]

The publicity worked, and in July, Mitchell was loaned to the House of David team, an Israelite team from Benton Harbor, Michigan known for its players’ long beards and frequently dubbed the “Jesus Boys.” Mitchell played off-and-on with the team for several seasons, pitching one inning in each game, and bringing sellout crowds wherever they went. It was apparent to all that Mitchell’s tours with the club were primarily about publicity, and she frequently donned a fake beard on the mound in recognition of such, but she proved time and again to possess great talent, stifling the offenses of many professional teams, including the Cardinals, Brewers, and Kansas City Blues. However, these feats often went unrecognized, as many promoted solely Mitchell’s attractiveness as reason to attend games, either neglecting her pitching statistics entirely or throwing them in at the end of articles, knowing few would read that far.[8]

Mitchell bounced around from amateur team to amateur team over the next several years, having to continuously prove her ability to market herself and her prowess as a pitcher. Playing primarily in small towns, Mitchell made the bulk of her money by agreeing to appear in various local shops to help them sell new products, from nylons to kitchen gadgets. She spent her mornings touring Main Street shops, her afternoons at the ballpark, and her evenings reading about her shortcomings.

Newspapers in these towns constantly predicted her demise, asserting “it isn’t likely she will last very long as she will stack up against one of the hardest hitting clubs in baseball.”[9] Few took this “typical southern beauty” seriously as an athlete, falsely claiming that “weighing no more than 130 pounds, she lacks the power to throw a fast ball.”[10] Other reports acknowledged her pedigree and schooling, pacifying those anxious suitors who feared baseball would make her too unfeminine.[11]

Toward the end of her career, some newspapers began to acknowledge her talent, but it was always connected to her gender. She was “the best left-handed girl pitcher in baseball anywhere,” whose skills on the mound mirror those of a “movie queen.”[12] Frustrated by this gendered language manifested in her role of a publicity stunt, Mitchell quit baseball after the 1937 season.

In her six years in amateur-professional baseball, Mitchell’s career outlived several other women attempting to make it a career, including third baseman Frances Dunlop and the aforementioned Vada Corbus, and each failed attempt left Mitchell increasingly dejected. She began to sour on organized baseball as a whole and finally rejected the game that had spent its entire life doing the same to women. Her once-promising baseball career ended at the age of 23.

In 1952, Major League Baseball officially banned women as players. Jackie Mitchell died in 1987, five years before the ban was lifted. In that time, Mitchell slipped into obscurity; those who had clamored to see her pitch or lined up to meet her at the world’s largest high chair disappeared. To those who did remember her, she became “that girl who struck out Babe Ruth” — and then “there’s a girl who struck out Babe Ruth?”

In the 87 years since Mitchell’s appearance against the Yankees, her talent has become no less questioned, and her life no less connected to the other forgotten names of Lizzie Arlington and Ila Borders. But these women are not forgotten because of the narrow scope of their talent; it is, in fact, the reverse, and so we might take comfort in knowing that when women are given the opportunity, they will ensure they are not so easily forgotten.

Notes

[1] Anniston Star, April 1, 1931, pg. 8.

[2] New York Daily News, March 30, 1931, pg. 12.

[3] March 31, 1931, pg. 7.

[4] Oshkosh Northwestern, April 3, 1931.

[5] Anniston Star, April 5, 1931, pg 14.

[6] Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, “Baseball: The People’s Game” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 502.

[7] Anniston Star, June 7, 1931, pg. 12.

[8] Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune, September 22, 1933, pg. 9.

[9] Harrisburg Telegraph, July 2, 1937, pg. 20

[10] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 11, 1937, pg. 32.

[11] Mansfield News-Journal, August 9, 1937, pg. 12.

[12] Warren Times Mirror, June 21, 1937, pg. 7.


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.