In the depths of the Depression, Joe Engel, the “Baron of Baloney,” would do almost anything to promote his minor league baseball team. The owner of the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Lookouts traded a shortstop for a 25-pound turkey, placed singing canaries in grandstands, and featured elephants and a base-running ostrich in a promotion for a game. Engel was an outstanding self-promoter, too: He named the Lookouts’ ballpark after himself.
But perhaps no Engel promotion generated as much publicity as on April 2, 1931, when he pitched 18-year-old Jackie Mitchell against a New York Yankees team featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Mitchell—one of the few females to play professional baseball against men—struck out the future Hall of Famers in an exhibition game in Chattanooga.
Or did she?
“It was a stunt,” Major League Baseball official historian John Thorn says of the “feat,” which drew nationwide attention. “Mitchell couldn’t break a pane of glass.”
In 1931, Ruth and Gehrig—among the most feared sluggers in baseball history—were an intimidating duo for the big leagues’ best pitchers, let alone an 18-year-old female. In 1930, “The Bambino” led the American League in home runs (49), and “The Iron Horse” topped the AL in runs batted in (173) and total bases (419).
But shortly before her death in 1987, Mitchell insisted her strikeout feat was legit.
“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?”
Jackie Mitchell became a baseball fan an early age. At 5, she reportedly played with the young son of neighbor and future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance, a big-league pitcher who taught her how to throw a sinker. At 9, Mitchell—who lived in Memphis and then moved with her family to Chattanooga—played ball with neighborhood boys. Mom did not approve.
“Now you may as well realize you are not going to play ball with those boys this afternoon,” Virne Mitchell told her daughter, according to a lengthy feature story in the Chattanooga Daily Times in 1933.
“Well, all right,” Jackie said, “but they’ll be a man short if I don’t.”
“A tough, little tomboy,” David Jenkins, author of Baseball in Chattanooga, called Mitchell.
In 1930, Mitchell was playing ball with the Engelettes, a team composed of local women that played games in and near Chattanooga. Later, she refined her game at a baseball academy in Atlanta.
Keen on pumping up attendance at Engel Stadium, Engel signed Mitchell to a minor league contract in early spring 1931 to play exhibitions for the Lookouts. The nation’s newspapers gobbled up the news—a photograph of Mitchell signing her contract, with Dr. Joe Mitchell, her optometrist father, standing nearby, even appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News.
The Chattanooga Daily Times sports section, meanwhile, pitched stereotypes of the era: “When not in uniform, Jackie dons an apron and joins in with the household chores,” read a story below images of Mitchell at home. “…Jackie can take that southpaw flipper and mix a mean batter or swing a wicked broom. Maybe that’s where she got so much power in her flinging arm.”
In early April 1931, en route back to New York from spring training in Florida, the Yankees stopped in Chattanooga for exhibitions against the Lookouts. Engel announced he would pitch his newly signed lefthander against them. The consummate promoter eagerly stoked the fire for the story.
“I think Jackie Mitchell will fool Babe Ruth as he is easily fooled, especially by a girl,” he said, adding, “I don’t think [our outfielders] will have anything to do.”
Days before Mitchell’s debut, a wire service reporter watched as she practiced for the big game with “an obliging neighbor boy” in her backyard. Engel planned to keep her in hiding until the moment she took the mound. “I’ll do my best,” Mitchell told the reporter, “… and will go out there with plenty of pep and with my mind made up on one thing—to fan Babe Ruth.”
The Yankees and Lookouts were to play on April 1, but the game was rained out. Some have speculated a game scheduled for April Fool’s Day revealed Engel’s true intentions. Four New York newspaper reporters interviewed Mitchell that day about her big-league ambitions.
The next day, 4,000 fans attended the exhibition at Engel Stadium. A Universal film crew was on hand to document the event for showing in theaters. Fans didn’t have to wait long for Mitchell to face Ruth. To the roar of the crowd, she took the mound as a reliever in the first inning. Ruth tipped his cap to Mitchell, who was composed despite the hoopla. Her first pitch was a ball inside.
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Then Ruth swung and missed at two more pitches and took a called third strike. Apparently disgusted, he threw down his bat and stalked to the dugout. “Merely acting,” the Chattanooga News described Ruth’s “fit.”
“The Babe performed his role very ably,” reported the New York Times. “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 next batter, Gehrig, went down swinging on three pitches. Mitchell’s girlfriends at the game celebrated.
John Kovach, author of Jackie Mitchell: The Girl Who Loved Baseball, believes Mitchell may have simply fooled Gehrig and Ruth with off-speed pitches. “I have coached baseball for 35 years, and when you see a box score and it says you struck out, you struck out,” he says. “I am not going to put an asterisk by it.”
But Thorn insists it was a PR stunt. “[Gehrig] had a sense of humor, and he would go along with Ruth,” he says. “They both liked Engel.” If it were indeed an orchestrated stunt, neither Ruth nor Gehrig publicly admitted it. Asked about Mitchell’s feat over the years, Engel “always danced around it,” Kovach says.
After walking Tony Lazzeri, the Lookouts’ manager pulled Mitchell. “Evidently,” the Daily Times wrote, “he expected her to whiff them as fast as they came up.” The Lookouts lost, 14-4, but Chattanooga fans didn’t care. Their “feminine flinger” was the big story.
The next day, the nation’s newspapers splashed headlines of Mitchell’s feat across their pages. “Babe Turns Chivalrous, Lets Girl Fan Him Out,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.
The Chattanooga News mentioned Engel, who died in 1969, in the same vein as P.T. Barnum, the master showman. Of Mitchell, the newspaper wrote: “Whatever may be her abilities on the mound, the female hurler is earning her coffee and cakes all right, by bringing in the publicity.”
READ MORE: How the Only Woman in Baseball Hall of Fame Challenged Convention—and MLB
In 1933, Daily Times reported Mitchell had big-league aspirations and wanted to pitch in a World Series. But the lefthander’s baseball career ended in August 1937, after years playing in the Piedmont League and barnstorming, without her getting close to the big leagues. No woman has played in the majors. In the 1930s, Mitchell played on a barnstorming basketball team with Babe Didrikson, perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time.
“She loved baseball,” says Kovach of the shy and reserved Mitchell,”…and I think until the day she died she believed she struck Ruth and Gehrig out.”
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