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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jackie Mitchell

On April 2nd. 1931 a 17-year old girl took the mound for the double A professional minor league team the Chattanooga Lookouts. This was only the second time in the history of professional baseball that a woman came this close to pitching in the major leagues.
Virne Beatrice “Jackie Mitchell” was born in Memphis Tennessee sometime between the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I. Jackie’s dad loved baseball and he had aspirations for his daughter to be the first women to make it the majors. Mr. Mitchell’s neighbor was Dazzy Vance a future hall of fame pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dazzy taught Jackie his famous drop pitch and the art of focusing and control on the mound.
Both Dazzy and her dad constantly worked with her and by the age of seven Jackie had already mastered the drop pitch and became a childhood star in the sand lot league in and around Memphis. Jackie also excelled at basketball, tennis, running, shooting and boxing.
At sixteen she played for a professional women’s team in Chattanooga and at seventeen signed a contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts a double A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Jackie had many offers from professional women’s teams but turned them down to play in the men’s league with the hope of going on to triple A and then on to “the show” as those in the minor leagues called it.
In March of that year The Chattanooga News wrote:

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.... She doesn't hope to enter the big show this season, but she believes that with careful training she may soon be the first woman to pitch in the big leagues.
Each year as the New York Yankees would break from spring training they would venture up to Chattanooga on their way to New York to play the lookouts in an exhibition game. The 1931 Yankees were a powerhouse club that featured Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Dixie Walker, Red Ruffing and Tony Lazzeri.
A capacity crowd of over 4000 filled Lookout Stadium to cheer on their local heroes and pray for a miracle. Seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell was brought in early in the game to face Babe Ruth with runners on the corners. Jackie struck out Ruth on four pitches and then struck out Lou Gehrig on three quick drop pitches.
Jackie became an overnight hero as word quickly spread around baseball that a teenage girl had struck out two of baseballs greatest icons.
This news did not please the current commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis was a former federal judge who ruled with absolute power and was dubbed “the baseball tyrant” by many of the sports journalists. He was the man who banned “shoeless Joe Jackson” for life following the 1919 Black Sox scandal. When Landis heard of Mitchell’s performance he cancelled Jackie’s contract on the grounds that baseball was “too strenuous for women.” He then went on to ban all women from the sport, a ban that was not lifted until 1992.
Jackie was out of a job but wanted to keep playing ball and soon hooked up with The Israelite House of David. The Israelite House of David was a religious commune that was founded by Benjamin Purnell and his wife Mary in Benton Harbor, Michigan around the year1902. It was their belief that by gathering all the twelve lost tribes of Israel together it would hasten the return of the messiah. To be a member of the commune one must refrain from sex, haircuts, shaving, and the eating of meat.
To support his spiritual undertaking Mr. Purnell operated an amusement park, a zoo, bowling alleys, sponsored a traveling jazz band and at least three baseball teams. By 1915 he had a number teams on the road barnstorming away and playing against other semi-pro teams, minor league teams and various clubs in the Negro Leagues. Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige referred to the Israelite House of David team as “the Jesus boys.” Baseball became so popular with the House of David commune that they needed to enlist players outside of their organization and in 1932 signed the lefty female phenom Jackie Mitchell.
Jackie toured with the bearded boys for five years. On September 12th. 1933 she started an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals where she was the winning pitcher. The next morning a sports writer for a local St. Louis paper wrote:
Benton Harbor's nomadic House of David ball team, beards, girl pitcher and all, came, saw and conquered the Cardinals, 8 to 6, last night at Sportsman's Park.

It was while touring with The House of David that Jackie became friends with olympic champion Babe Didrikson.
Though Jackie did have her moments of glory, life on the road for a female pitcher in the mid 1930’s was no easy chore. Being a woman in baseball left her as a target for endless degrading jokes and she choose to retire in 1936 at the age of twenty-three. She returned to Chattanooga and worked for her father in the optometry business and latter married. She passed away in 1987 at the age of seventy-three.
Shortly after her death many critics dismissed the fact that she struck out Ruth and Gehrig at the age of seventeen. Some baseball aficionados claim that it was a stunt set up by Joe Engel the president and owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts. According to Jackie Mitchell’s biographer Jean L.S. Patrick there is film footage that clearly shows that both Ruth and Gehrig were fooled by her drop pitch. Also Ruth was quoted in a local paper shortly after the game as saying:

"I don't know what's going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day."

Baseball Hall of Fame researcher Amanda Pinney has studied the incident and has repeatedly said that the strikeouts were real. Ruth and Gehrig had every intention of hitting the ball. Tony Lazzeri the Yankee second baseman who was on deck while Gehrig went down swinging confirms Pinney’s conclusions.
The kindest notice I found in the press about Jackie was from the New York Times dated April 4th. 1931:

Cynics may contend that on the diamond as elsewhere it is place aux dames. Perhaps Miss Jackie hasn't quite enough on the ball yet to bewilder Ruth and Gehrig in a serious game. But there are no such sluggers in the Southern Association, and she may win laurels this season, which cannot be ascribed to mere gallantry. The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists.
There will always be a controversy surrounding the events of April 2nd 1931. However Virne Beatrice “Jackie Mitchell” has earned her place in the great book of baseball lore as “the girl who struck out Babe Ruth.”

Jackie Mitchell with Babe Ruthe & Lou Gehrig - Chattanooga, Tennessee April 1931.



4 comments:

Cipherdom said...

Thanks for the nice story. The Yankees' second-baseman was Tony Lazzeri, not Eddie. I had never heard of Jackie Mitchell until she was mentioned tonight on Antiques Roadshow (in Chattanooga), then I googled your page. Someone needs to make a movie out of this.

VC

Anonymous said...

I agree. What an interesting story.

Dan O'Brien said...

Joe Engel was a master promoter, known as the "Baron of Baloney." He later acknowledged many times that it was a publicity stunt. Quoting Engel: "Bill Slocum, the baseball writer, put it over for me. He and the Babe were great pals and when Babe agreed, Gehrig and Lazzeri good-naturedly followed. Funny thing, the young lady really believed she fanned Ruth and Gehrig on the level and that Lazzeri was glad to settle for a base on balls. Between you and me, she couldn't pitch hay to a cow, but she looked mighty pretty in the regulation league uniform I had made for her, and I had a record attendance that day."

Also, I found no contemporary reports that Landis voided Mitchell's contract and banned women from baseball. In fact, in 1952, George M. Trautman, head of the minor leagues, voided the signing of a woman to a Class B contract. If Landis banned women from organized baseball in 1931, why did Trautman have to make a ruling two decades later?

Teresa Boyles said...

Mrs. Boyles' 4th grade class at Moulton Middle School read the story, "Jackie Mitchell-Strike-out Queen" in their Harcourt reading series. WE LOVED the story and wanted to learn more about Jackie Mitchell. We especially enjoyed the picture of Jackie, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. Thanks so much for providing this information for us to find!!!
Mrs. Boyles and her AWESOME class
Aug. 28, 2009