Jackie Mitchell Hits the Glass Ceiling

MICHAEL: Here’s installment #4 of “Stuff that didn’t make it into the book.”

“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.” – Babe Ruth

“Equality” means “the state or quality of being equal.” It is a simple word. Yet this four-syllable noun has echoed like a cannon blast through the trenches of our society since the beginning of time. In the late 1940’s and 50’s the word “equality” emerged as the trumpet call for the women’s movement in their quest to bridge the “gender gap.” Many still feel that the “battle of the sexes” is far from over and that for every victory — there has been defeat.

Baseball is one of America’s few professional sports that welcomed women to the diamond before they were welcome in the workplace. During WWII, the All-American Girls’ League proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that “throwing like a girl” isn’t always a “bad thing.” Over the past century, many women have repeatedly risen to the challenge of their male counterparts, often changing opinions and the way males look at the fairer of the species. One lady in particular not only dominated the male players of her time – she dominated three legends and became an inspiration both on and off the field.

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. She was not the first female player to sign in the minor leagues. Lizzie Arlington had broken through that barrier in 1898 while pitching a single game for Reading PA’s team against neighboring Allentown. However, she was by far the best and would soon prove it to herself (and the world) against three of the greatest baseball players of the time.

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.

The 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).

According to Mitchell’s unofficial 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.”

National Baseball Hall of Fame researcher Amanda Pinney has also studied the incident in detail and has repeatedly said that the strikeouts were indeed real. She notes that Ruth and Gehrig had every intention of hitting the ball. Eddie Lazzeri the Yankee second baseman who was on deck while Gehrig went down swinging confirms Pinney’s conclusions.

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.

The media covered the Jackie Mitchell story before, during and after it took place making comments both kind, and not so kind. Here is a selection:

“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.” Source: The New York Times (April 4, 1931)

“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.” Source: The Chattanooga News (March 31, 1931)

“The Yankees will meet a club here that has a girl pitcher named Jackie Mitchell, who has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick. I suppose that in the next town the Yankees enter they will find a squad that has a female impersonator in left field, a sword swallower at short, and a trained seal behind the plate. Times in the South are not only tough but silly.” Source: The New York Daily News (April 2, 1931)

If not for the blatant railroading of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who knows what could have been? Would Mitchell have eventually worked her way up into the “big show,” opening the door for future female aces? Would the All-American Girls’ League have been simply the Major Leagues with less men in the lineup? Maybe. Perhaps we would be watching Rogers Clemens or Randy Johnson going up against a much better-looking rival. Regardless of what could have been, Jackie Mitchell’s story has become an inspiration to generations of female athletes.

As Major League Baseball’s first administrator, Kenesaw Mountain Landis set the stage for what a commissioner should and shouldn’t be. As an acting Federal Judge from 1905-1922, Landis was selected in 1920 to become the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball, serving until his death in 1944. Born in Millville, Ohio, he was named after Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, which was the site of a battle during the American Civil War. In 1905, he was appointed by President Roosevelt to sit on the bench of the Northern District of Illinois. During that time, he presided over several noteworthy cases including the Standard Oil antitrust trial and a series of trials accusing union leaders from the Industrial Workers of the World of espionage.

Following his appointment as head of Major League Baseball, Landis was ultimately responsible for restoring the integrity of the game in the public eye following the 1919 “Black Sox scandal” after eight members of the participating White Sox were all charged with conspiring to fix the outcome of the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. After a lengthy investigation in 1920, the members of Chicago’s tainted team were amazingly acquitted the following year despite their own confessions (which were recanted later).

“Regardless of the verdict of juries,” the commissioner said in a statement, “no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.” To this day participants in the “Black Sox” conspiracy have been denied entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In addition, Landis has also been remembered for several negative practices while holding office including both racism and sexism. Several historians have accused him of perpetuating the “color line” that prolonged the segregation of organized baseball and the banning of women from professional play. Despite the controversy that surrounded his twenty-four season term, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1944. Jackie Mitchell however, was all but erased from memory.

The story of Jackie Mitchell remains a debatable topic and is not without its share of controversy. On August 22, 1955, Joe Williams wrote a piece titled “Where’s the Girl Who ‘Fanned’ Mighty Babe?” that claimed the event was actually staged. It stated:

New York, Aug. 22 – Some of the whatever-became-of customers are most persistent. “This is the third time I’ve written about the girl who struck out Babe Ruth,” scolds Albert Goldberg, Yonkers, N.Y. Sorry, Buster, we just haven’t been able to trace her. Joe Engel reported from Chattanooga: “She was working in a hosiery mill here but I later heard she moved to Florida.” Engel’s the guy who conceived the ballyhoo performance. This was in the spring of ‘31, and Engel, representing the Washington club, had recently taken over the Chattanooga franchise. The girl, Jackie Mitchell, 17, was a left-handed softball pitcher. With the Yanks coming to town for an exhibition game, Engel, who has Barnum and Bailey blood in his veins, built his promotion around the girl pitcher and the home run king. As it turned out, Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri also got into the act.

Miss Mitchell wasn’t the starting pitcher. She came in after the two first Yanks, Earle Combs and Lyn Lary, hit safely. Well, it just happened the Babe himself was the next hitter. He went down swinging. So did Gehrig. Lazzeri, less chivalrous, or possibly more discriminating, spurned the lady’s offerings and walked. At this point she was taken out. Whether the manager ordered her in the showers is a delicate detail historians ignore. How had Engel persuaded the three great Yankee stars to go along with such an outrageous carnival gag? “Bill Slocum, the baseball writer, put it over for me,” Engel disclosed in a letter to this space the other day. “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.”

Despite these accusations, supporters on both sides of the argument agree that the final outcome remained the same.


One thought on “Jackie Mitchell Hits the Glass Ceiling

  1. I wanted to add that Jackie’s father is said to have taught her the basics of the game and next door neighbor, Dazzy Vance, taught her to pitch and showed her his curve ball. Later, Vance would pitch in the major leagues and eventually be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    Posted by youstinkbaseball | May 10, 2012, 2:38 pm

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