Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Jackie Mitchell: The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth

Jackie Mitchell was a sports celebrity in the 1930s. She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and according to Jean Patrick, who wrote a children's book about her, Mitchell learned to play baseball from her father at a very early age. She was also tutored by Dazzy Vance, a young minor league player at the time who would go on to become a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Vance taught her his "drop pitch." At the age of 17, she impressed Joe Engel, the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts Minor League team. Engel signed her and she became one of the first women to play professional baseball in the United States. There were three women who played in the professional negro leagues.

It was 1931 and major league teams would sometimes play minor league teams in exhibitions. The Lookouts played the Yankees after spring training and before the start of the major league season. Jackie was put in to pitch just as Babe Ruth stepped up to bat.

In front of a crowd of 4000, she struck Ruth out and then Yankee slugger, Lou Gehrig. No one knows for sure whether the sluggers struck out as part of a stunt, but Mitchell's performance made news across the country.

My favorite baseball picture of all time is one of her just completing a pitch with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth looking on. Gehrig has a modest smile on his face, while Ruth is looking on like someone has just torn up his contract. But, it's Mitchell's face that is priceless. She has this Ellen Degeneres kind of mischievous look on her face--a sort of "looky there boys ain't that a humdinger" kind of sweetness about her. The photo probably appears in many places, but if you search hard enough you can see it on the AP photo site. It is beautifully reproduced as a two page spread in the large baseball photo book, called Baseball A Celebration -- a book I have and love. I will check with AP and see if I can obtain a license for it and perhaps put it on my site.

Unfortunately, baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis didn't like the idea of women playing professional baseball and saw that Mitchell was removed from the Lookouts.

She moved on and played with the House of David, a odd, but long lasting team of long-haired men from a Michigan religious community who barnstormed across the county. While the look of the House of David players was a curiosity with the baseball public, they played fairly good quality ball.

Jackie quit baseball at 23 years old and could not be persuaded to play when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in the 1940s.

No comments:

Post a Comment