Jackie Mitchell: Print the Legend

Jackie f.jpg

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."- Maxwell Scott "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)

It makes for a great story. A 17 year old girl strikes out two of the greats of the game, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I can't think of a better narrative for a child, boy or girl, than one about how we are all capable of doing impressive things, girls and boys are the same, and it doesn't matter how big, strong, or famous the other guy is if you've got pluck. But...It probably was a publicity stunt.

First the facts: Jackie Mitchell was a 17 year old female signed to a professional contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts a AA minor league team; The Lookouts played an exhibition game with the New York Yankees on April 2, 1931; Jackie's first pitch was outside, Ruth swung and missed her next two pitches, and after the umpire examined the ball at Babe Ruth's request, Jackie Mitchell threw the third strike; Lou Gehrig struck out on three pitches; She then walked Tony Lazzeri on 4 straight pitches and was taken out of the game; Yankees won 14-4

Jackie Mitchell showed an interest in baseball young and was taught how to throw a pretty good sinker by her neighbor, eventual Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance. And all contemporary reports point to her being a great juvenile player. She kept up with the boys and struck them out. While many youngsters are exceptional when playing with other children, if you put the best high school pitcher in the country in a major league game they wouldn't be able to compete. And that is why so many historians and fans think it was a publicity stunt.

People who want to believe the legend point out that Babe Ruth didn't like to be made to look a fool. And it would look pretty foolish to be struck out by a teenage girl. Moreover, Lou Gehrig was a serious man who wouldn't participate in a sideshow. And in the following decades as they eventually passed away, not one Yankee claimed they were told to let the girl strike them out. So Gehrig and Ruth would've decided between themselves. This is possible because both players loved children and were known to do hospital visits and make a special effort to please their young fans. So they may have seen a kid who was living her dream of pitching to not just a major league player, but the icons and heroes of the day and decided to give her a thrill. 

Unfortunately, for us reluctant skeptics there can never be enough information for us to decide one way or another. Not long after the game the commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis  banned all women from playing baseball. with and against men. And that ban wasn't lifted until 1992. Jackie Mitchell retired from baseball in 1937 when she was only 23, which is an age at which most pitchers haven't reached their full potential. But even though she would've been young enough to play in the All-American Girls Professional League she chose not to come out of retirement a few years later.

Sabermetrics hadn't been invented in 1931 and no one kept accurate stats of barnstorming semi-pro teams when Jackie Mitchell played. Consequently, anything we know about her would be apocryphal. She did play on another team before her retirement, the House of David. They were originally a team composed of Orthodox Jews with long hair and beards. They eventually signed players outside their faith, and evidently their gender. And when the House of David played an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, she pitched in the game, and they beat the Cardinals 8-6. 

It is possible that if she hadn't had to fight against sexism Jackie Mitchell might have been like that other Jackie of baseball, Robinson, and been the first of her kind. But considering she quit too young, and only had the one solid pitch, that is unlikely. But baseball is full of great what-if stories and this is a fun one...THE GIRL WHO STRUCK OUT BABE RUTH. What if it was all on the up and up? What if she'd been born a boy? What if she'd played a little longer? What if the legend is better than the truth?