Fact or Fiction? Teenage Girl Struck Out Ruth, Gehrig
More than 80 years ago, 17-year-old lefty sidewinder and distaff Jackie Mitchell struck out on seven pitches baseball’s powerful sluggers, the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Historians rank Ruth and Gehrig as baseball’s most fearsome back-to-back slugging tandem. On April 2, 1931, the impossible-to-believe feat, a teenage girl whiffing the two home run bashers, happened in front of 4,000 incredulous fans. The following day, The New York Times in its headline story “Ruth and Gehrig Struck Out by Girl Pitcher” confirmed the accomplishment of Mitchell from the minor league Chattanooga Lookouts.
Eight decades later and on National Girls and Women in Sports Day, the time has again come to determine whether Ruth and Gehrig were part of a hoax that the Lookouts owner and notorious prankster Joe Engel arranged — he had once traded a player for a turkey, and then served the carved-up bird to local sportswriters — or whether Mitchell had legitimately whiffed the two greats.
Readers, with history’s help, can make their own decision. Ordinarily, a 17-year-old, female or male, would be impossibly overmatched against Ruth and Gehrig. To be sure, Ruth, age 37, was approaching his career’s end. Still, Ruth hit 49 homers the previous season and Gehrig, 41. But Mitchell had impressive credentials of her own. She was an all-around athlete who starred in basketball in the winter, and excelled at baseball in the spring. More than anything, however, Mitchell learned about pitching from her neighbor, Hall of Fame hurler Dazzy Vance — called Dazzy because his opponents said that his pitches dazzled them.
Vance had developed a remarkable curriculum vitae of his own. Pitching for the consistently terrible Brooklyn Robins, Vance led the National League in strikeouts for seven consecutive seasons, 1922 to 1928, and won 20 games three times. Vance taught Mitchell how to throw the drop ball, now called a sinker.
The Yankees were traveling north for their Opening Day game against the Red Sox, and had scheduled two exhibition games against the Lookouts. With Mitchell under contract, and with game one — hint, hint — an April 1 Fools Day contest rained out, the April 2 game began ominously for the Lookouts. Starting pitcher Clyde Barfoot gave up a quick double and a single. Manager Bert Niehoff signaled to the bullpen for portsider Mitchell to face left-handed batting Ruth and Gehrig, the trusted lefty versus lefty pitching strategy at play. Mitchell’s first delivery to Ruth was a ball followed by two swinging strikes, and a called strike three. Ruth threw his bat to the ground in — hint, hint, again — feigned disgust. Gehrig went down even easier than Ruth — three atypically wild swings at Mitchell’s offerings. After Mitchell walked the third slugger in the Yankees’ Murders’ Row line up, Tony Lazzeri, her day was done; the Yankees beat up on the Lookouts, 14–4.
The Times account provides some valuable insight into the goings on. Ruth, the newspaper wrote, “performed his role very ably,” and Gehrig “took three hefty swings as his contribution to the occasion.” Unsurprisingly Mitchell recalls her performance differently. Interviewed in 1987, Mitchell said, “Why, hell, they were trying, damn right.” Then, Mitchell added testily, “Hell, better [unidentified] batters than them couldn’t hit me.”
Readers trying to determine whether young “lipstick wielding” Mitchell, as one account referred to her, struck out Ruth and Gehrig on the up and up should remember that the Bambino was to his fans the consummate pleasure-giver and crowd-pleaser. He joked with them from his right field position, waved greetings as he drove through New York’s streets, visited hospitals spontaneously, signed every shred of paper, programs, baseballs, menus and match book covers put in front of him. Ruth knew that he had nothing to gain if he hit a tape measure 500-foot home run against a teenage girl and local darling. And Gehrig, who wasn’t going to show up Ruth, had nothing to prove either. Baseball loves a good story, and Mitchell’s tale filled the bill.
In 1933, after then-MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract, she signed with the House of David barnstorming team. But Mitchell quickly grew tired of its non-baseball antics that included playing games while astride donkeys and retired to join her father’s Chattanooga optometry office.
In the end, no one can dispute that Mitchell faced three Hall of Fame greats — Ruth, Gehrig and Lazzeri — and struck out two of them on seven pitches. No pitcher can say the same, and, best of all, Mitchell’s once-in-a lifetime story is, even if orchestrated, 100 percent verifiable fact.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.