While digging into the history of the program, it was striking to see how often members of this tiny Michigan commune played with or against genuine baseball legends. One HoD ringer whose name did not make it into the piece was pioneering female pitcher Jackie Mitchell, and I thought I’d use the space here to flesh out her fascinating biography. Let’s call it the HoD director’s cut.
Mitchell was not the first professional female player, a designation that belongs to Lizzie Arlington, but she’s certainly one of the most decorated. Born sometime between 1912 and 1914 in Massachusetts, Mitchell was raised by a supportive and athletically-minded father, an optician who encouraged her to swim and play sports at an early age. She also had the good fortune of living next door to Dazzy Vance, a Dodgers great who won the NL MVP award in 1924 and struck out over 2,000 hitters in his 16-year career. During the 12 months they shared adjoining apartments, Vance took a liking to his little neighbor and taught her how to throw a drop ball, otherwise known as a sinker, among many other tricks. Jackie absorbed it all. By 1930, she had earned a spot on a womens team in Chattanooga run by the chief scout of the Washington Senators, Joe Engel. According to her father’s own scouting report at the time, Mitchell “has one of the most deceptive pitching deliveries, hits fair, and fields way above the average that a boy of her age can field.” The local Middletown Times Herald added these relevant details: “Interviews have found her distinctly feminine – she cooks and plays a piano.”
On top of running the Engelettes, Engel oversaw baseball operations for the Chattanooga Lookouts, one of the Senators’ farm clubs. During the Depression, the "Barnum of Baseball” tried just about every promotion he could dream up to attract fans, from raffling off a house to staging a (papier-mâché) elephant hunt on the field. And in the spring of 1931, he got the bright idea to call up Mitchell for an exhibition game against the mighty New York Yankees, who were traveling through Tennessee en route to the Big Apple following spring training.
The novelty of watching a small teenage woman with an odd sidearm delivery toe the rubber against the greatest hitters in the world drew 4,000 fans to the ballpark. Mitchell did not disappoint. After Chattanooga’s starter gave up two hits to kick off the contest, the manager immediately brought in Mitchell to face the meat of the Yankees' order: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzari. Ruth took two huge cuts on the first two deliveries, whiffing on both. Frustrated, the Sultan of Swat asked the ump to check the ball. It turned up clean. After a pitch outside, Mitchell painted the corner with another sinker, catching Ruth off balance for the third strike. Disgusted, the slugger “flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench” (New York Times, April 3, 1931). Gehrig fared no better, swinging through the first three pitches he saw for the second out of the inning. Lazzari earned a four-pitch walk before the skipper turned back to the bullpen, ending Mitchell’s day. The Yankees went on to win 14-4, but it was Jackie’s incredible inning that dominated headlines the next morning (and for weeks after). The New York Daily News’ characterization was typical: “A swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick.”**
If you think the story sounds a bit fishy, you’re not the only one. To this day, nobody has been able to determine conclusively whether or not the Bambino and the Buster -- unbeknown to Mitchell -- took a dive in exchange for an under-the-table settlement. If I had to wager, I’d say the evidence points toward some type of deal. The previous season, Ruth and Gehrig posted OPS’ of 1.225 and 1.194 respectively, both of which still rank among the top 25 single-season offensive performances in Major League Baseball history. Combined, they only struck out in 9 percent of their at-bats, and those came against top-tier pitchers, not 130-pound amateurs who, as the Washington Post reported at the time, had “been laid up with a sore arm.” Not to mention the contest was originally scheduled for April Fool’s Day, but had to be pushed back 24 hours because of rain.
On the other hand, Lazzari claims he went to the plate looking to hack. And MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sure didn’t think Mitchell’s performance was a hoax; embarrassed by the spectacle of a lady taking down his superstars, he voided her contract with Chattanooga within days, calling baseball “too strenuous for women.”*** Maybe her stuff on that April afternoon was just that damn good?
Once booted from the Scenic City, Mitchell played briefly in the Piedmont League and toured with Babe Didrikson before signing a contract with the House of David in 1933. Here she is, in the left corner, courtesy of the HoD museum in Addison, Michigan:
There are some neat photos of Mitchell here, including one in which Dazzy Vance’s protege is introduced to Ruth and Gehrig. And if you still haven’t read my House of David piece, you can find it here. I hope you like it.
*It was also hilarious to look at hairy photos.
**The Atlanta Constitution added another dollop of sexism in its coverage of Mitchell on June 27, 1931: “If you’ve never seen her pitch, you probably think of her as one of these stuck-up, temperamental woman athletes possessed with a sense of her own importance and hard to get along with, don’t you? You should change your mind. Jackie Mitchell … is a shy little girl, who blushed under her sunburned face when asked her full name.”
***The MLB formally banned the signing of women to contracts on June 21, 1952.