April 2, 1931: Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig struck out today, felled by a teenager who needed only seven pitches to earn herself a place in baseball history.
Jackie Mitchell, signed for the season on March 28th by Tennessee’s “Chattanooga Lookouts,” a Class AA minor league team, pitched her legendary “sinker” in an annual exhibition game with the New York Yankees, on their way home from Spring Training in Florida.
Major league baseball is an Eastern and Midwestern phenomenon, with no clubs south of Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati, and none west of St. Louis, so Southern fans always pack the stands for the rare opportunity to see big league ballplayers locally, even if they’re only playing for practice. The contest here always attracts a good deal of attention from the local press, and comments made yesterday by the “Sultan of Swat” clearly increased the public’s interest even more.
According to Ruth: “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they let women play in baseball. Of course, they never will make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”
Despite his confidence, he did seem concerned enough to ask a reporter: “By the way, how big is she?”
When told she was five feet eight inches tall, he simply said: “Well, I don’t know what things are coming to.”
He found out today.
After the starting pitcher gave up a double and a run-scoring single, Mitchell was sent in just as it became Ruth’s turn at bat. Her first pitch was a ball, but the next two were right over the plate. Though the Bambino gave them his best swings, it was no use.
He then demanded that the umpire inspect the ball. It was found to be in perfectly legal condition, so whatever tricks it was playing on the Babe were due solely to the pitcher’s skill.
Mitchell then shot another pitch, which Ruth apparently thought wasn’t quite in the strike zone, so he ignored it. But the umpire saw it as a third strike, and the Home Run King, who hit 49 round-trippers last year, and had a .359 batting average, vigorously disputed the call, then flung away his bat and trudged to the bench.
Next up was Lou Gehrig, who hit 41 home runs and batted .379 against the American League’s best pitchers during the 1930 season. But he proved no match for Mitchell. The “Iron Horse” went down swinging at all three pitches.
Taught to play ten years ago by neighbor Dazzy Vance, who now plays for the Brooklyn Dodgers, this wasn’t Mitchell’s first time pitching against males. Last year, when she played for the Engelettes, a girls’ team from Chattanooga, she threw nine strike-outs in seven innings against a boys’ team.
Though she only pitched two-thirds of an inning today, relieved after letting Tony Lazzari walk, it was a great day for baseball fans—and for women in sports.