Jackie Mitchell: the legend of the woman who struck out Ruth and Gehrig

Did a woman really whiff two of the greatest sluggers of all time … back to back? We’ll never know, but it’s plausible.

My buddy Guy Saperstein sent this around last night.

The Woman Who (Maybe) Struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig

One spring day my son came home from school and asked, “Do you know about the girl who struck out Babe Ruth?”

I smiled indulgently at this playground tall tale. But he insisted it was true. “I read a book about her in the library,” he said.

“Must have been fiction,” I churlishly replied, before consulting the Baseball Almanac to bludgeon my 10-year-old with bitter fact.

Instead, I discovered the astounding story of Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old southpaw who pitched against the New York Yankees on April 2, 1931. The first batter she faced was Ruth, followed by Lou Gehrig, the deadliest hitting duo in baseball history. Mitchell struck them both out. There was a box score to prove it and news stories proclaiming her “organized baseball’s first girl pitcher.”

Fascinating stuff.

My grandparents grew up through the Depression and Granddaddy was a baseball player – apparently quite a good one. Perhaps, I was given to understand, he might have been good enough under other circumstances (ie, not married with children during the freakin’ Depression) to play at a very high level.

His sister – my Great Aunt Janie – played on a women’s team and he’d tell me stories about how good they were. I can’t say to what extent he may have been exaggerating, but he was the furthest thing from a wimmin’s libber, so it’s unlikely he’d have made too much of a meal of the story (at least not when she wasn’t around to hear it). The way he told it, women’s teams were fairly common back then and there were plenty of badass women players. The idea of them striking out men wasn’t at all outrageous. He’d seen it himself, and Janie’s team, in particular, was one that the boys had no interest in playing.

Granted, none of the men they were playing with and against played with were Ruth or Gehrig, who I will always regard as the best to ever pull on a pair of spikes, but I heard enough of my grandfather’s stories to respect the idea of talented women baseball players. In fact, I had a woman on one of my NABA teams for a couple of seasons (had she not been injured just before the tryouts she’d likely have been on the Coors Silver Bullets, so she had some game).

And you never saw the opposing pitcher bear down so hard as when he was facing a girl. I’ll always remember one guy giving up a hit to T-Squared (her initials were TT, and chicks get nicknames, too) and then having to endure the smack talk of his own teammates as he stood there on the mound waiting for the next hitter to stand in.

Unless we invent time travel we’ll probably never know for sure what happened that day, but for my part I can believe she maybe whiffed them legit. I doubt she’d have dominated over more than a couple at bats – this is Bambino and the Iron Horse we’re talking about, after all, and they’d have figured it out quickly enough. But she would have been different in style from what they were used to and it’s more than likely they wouldn’t have taken her seriously. They were used to seeing pitching that was moving a lot faster than what you’d expect from a 17 year-old girl, and I can tell you from experience that it can be hard to adjust to slower, finesse pitching.

Under those circumstances, they might have been back in the dugout before they had a chance to adjust.

If we do invent time travel, put April 2, 1931 on my bucket list.

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4 thoughts on “Jackie Mitchell: the legend of the woman who struck out Ruth and Gehrig”

  1. Just read the write up in The New York Times, April 3, 1931, p.32. By William E. Brandt. Not clear if it was just a “stunt” , or, as you surmise, let-up pitches really baffled Ruth and Gehrig.

    1. If I weren’t a baseball player I think I’d automatically assume that they were goofing on her. But from experience, I know that sometimes the hardest thing to hit can be weak pitching. You can’t help overswinging, the timing is off when you’re used to somebody bringing heat and all of a sudden everything is coming at you 14 mph. She wouldn’t have struck them out the tenth time around, but she might have gotten them the first.

      1. Agreed, Sam. One of the things that made me a good hitter, even though I was a primarily a hit for average guy with spotty power was that I adjusted to finesse stuff well. I hated leading off but baseball coaches from little league though high school batted me first or second (second against heat because I was a contact guy: first against finessers/nibblers because guys could watch me and get a feel for timing). I think everyone I ever knew who played/coached/did whatever in baseball told me that being able to adjust was a great gift to have. And I still got fooled plenty first time at bat against a junker.

        And, as you note here, Sam, Ruth and Gehrig are Ruth and Gehrig because they were great adjusters, too. Yeah, you could get them out once. But getting them out 4 times – likelihood drops off a cliff. And ten times? They’re pretty likely to be batting .400 or .500 against you with a couple of homers each. I mean, they were freakin’ RUTH and GEHRIG….

      2. Precisely. If I were pitch against those guys in an exhibition and I managed to strike them out, I’d be waving to the crowd and out of there. Want to try again? No thanks. It isn’t going to get better.

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