Facing the Babe

(left to right) Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth watch pitcher Jackie Mitchell warm up.

 

 

On April 2, 1931 the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Class AA minor league baseball team, was scheduled to face the New York Yankees in an exhibition game in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Taking on the Yanks was a daunting task in those days when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were in their heyday.  It must have been even more nerve wracking for young Jackie Mitchell, a pitcher whose professional debut was scheduled for that day, IF, that is, the rookie got picked to go in.

What would be the chances of THAT?

As it turned out, that game would be ingrained in baseball history forever.  It would indeed be the pitcher’s first pro game ever and it would involve facing not only Babe Ruth, but Lou Gehrig too…back to back.

Did I mention that Jackie was only 17 years old?

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Many of you know that I am a collector of lots of different things.  However, I’m not a big fan of professional sports so someone must have done something notable for me to want to collect their autograph, or their sports card.

Mitchell is, to this day, a relatively unknown baseball player.  However, when I got a chance to buy an original Jackie Mitchell baseball card, I jumped at it.

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Mitchell was warming up when the call came, and it came early.

The Lookouts’ starting pitcher, Clyde Barfoot, gave up a double and a single against the first two batters so manager Bert Niehoff tapped seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell to relieve him.  One has to wonder if Niehoff was looking to pull a publicity stunt, as the next two batters in the Yankees’ lineup were George Herman, “Babe,” Ruth and Lou, “Iron Horse,” Gehrig, two players who are still spoken of with awe by baseball fans.  Sports writers of the day called them “Murderers’ Row” for their devastating effect on opponents.  They were also called, “the Homerun Twins,” with good reason.

Joe Engel, the president and owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts was known for using such stunts to draw crowds.  Surely, sending a seventeen-year-old pitcher up against two of the best batters in major league baseball had to be a setup for a comedy routine.

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The teenage hurler must have been nervous taking the mound against the Great Bambino in the very first, and quite possibly last, game of a minor league career.

If so, nerves were not obvious as the wind-up started.  The ball was high and crossed the plate without a swing.  The umpire called, “Ball one!”  The next throw screamed toward the batter and the Sultan of Swat swung for the fences…and missed.

“Strike one!” yelled the ump.

Another pitch and, “Strike two!”

Ruth ordered the ball inspected.  It was.

Mitchell fired off a fourth pitch, a sinker.  Ruth didn’t swing, anticipating another ball.  The throw caught the edge of the strike zone.

“Strike three!”

Babe Ruth threw down the bat, glared at the ump, and spat an unprintable comment before teammates walked him to the dugout.

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Next up was the Iron Horse.  Lou Gehrig stepped into the box and awaited the pitch.  Mitchell stuck with the sinker.  As it approached, Gehrig swung.

“Strike one!”

Again, “Strike two!”

And again, “Strike three!”

Gehrig reportedly hung his head and dragged his bat as he walked back to the dugout.

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Seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell had just done the impossible.  The young pitcher had just struck out Babe Ruth AND Lou Gehrig in her very first professional game.

Did you get that…in HER very first professional game?

Yes, a seventeen-year-old girl had done what so many men had found impossible.  She had struck out two of the most incredible batters in the history of baseball, and she did it back-to-back.

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Mitchell went on to walk the next batter, Tony Lazzeri, and retired from the mound.  Barfoot returned to throwing duty.  The Yanks went on to win the game 14-4.

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Within days of the game, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Jackie’s contract and declared women unfit to play baseball as the game was “too strenuous.”

Babe Ruth must have thought the same thing.  Days before they faced off, he had been quoted in a Chattanooga newspaper.  He had said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball.  Of course, they will never make good.  Why?  Because they are too delicate.  It would kill them to play ball every day.”

Well, Babe, it didn’t kill her to play baseball THAT day, did it?

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Although some fans of the time claimed that the Babe and Lou had given up the outs as a gentlemanly act, neither ever verified that.  Through January 7, 1987, when Jackie died at the age of 73, she contended that the strikeouts were legitimate.

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I was eager to add Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell’s baseball card to my collection because I’m a grandpa.  I have five granddaughters and three grandsons, so far.

I want my granddaughters to understand that their accomplishments shouldn’t be limited because someone told them “girls can’t do that.”  I want them to set their goals high and work hard to achieve them.  Likewise, I don’t want my grandsons to be intimidated by strong women, whether physically strong or strong willed…or both.

I believe that women should set their goals to achieve anything they want to, and then go out and work for them.

They just might surprise some people.

Right, Babe?

 

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(above) This is the Jackie Mitchell card I recently added to my collection.

(below) Jackie shakes hands with Babe Ruth at Lou Gehrig looks on.

(above) This short video appears to contain video of the meeting between Jackie Mitchell and Babe Ruth.  Look at the Babe’s reaction to the third strike.

(below) This is a little longer video about Jackie.  It’s such a shame that she wasn’t allowed to keep her dignity and play her sport but, thanks to people like her, things are changing.

4 Comments on "Facing the Babe"

  1. That was quite interesting. I have never heard that story before and can only imagine how irritated those two players had to have been. The idea of any minor league pitcher besting either one of them, let alone both, and let alone a girl, is extremely impressive!!!!! Thank you for that take.

  2. Girl power!

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