In the depths of the Depression, Joe Engel, the “Baron of Baloney,” would do almost anything to promote his minor league baseball team. The owner of the Chattanooga, Tennessee Lookouts traded a shortstop for a 25-pound turkey, placed singing canaries in stands and featured elephants and a base ostrich in a promotion for a game. Engel was also an exceptional self-promoter: he gave his name to the Lookouts stadium.
But perhaps no Engel promotion has generated as much publicity as on April 2, 1931, when he pitted 18-year-old Jackie Mitchell against a New York Yankees team starring Babe Ruth and Lou. Gehrig. Mitchell, one of the few women to play professional baseball against men, knocked out the future Hall of Fame in an exhibition game in Chattanooga.
Or did she do it?
“It was a stunt,” Major League Baseball official historian John Thorn said of the “feat,” which caught the nation’s attention. “Mitchell couldn’t break a window.”
In 1931, Ruth and Gehrig, among the most feared hitters in baseball history, formed an intimidating duo for the top pitchers in the major leagues, not to mention an 18-year-old woman. In 1930, “The Bambino” led the American League in home runs (49) and “The Iron Horse” led the AL in RBIs (173) and total number of goals (419).
But shortly before his death in 1987, Mitchell insisted his batting feat was legitimate.
“Well, damn they were trying – damn it,” she said. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they have been different? “
Baseball player Jackie Mitchell learns how to pitch from a big league
Jackie Mitchell became a baseball fan from an early age. At age 5, she is said to have played with neighbor’s young son and future Hall of Fame Dazzy Vance, a big league pitcher who taught her how to throw a sinker. At age 9, Mitchell, who lived in Memphis and then moved with his family to Chattanooga, played ball with the neighborhood boys. Mom didn’t approve.
“Now you might as well realize you’re not going to play ball with these boys this afternoon,” Virne Mitchell told her daughter, according to a feature report in the Chattanooga Daily Schedules in 1933.
“Well, okay,” said Jackie, “but they’ll be out of men if I don’t. “
“A Tough Tomboy,” David Jenkins, author of Baseball in Chattanooga, called Mitchell.
In 1930, Mitchell was playing ball with the Engelettes, a team of local women who played in and around Chattanooga. She later perfected her game at a baseball academy in Atlanta.
Eager to increase attendance at Engel Stadium, Engel signed a minor league contract with Mitchell in the early spring of 1931 to play exhibitions for the Lookouts. Newspapers across the country swallowed up the news – a photo of Mitchell signing his contract, with Dr Joe Mitchell, his optometrist father, standing nearby, even appeared on the front page of the Daily New York News.
The Chattanooga Daily Schedules The sports section, meanwhile, launched the stereotypes of the time: “When she’s not in uniform, Jackie dons an apron and joins in with the housework,” reads under images of Mitchell at the House. “… Jackie can take that left-handed fin and mix a medium paste or swing a nasty broom.” Maybe that’s where she got so much power in her throwing arm.
In early April 1931, returning to New York from spring training in Florida, the Yankees stopped in Chattanooga for exhibitions against the Lookouts. Engel has announced that he will pitch his newly signed southpaw against them. The accomplished promoter ardently stoked the fire for the story.
“I think Jackie Mitchell is going to cheat on Babe Ruth because he is easily fooled, especially by a girl,” he said, adding: “I don’t think so [our outfielders] will have something to do.
Days before Mitchell’s debut, a news agency reporter watched her practice for the big game with “a helpful neighbor” in her backyard. Engel planned to keep her hidden until she took the mound. “I’ll do my best,” Mitchell told the reporter, “… and I’ll go there with a lot of drive and with my decision made on one thing: Babe Ruth fan.”
Jackie Mitchell eliminates Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig
The Yankees and Lookouts were scheduled to play on April 1, but the game was rained. Some have speculated that a game scheduled for April Fools would have revealed Engel’s true intentions. Four New York press reporters interviewed Mitchell that day about his big league ambitions.
The next day, 4,000 fans attended the exhibition at Engel Stadium. A Universal film crew was on hand to document the event and screen it in theaters. Fans didn’t have to wait long for Mitchell to take on Ruth. Under the roar of the crowd, she took the mound as a reliever in the first round. Ruth tipped her cap at Mitchell, who was calm despite the hype. His first pitch was an inside ball.
READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Babe Ruth
Then Ruth swung and missed two more shots and took a third called stroke. Seemingly disgusted, he threw down his bat and walked over to the canoe. “Simply acting”, the Chattanooga News describes the “form” of Ruth.
“The baby played his role very skillfully,” reported the New York Times. “He swung hard on two pitches, then had umpire Owens inspect the ball, just like batters do when they’re completely taken aback by a pitcher’s delivery.” The next hitter, Gehrig, lost on three pitches. Mitchell’s girlfriends at the game celebrated.
John Kovach, author of Jackie Mitchell: the girl who loved baseball, thinks Mitchell may have simply fooled Gehrig and Ruth with sluggish throws. “I coached baseball for 35 years, and when you see a box score and it says you took out, you took out,” he says. “I’m not going to put an asterisk next to it.”
But Thorn insists it was a publicity stunt. “[Gehrig] had a good sense of humor, and he would follow Ruth, ”he said. “They both loved Engel. “I’ve always danced around it,” Kovach says.
After walking Tony Lazzeri, the Lookouts manager pulled Mitchell out. “Obviously”, the Daily schedules wrote, “he expected her to smell them as fast as they went up.” The Lookouts lost 14-4, but Chattanooga fans didn’t care. Their “female flinger” was the big story.
Jackie Mitchell aspires to compete in the World Series
The next day, newspapers across the country made the headlines of Mitchell’s feat on their pages. “Babe get chivalrous, let the girl fan him,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.
The Chattanooga News mentioned Engel, who died in 1969, along the same lines as PT Barnum, the showmaster. Of Mitchell, the newspaper wrote: “No matter what her abilities are on the mound, the female pitcher makes good her coffee and cakes, by advertising. “
READ MORE: How Baseball Hall of Fame’s Only Woman Challenged Convention and MLB
In 1933, Daily schedules reported that Mitchell had big league aspirations and wanted to compete in a World Series. But the southpaw’s baseball career ended in August 1937, after years of playing in the Piedmontese League and barnstorming, without coming close to the big leagues. No woman has played in the majors. In the 1930s, Mitchell played on a basketball team with Babe Didrikson, perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time.
“She loved baseball,” Kovach says of the shy and reserved Mitchell, “… and I think until the day she died she believed she had hit Ruth and Gehrig.”