The Woman Who Struck Out the Babe

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Ben Kirchner

Joe England loved wacky promotions. The owner of the AA Chattanooga Lookouts, Engel once traded a player for a turkey and stocked the grandstands with singing canaries. But in March 1931, he pulled his riskiest stunt yet—he signed a girl.

Jackie Mitchell was only 17 when she signed up to play pro ball. A southpaw from Tennessee, Mitchell had learned how to throw a nasty sinker from her neighbor, future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance. But that didn’t matter to Engel: He was just curious if a female on the mound could boost ticket sales.

That April, he got his answer. The stands were packed for an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. And when the Lookouts’ starting pitcher was benched in the first inning, the fans got what they came for. Mitchell hit the mound—and Babe Ruth stared her down from the batter’s box.

Mitchell’s first pitch missed the mark, but her second was a masterful sinker. Ruth hacked—and missed. The crowd went nuts. When Ruth swung and missed a second time, he asked the umpire to check if the ball had been doctored. It hadn’t. When Mitchell’s fourth pitch nipped the corner of the plate, the ump called strike three. The crowd erupted. Ruth threw his bat, kicked up dirt, and cussed out the umpire before his teammates had to drag him to the dugout.

But Mitchell was just getting warmed up. When Lou Gehrig stepped to the plate, Mitchell struck him out on three straight pitches. The crowd gave her a standing ovation. The Yankees ultimately won 14–4, but Mitchell stole the headlines. “The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists,” a New York Times editorial lamented. Today, some historians believe Ruth and Gehrig whiffed on purpose—and it’s possible they did. But there’s no question that Mitchell had a killer arm. After a short tenure with the Lookouts, she spent five years playing for the semipro House of David club. In 1933, she got another chance to square off against the pros, pitching against the St. Louis Cardinals. This time around, she came home with a win.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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June 6, 2014 - 1:00pm
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