“She uses an odd, side-armed delivery, and puts both speed and curve on the ball. Her greatest asset, however, is control. She can place the ball where she pleases, and her knack at guessing the weakness of a batter is uncanny.” – The Chattanooga News
It was a bit of serendipity. Yesterday, as our own Sarah contemplated her trip down to the American South, I mentioned that I had a faint recollection of owning a Chattanooga Lookouts hat as a wee lad. The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that this couldn’t possibly be true. Why would a Japanese kid growing up in Staten Island wear the paraphernalia of a AA-Southern League baseball team? Where would I have gotten such a thing, having never been to the state of Tennessee?
But as I sat around my apartment last night, programming my DVR to record my usual TV shows for the week, I noticed a program that I had never heard of before called “Amazing Sports Stories“. The episode that will be airing tonight in the NYC-area (MSG-Plus, I think) will cover the life of Jackie Mitchell, perhaps the most famous female baseball player in history. And yup, she played for the Chattanooga Lookouts. What are the odds? So I think I need to appease the baseball gods and spend some time today talking about Jackie.
No one really seems to know exactly when she was born, but it’s believed to have been around 1913. Her interest in the game came from her father, but, if the story is true (I have a sneaking suspicion that 50% of baseball stories from this era are flat-out false), her skills came from Dazzy Vance, her next-door neighbor and Hall-of-Fame pitcher who played most of his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1920s. While he was still a minor leaguer, Dazzy became impressed with what little Jackie’s arm was capable of doing with a baseball at such a young age – she was apparently roughly seven or eight years old.
As she grew older, she became known as a talented athlete around Memphis, Tennessee and, at the age of sixteen, she joined a women’s baseball team across-state in Chattanooga. And like so many great baseball stories of the era, it took an owner of a minor-league baseball team for this story to become a legend.
Joe Engel, known as the “Barnum of Baseball”, was the owner of the local professional team, the Lookouts. He was the kind of man who would have his players take the field on Opening Day riding elephants. He once traded his shortstop (a guy named Johnny Jones) for a turkey. Literally. In 1931, Engel apparently came upon Mitchell playing in Georgia. Jackie was by then a seventeen-year old lefty pitcher, who was more than capable of handling her own playing against men. The Lookouts owner signed her to a contract in late March, mostly as a publicity stunt.
Just a few days later, on April 2nd, the Lookouts played an exhibition game against the New York Yankees – a team that featured Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Joe Sewell, Tony Lazzeri, Earl Combs, Lefty Gomez, and of course, The Babe. When the Chattanooga starter, Clyde Barfoot, struggled to get through the stacked Yankees lineup, Jackie was called into the game in relief. To face Ruth. And what followed will be remembered forever:
“(Ruth) watched her first sinker dart low for ball one. Mitchell followed with a sinker on the outside corner, which the Babe swung through and missed. Grinning, the “Sultan of Swat” swung at the next offering and missed for strike two. The next pitch was another sinker on the corner of the plate, which Ruth watched sail by for called strike three. At that point, according to The Baseball Chronology, the Babe “kicked the dirt” and “gave his bat a wild heave” as he stormed unhappily to the dugout.”
As if that were not enough, Mitchell then had to go up against Gehrig as well. But the “Iron Horse” followed suit, unable to touch Jackie’s sinker, and struck out on three pitches. A seventeen-year old girl had struck out Ruth and Gehrig on seven pitches combined.
Mitchell ended up walking Lazzeri (another Hall-of-Famer) next, and was then removed from the game. She wouldn’t play in a professional, organized game ever again, thanks to the (ahem*bigoted jackass*ahem) Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who, as Commissioner of baseball, voided Jackie’s contract soon after her debut, claiming that the sport wasn’t meant for women. And of course, the man then went on to continually bar black men from playing as well. What a guy.
Jackie continued playing in barnstorm leagues, playing for a team called House of David, whose biblical name made sense after you learn that all the men had ridiculously long beards. But she ended up retiring early at the age of 23, when she became supposedly fed up with being a sideshow.
I sometimes wonder why there aren’t more women like Jackie Mitchell. Of all the major American sports (football, basketball, hockey, sumo), baseball seems to be the one most suited to having women play alongside men. I’m fairly certain that Marla Hooch could have taken Bob Feller deep. But then I think of good ol’ Keith Hernandez. And it all makes sense.