#TBT: The girl who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig

  AP Photo

Back in the old days, long before spring training became a well-oiled, money-making machine, teams would head down south somewhere to sweat out the winter pounds and get ready for the new season. On the way home -- via train, of course -- teams would stop off in towns and cities along the way and play exhibition games.

One of those stops for the New York Yankees in 1931 came in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 2. Joe Engel, the new president of the Double-A Lookouts, was a showman and promoter as much as a baseball guy. A few days before the Yankees arrived, he announced he had signed a 17-year-old pitcher named Jackie Mitchell.

Jackie was a girl.

And she was going to pitch against the Yankees.

What happened from there is a matter of folklore.

Mitchell had reportedly been tutored by her neighbor, future Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance, and joined a baseball school affiliated with the Lookouts. Engel knew about her from there. Tony Horwitz wrote about Mitchell in Smithsonian magazine a couple of years ago:

The prospect of a 17-year-old girl facing the mighty Yankees generated considerable media coverage, most of it condescending. One paper wrote, "The curves won’t be all on the ball" when "pretty" Jackie Mitchell takes the mound. Another reported that she "has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick." The tall, slim teenager, clad in a baggy Lookouts uniform, also posed for cameras as she warmed up by taking out a mirror and powdering her nose.

With 4,000 fans in attendance for the first of two games, the first two Yankees reached base. The starting pitcher was removed from the game and in came Mitchell, with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig up next. Horwitz writes what happened:

First up was Ruth, who tipped his hat at the girl on the mound "and assumed an easy batting stance," a reporter wrote. Mitchell went into her motion, winding her left arm "as if she were turning a coffee grinder." Then, with a side-armed delivery, she threw her trademark sinker (a pitch known then as "the drop"). Ruth let it pass for a ball. At Mitchell's second offering, Ruth "swung and missed the ball by a foot." He missed the next one, too, and asked the umpire to inspect the ball. Then, with the count 1-2, Ruth watched as Mitchell's pitch caught the outside corner for a called strike three. Flinging his bat down in disgust, he retreated to the dugout.

Next to the plate was Gehrig, who would bat .341 in 1931 and tie Ruth for the league lead in homers. He swung at and missed three straight pitches. But Mitchell walked the next batter, Tony Lazzeri, and the Lookouts' manager pulled her from the game, which the Yankees went on to win, 14-4.

"Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig," read the headline in the next day's sports page of the New York Times, beside a photograph of Mitchell in uniform. In an editorial, the paper added: "The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists." Ruth, however, was quoted as saying that women "will never make good" in baseball because "they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”

What's left in the murky waters of history: Did Ruth and Gehrig strike out on purpose? Some reports at the time hinted at less than full effort from the two sluggers, that they were content to play along. Then again, Ruth struck out looking, not swinging. Neither Ruth nor Gehrig ever admitted to purposely striking out.

You can judge Ruth's at-bat for yourself, because newsreel footage of that showdown exists. Click here and go to the 4-minute mark if you don't want to watch the whole video. It looks like Ruth was trying to hit one 500 feet and missed two slow curveballs. The third strike appears to be a bad call from the umpire, so maybe Ruth was legitimately upset at being called out. And if Ruth and Gehrig struck out on purpose, why did Lazzeri take the walk? Wouldn't striking out the side be an even better story if the Yankees were in on the prank? Horwitz writes that Ben Chapman, due up after Lazzeri, said he would have tried to get a hit and believed Ruth and Gehrig had agreed to strike out.

In another piece, Adam Doster writes:

Mitchell insisted the strikeouts were legit, until she passed away in 1987. So did Lazzeri, who claims he went to the plate looking to hack. Gehrig, for what it's worth, was not a man who could be easily bought or persuaded to embarrass himself and the Yankee organization, to which he was supremely loyal. "Gehrig thought the rules had to be strictly obeyed; a man was not entitled to breathe too freely," wrote Ray Robinson in the 1990 biography Iron Horse. "He adhered to a moral code loftier, certainly, than the Babe's.”

Mitchell later played for the House of David barnstorming team but eventually quit baseball to work at her father's optometry practice.

Will we ever see a woman pitch in the majors? Susan Petrone's new novel, "Throw Like a Woman," invents the story of a woman pitching for the Cleveland Indians. It could certainly happen, most likely a knuckleballer, like Chelsea Baker. At the very least, the story of Jackie Mitchell or Mo'ne Davis in last year's Little League World Series or Ghazaleh “Ozzie” Sailors, a pitcher for Division III University of Maine-Presque Isle, or the all-girls team that won a national tournament shows us that baseball isn't just for boys.