The Woman Who Struck Out Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times in his career, but there was one particular strikeout that stands out. (via Public Domain)

Once upon a time, as the well-known story goes, there was a deadly duo in baseball. They struck fear in the hearts of the most dominant pitchers. Their names were George Herman Ruth and Lou Gehrig

The year was 1931, and the Sultan of Swat and Iron Horse, the powerful twosome anchoring the Yankees lineup, were all but unstoppable. Ruth’s line that season was an astonishing .373/.495/.700; Gehrig, at .341/.466/.662, wasn’t far behind. Ruth was the team’s top player with 10.8 WAR; Gehrig, with 8.8, came second. The two even tied for most home runs in the major leagues that season. Though both were a few seasons removed from their career peak performances, they were still in their primes, still two of the most terrifying players for a major league pitcher to face.

Jackie Mitchell was not a major league pitcher. Nor was she, as all major league pitchers were, a man. The 17-year-old southpaw was a girl from Memphis, taught to love baseball by her father and trained to pitch by future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance, who led the National League in strikeouts for seven consecutive seasons from 1922 to 1928. Jackie Mitchell was “just a girl.”

That girl struck out the first two batters she faced on April 2, 1931.

The batters’ names? Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

The match-up was largely viewed as an orchestrated publicity stunt: the dominant New York Yankees versus the Chattanooga Lookouts Double-A minor league baseball team and their female pitcher, an exhibition game designed to titillate the masses. It was the height of the Great Depression, and teams would do anything to draw a crowd. The new president of the Lookouts was a showman named Joe Engel, who once traded a player for a turkey, and then cooked the turkey and served it to sportswriters. A 17-year-old girl taking on the greatest hitters in the league? Cute way to sell newspapers and tickets, but no way she’d actually amount to anything. Papers called her “pretty,” and joked she “swings a mean lipstick.” 

In her first professional game ever, in front of a crowd of over 4,000 spectators, the first batter Mitchell faced was The Great Bambino, who tipped his cap to her as he prepared to bat. But he swung and missed at one of her pitches “and missed the ball by a foot,” and then was caught looking at strike three. He was so miffed that he asked the umpire to inspect the ball, and threw his bat before returning to the dugout. Gehrig came next, swinging and missing at three straight pitches. They were the first two batters Mitchell faced in her professional career, and the lefty lady had struck out two of the greatest left-handed hitters in major league history. 

The next day, the newspaper headlines were decidedly different than they’d been leading up to the game. There was no mention of Jackie’s lipstick. Publications called her “organized baseball’s first girl pitcher.” The New York Times sports section read, “Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig.”

Ruth, likely still smarting from being struck out, was quoted as saying that women are “too delicate” to ever really succeed in baseball. But history will forever show that the Bambino had a lifetime .000 batting average against women. 

To this day, many debate whether Jackie Mitchell could have truly struck out hitters of Ruth and Gehrig’s caliber. Some think the two batters were in cahoots with the Lookouts owner to put on a great show for the crowd — that Mitchell was merely an unknowing accessory to a somewhat cruel joke. Ruth and Gehrig, if there was a ruse afoot, never let on. Mitchell herself maintained, “Better hitters than them couldn’t hit me.” 

Jackie Mitchell wasn’t the first woman to play organized baseball, though her entree into its world is definitely among the most sensational stories of women playing the game. Lizzie Arlington pitched in the minor leagues in 1898, having to wear bloomers. But over a century later, there are still no women playing in affiliate baseball, let alone in the major leagues. Babe Ruth thought we were too delicate. Legendary commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis reportedly voided Mitchell’s contract and said that baseball was “too strenuous” for women.

But Mitchell, despite the efforts to paint her as a joke, persisted in baseball for a time, playing on amateur and barnstorming teams in various leagues, even pitching in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. She retired in 1937 and left the baseball world, sick of the showy, shady antics of the leagues that allowed women players, more circus show than game.

I bet that when Jackie Mitchell took the mound that day, she was nervous. I’d definitely be, facing down two men who, even now, are some of the greatest to ever play the game. And once she struck out those two great men, maybe she thought, “maybe things will begin to change.”

In some ways, they have. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League existed from 1943 to 1954, as immortalized in A League of Their Own. Toni Stone and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. Girls can play in Little League and college ball. Over 100,000 girls play youth baseball. The U.S. has a national women’s baseball team; there is the Japanese Women’s Professional Baseball League, currently the only league of its kind in the world, soon to be joined by an Australian Women’s Baseball League. A few women have trained with minor league teams. In 2011, Justine Siegal became the first woman to throw batting practice for a major league team. In 2015, she became the first-ever female coach. Still, even the hypothetical idea of a woman playing in the major leagues rankles many. It is often met with knee-jerk reactions of anger and sneering disbelief.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

If you don’t think women belong in baseball, you’re wrong. Period. Many of us grew up loving the same game you did. We watched, studied, cheered, and cried, just like you. Our hearts and minds deserve the same space, and someday soon, we’ll have it.


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4 years ago

Thank you for spotlighting this moment. Any recommendations on where to read more? I’d love to share with my daughter.

Small soapbox moment, but I think it helps the conversation:

The 100,000 girls playing Little League is very important but even at six years old, kids are self-segregating by sex. Leagues need to apply more effort to recruiting multiple girls to the same team. Concentration, more than quantity, is what will push us ahead quicker. Being the one who is not like all the others at a time when you’re just learning new skills is really difficult.

My daughter plays on an all-girls Little League team (6th in the US when we started three seasons ago, as far as I could tell). Recruiting for the team hasn’t been easy. It’s not a matter of convincing kids though, but parents. Our parents don’t dismiss it because they explicitly think baseball is for boys, but it just never enters the conversations they have with their daughters when it comes time to decide spring activities. Their default mental options don’t include it. Gymnastics, dance, soccer, basketball, but no baseball. When asked why not baseball the answer is always either, ‘oh, I don’t know. I never thought of that’ or ‘do you mean softball?’

Progress will be and is being made, but it’s never as fast as we want.

Thank you again.

4 years ago

Are you arguing that one day there will be a woman playing in MLB? What about NFL, NBA, NHL?

Doug Lampertmember
4 years ago
Reply to  CliffH

I would not be at all surprised by a woman pitcher making the majors in my lifetime, probably a knuckleballer. I would not be at all surprised by a woman place-kicker making the NFL. The NBA or NHL I’d be very surprised.

4 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

Yeah. What convinced me that a woman could play in MLB was watching Tim Wakefield pitch. I got the impression that he only wound up because he had been taught to do so, but then would basically stop and push the knuckler at home plate. Any people who think that there isn’t a woman ON THE PLANET who could do that are simply kidding themselves.

a different brad
4 years ago
Reply to  CliffH

Manon Rheaume played in the NHL 27 years ago.

4 years ago

What’s keeping women out of baseball are the same things that are keeping me out of baseball. Boo hoo.

Chris Kmember
4 years ago

You’ve got an “entree” where you meant “entry”. Unless she was serving up literal meatballs and cheese at the knees.

4 years ago

Let’s not forget Jenny Finch, who struck out Bonds and Pujols, among others. That was no fluke. Studies have shown that successful hitting depends critically on tips the batter gets from watching the release of the pitch, and an underhanded softball hurler is not something major league hitters are accustomed to. We could speculate that possibly Jackie Mitchell had a release different from anything that Ruth and Gehrig were familiar with.

What seems odd to me is that if those Ks were legit, why wouldn’t other MLB hitters want to challenge her? Wouldn’t anyone want to see if she really was that good?

4 years ago
Reply to  WARrior

From the player’s perspective, it was a “no win” moment. If they hit safely, people would shrug and say “of course.” And if they also whiffed? Yikes. That’s a powerful disincentive.

4 years ago

Ruth’s best years were certainly behind him that day (1931 was his last truly “Ruthian” season, although he was still very good in 1932 before tailing off until his retirement in 1935), Gehrig, who was nearly eight years younger than Ruth, still arguably had his best seasons ahead of him. From 1932-1937, he finished in the top five in MVP voting every season and won in 1936. He first led the league in OPS in 1934, and then did so again in 1936 and 1937. All of which to say is that the Gehrig that she struck out that April day was still a star on the rise. He just had yet to emerge from the Babe’s long shadow.

4 years ago

I have a 2.5 year old niece. Her dad and mom both pitched in div 2 baseball and softball respectively. She already knows how to throw and hit and talk in the 3rd person a la Rickey Henderson. I believe in the future for women in baseball.

4 years ago
Reply to  jcave0299

What convinced me that a woman could play in MLB was watching Tim Wakefield pitch. I got the impression that he only wound up because he had been taught to do so, but then would basically stop and push the knuckler at home plate. Any people who think that there isn’t a woman ON THE PLANET who could do that are simply kidding themselves.