On April 1st, 1931, the New York Yankees were making a trip back from Florida and decided to take a pit stop. This stop was on the theatrical side, as they agreed to stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee for an exhibition game against the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Class-AA minor league team. Their owner Joe Engels was an entertainer of sorts--as many owners wanted to be at that time to attract fans--and had a perfect strategy to draw people to the exhibitions. He had just hired a woman--Jackie Mitchell--to a minor league contract, and she would be perfect to face the Bombers.
Jackie Mitchell was born on August 29, 1913, and grew up in Memphis in the 1920s. Her tutor was one of the best--Charles Arthur "Dazzy" Vance, a Hall of Fame pitcher who recorded a career ERA+ of 125, won the MVP in 1924, led the league in ERA three times, and led the league in strikeouts in seven straight seasons. Vance taught Mitchell what came to be her eminent drop-curve, a supposedly plus-pitch that was her bread-and-butter. She was also a lean lefty, which gave her quite the platoon advantage as well. In this exhibition, she was not using her stuff against minor leaguers, but arguably the best hitters in baseball history.
Engels wanted Mitchell to start the first of two exhibition games against the Yankees, but the first game on April 1st was rained out. So on April 2nd, in game two, Mitchell was brought in to face the heart of the Yankees lineup in Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Mitchell got off to a pretty good start--she struck out Ruth on four pitches. Now, this is where the myth gets hairy. Many believe that Ruth actually allowed Mitchell to strike her out as part of the "show", while others truly think Mitchell struck him out. Given the video in which Ruth threw his bat down in anger, it doesn't appear that he was acting. He did not want to be struck out by a girl, but he was. Mitchell followed that up with a three-pitch strikeout against Gehrig and a walk; she then was removed from the game. What was Ruth's oh-so-sexist reaction to all of this?
"I don't know what's going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day."
Sure, Babe. That certainly was enough for Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, because the next day he voided Mitchell's contract and declared it a farce, which effectively banned women from the sport. An official ban was drafted in 1952, later to be removed in 1992. They obviously denied the wishes of Mitchell, who only wanted one thing:
"All I want is to stay in baseball long enough to get money to buy a roadster."
She never did get her roadster. She played with a traveling group of male players until the age of 23, only to retire after her femininity was turned into somewhat of a stunt. She just wanted to play ball.
Why is all of this at all relevant? Just last night, the "Knuckleball Princess" Chelsea Baker threw out batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays, the first woman to do so since Justine Siegal in 2011. Joe Maddon seemed impressed:
Chelsea’s knuckleball is real. She hit Longo in the back. I loved it. With that pitch & her composure she can compete pic.twitter.com/m91X3rZR3G— Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) June 23, 2014
Who knows--maybe Baker is a Jackie Mitchell in the making. Like Mitchell, she was taught by the best in the field; she was taught the knuckleball by Joe Niekro, and Tim Wakefield later helped her to improve upon it. She's determined, and she just wants to prove to the boys that she too can play the game, but that doesn't come without adversity. She's said "when I was little, all my dreams were to be on the USA team and high school baseball, and people always told me, ‘You’ll never play varsity baseball, you’re not strong enough, you don’t have the guts to do it...’"
Well, she's proving them wrong. She's pitched to a 2-0 record and a 0.78 ERA in her junior year and now has reps against professional hitters. If you watch her BP session with the Rays, she made them look pretty foolish. That knuckler is nasty. With her skill and determination, it's not out of the question that she could play professional baseball. And while I usually do not wish that other pitchers strike out the Yankees, I would not mind another Jackie Mitchell coming along and setting down some Yankee sluggers.