Jackie Mitchell, The Girl Who Struck Out Ruth And Gehrig: A Legend And Ethics Conundrum

jackie-mitchell

The Jackie Mitchell saga is a great, feel-good story ruined by ethics rot. On one level, it is exactly the kind of tale that compels the treatment recommended by the old newspaper editor in John Ford’s “the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On another, it is an ethics mess, which might explain why I had never heard of Jackie Mitchell, once a proto-feminist icon, until I cracked open my new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Mitchell was a Depression era Chattanooga teenager who had been taught how to pitch by her friend and neighbor, Major League ace Dazzy Vance. A star on local women’s baseball teams, the tomboy southpaw was signed to a pro contract by the promotion-minded owner of a local AA level minor league team, the Lookouts, in 1931. Her big moment came when the New York Yankees came through Chattanooga from Spring Training on the way to opening the season up North. Lookouts owner Joe Engel arranged for two exhibition games against the Bronx Bombers, who, you baseball fans should know, included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Engel promoted the game as a David and Goliath showdown with Jackie playing David, and he was rewarded with a full stadium. Then this happened:

“…Mitchell [came] to the mound to face the heart of a fearsome lineup that had become known in the 1920s as “Murderers’ Row.” 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…“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.”

Mitchell became an over-night celebrity and a hero to athletic-minded girls, though it was a Pyrrhic victory for feminism: women were blackballed from professional baseball shortly thereafter. Still, it’s a good story, and could be an inspiring one, if there wasn’t so much posturing, cynicism, dishonesty, condescension, confusion and confirmation bias surrounding it. Nobody knows whether Babe and Lou “really” struck out against the girl, or whether it was all a charade. Here are the factors to consider, as revealed  in Tony Horwitz’s article:

  • Engel, like many of his contemporary owners and later Major League showmen like Bill Veeck ( who sent the midget up to bat), was addicted to stunts—anything to fill the seats. Was he fully capable of rigging the at bats of Ruth and Gehrig? Sure. This is a man who once traded a player for a turkey, and then fed the turkey to sportswriters.
  • The game was originally scheduled for April 1. Coincidence? Or a clue about the true nature of the “competition.”
  • Was Mitchell in on it? When she was old and ready to exit this world, she insisted that she fanned the two greats fair and square….which I presume would be her position whether she was part of the scam or not.
  • Could a girl strike out Babe Ruth? Of course. Babe struck out a lot, and non-major league caliber pitches can be harder to hit—for one at bat—for a player used to 90 mile an hour offerings. I might be able to strike out the Bambino, especially if he was hung over. The question is still “Did Babe and Lou miss on purpose?”
  • On the video, Ruth swings at two pitches high out of the strike zone…bad pitches…then throws his bat theatrically when he’s called out. The latter looks staged, but then, Babe might have been kidding, or making fun of himself. He was that kind of guy.
  • A team mate of Babe and Lou swore that the Yankees would not have put up with such a degrading stunt. (They still slaughtered the Lookouts, after all.) Neither Ruth nor Gehrig ever spoke about the incident. The suspicion would be that they accepted money under the table to give the crowd a thrill.
  • Now confirmation bias takes over. John Thorn, baseball’s official historian, tells Smithsonian that he is certain that the strikeouts were a gag. (How can he be so certain?) The Baseball Hall of Fame’s research director, on the other hand, refuses to debunk Jackie’s achievement, and suggests that the suspicions about the legitimacy of the K’s emanated from male sportswriters trying to protect the fragile egos of…Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig?

So who’s lying? Everybody? Nobody? At this point, I’m with the old newspaperman.

Print the legend.

15 thoughts on “Jackie Mitchell, The Girl Who Struck Out Ruth And Gehrig: A Legend And Ethics Conundrum

  1. What? There’s no make-up in baseball?

    Whether they did or didn’t strike out is of no consequence. Exhibition games don’t count. This entire saga is more a case study in public relations and advertising than ethics.

    The only ethics issue is why MLB has banned women players. (They throw like girls?) Or maybe whether it’s ethical for sports leagues to allow owners to charge admission for exhibition games.

    • Whether they did or didn’t strike out is of no consequence. Exhibition games don’t count.

      So, the players don’t play hard if it’s not for a specific championship?

      [An ethics issue is] maybe whether it’s ethical for sports leagues to allow owners to charge admission for exhibition games.

      This is insane. Exhibition games predate league games. Even if it’s rare now, there’s a great history of barnstorming in baseball. Friendlies are still common in top flight soccer, and there’s no reason to think the teams shouldn’t be charging.

      There’s an ethics question in tying league game tickets to exhibition game tickets, but not in exhibition game tickets themselves.

      • No, players don’t play hard if it’s not going to affect their compensation. They are professionals.

        Barnstorming is entertainment. Airplanes flying through barns. Football friendlies are the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.

        Are there any present or former professional athletes out there to help me on this?

        • No, players don’t play hard if it’s not going to affect their compensation. They are professionals.

          I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. Most professionals require the competitive drive to get to where they are. Take the 2012 USA Olympic basketball team. They killed each other in every scrimmage in every practice.

          Also, since when does exhibition performance not affect compensation?

          Barnstorming is entertainment. Airplanes flying through barns. Football friendlies are the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.

          I’m calling Poe at this point. I can’t believe you actually believe your arguments.

          • Adding on to this, we know that not playing hard is a great way to get hurt. Will players (some of them) eschew injury risking contact in an exhibition? Sure, I’ve seen it. But they still have to play hard.

            Some exhibitions have changed the culture…see: Bobby Riggs v. Billy Jean King.

    • They may not count, but they do matter. Hubbell striking out 5 immortals in a row in the first All-Star; Williams hitting the Eephus pitch, Roses collision at the plate in All-Star Games. Paige and Gibson going head to head with white stars when the color barrier was up. Dizzy Dean having his team sit down while he struck out the side.

      • I’ll give you Pete Rose, Jack. He’d plow into his grandmother at home plate even if it was just out in the back yard. Is that commendable though when everybody else is just enjoying a few days off with their fellow union members?

          • Depends on the all star game.
            Baseball: yes.
            Basketball: yes (even if defense is eschewed for 42 minutes, they’re entertaining)
            Football: no (there are too many limitations on offense and defense, and one week of practice can’t get even a limited offensive or defensive system installed).

            Not all exhibitions are all star games. The Yankees coming to town in the 30s wasn’t a slapdash all-star game of millionaires; it was players who had off season jobs getting to supplement their income with their actual profession.

            • And, by the way, it would not have been unusual for Lou and Babe to accept a couple of C-notes to make the girl look good and the fans happy, even if it would have annoyed Joe McCarthy.

  2. I’ll just exit this discussion with the words of Honus Wagner (perhaps my favorite quote, athletic, literary or otherwise): “When you’re a ballplayer, there ain’t much to bein’ a ballplayer.”

  3. She’s a baseball legendary story that you could argue 6 ways to Sunday…. Babe Ruth could be capable of any stunt, but Lou Gehrig did not have a reputation for this type of circus.

    Seeing as how they never saw her pitch before and she had an unorthodox LH pitching style, I’d give it the benefit of the doubt.. If she pitched to them 10x, I’d expect a lot of HRs.

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