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.
- Mitchell, as you can see on the video (which includes Babe’s strike-out), powdered her nose before pitching. This does not support the theory that the game was “on the up and up” rather than a stunt from start to finish.
- 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.