Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth was known for being great with the kids when it came to baseball. He often showed off for fans and spread goodwill through the sport. He is an iconic baseball figure that had truly remarkable athletic ability. In addition, he had very specific opinions that he was not afraid to share with anyone. For example:

"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." - Babe Ruth

Really? Too delicate? Interesting.

Back in 1898, when Ruth was a mere toddler, the first woman to sign a pro baseball contract pitched her first and only pro game. It was July 5th and Lizzie Arlington threw for one inning. Afterward, she was hired by Atlantic League president Ed Barrow to play exhibition games around the country.

Later, another woman was signed to play in the minor leagues. Jackie Mitchell had played baseball with her father since she was a child. She lived next door to a minor league player named Dazzy Vance when she was around five years old. Dazzy had a pitch he called the “drop pitch” and taught it to a capable Jackie. This was basically a dropping curve ball, or “sinker”. Apparently she mastered the pitch, even at her young age. Jackie’s father and Dazzy believed in her and never told her that she wouldn’t be able to play baseball. When she was 16 years old, Jackie played for a women’s team in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Later that year she attended a baseball academy and gained the attention of the owner of a men’s team, the Chattanooga Lookouts. This AA minor league team signed Jackie based on her exceptional pitching ability. Unfortunately they probably also signed her because she was a "novelty" that would increase ticket sales. The lefty had one pitch – the drop pitch that she had learned from Dazzy – but that was all she needed.

During this time, Major League teams would play exhibition games around the country so that all fans could enjoy the sport. The New York Yankees traveled to Chattanooga on their way back from spring training on April 2, 1931 and played against the Lookouts. The starting pitcher, Clyde Barfoot, gave up a few hits and the manager decided to put Jackie in. The first batter she would face was none other than Babe Ruth. The first pitch was a ball but he then swing at and missed the next two. The 4th pitch was another strike. Ruth had a fit and kicked the dirt. Next, he called the umpire several dirty names, threw his bat wildly, and then stormed back to the Yankees dugout. Next, Lou Gehrig was at bat. She struck him out also in only three pitches. A total of seven pitches and this 17-year old was able to strike out two of the most recognized names in baseball. She walked the next batter and her coach put the starter back in. The Yankees ended up winning the game by a score of 14-4. Jackie’s performance was rewarded with her contract being voided by the Baseball Commissioner a few days later. He claimed that baseball was too strenuous for women to play.

Jackie was reportedly and understandably crushed. Here was a capable athlete that had her career cut short for an absurd reason. She continued to play in exhibition games, but eventually tired of being a spectacle. At 23, she retired from the sport and went to work for her father. She did play from time to time while she could locally.

The Exploratorium website features a piece about Jackie and has these excerpts from the news sources of her time:

"She uses an odd, side-armed delivery, and puts both speed and curve on the ball. Her greatest asset, however, is control. She can place the ball where she pleases, and her knack at guessing the weakness of a batter is uncanny .... She doesn't hope to enter the big show this season, but she believes that with careful training she may soon be the first woman to pitch in the big leagues." The Chattanooga News, March 31, 1931

"The Yankees will meet a club here that has a girl pitcher named Jackie Mitchell, who has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick. I suppose that in the next town the Yankees enter they will find a squad that has a female impersonator in left field, a sword swallower at short, and a trained seal behind the plate. Times in the South are not only tough but silly." The New York Daily News, April 2, 1931

"Cynics may contend that on the diamond as elsewhere it is place aux dames. Perhaps Miss Jackie hasn't quite enough on the ball yet to bewilder Ruth and Gehrig in a serious game. But there are no such sluggers in the Southern Association, and she may win laurels this season which cannot be ascribed to mere gallantry. The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists." The New York Times, April 4, 1931

There are a few books written about Jackie and you can find some information on other blogs and a television show recently aired with the account of the game.

What do you think? Will baseball ever let women in to play, and play seriously? What is the problem with coed athletics?


Lindsay said...

Thanks for drawing attention to this woman. It always amazes me how many extraordinary women in history are just forgotten, or at least never mentioned in history class. You make me want to do more research on my own, so thanks for that.

If a woman can compete with the men, then of course she deserves to play.

Apryl DeLancey said...

Thank you, Lindsay! Let me know any that you find and I'll continue to do my research as well.

Forrest said...

Great story. I am so glad I got to read this. I am a big fan of the history of baseball and of course the forgotten history of baseball, and I saw that ESPN was running a special about this woman, but I missed it. So glad I got to read this before I forgot all about it.

Apryl DeLancey said...

Thanks Forrest - I missed the show as well so I needed to research the story. Baseball certainly has a rich history!