Jun 2, 2016

Throws Like A Girl

"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

The Sultan of Swat retired this day (June 2) 1935 after discovering that Braves owner Judge Emil Fuchs had maybe been less than honest when he had promised to make Ruth the manager of the Braves. This was going to be a piece on Babe Ruth, who to me, personifies the United States in all it's excessive glory. This was going to be something like what Ruth's biographer states.

"He is a bombastic, sloppy hero from our bombastic, sloppy history, origins undetermined, a folk tale of American success......He stands at the heart of the game he played, the promise of a warm summer night, a bag of peanuts, and a beer. And just maybe, the longest ball hit out of the park."
- Leigh Montville

That is where I was going to go with this article when I found the quote at the top of the piece. Aware that the 1930's were a bit different than they are today (read: intolerant) it seemed odd that this quote would persevere. Mainly because it does not seem a unique thought for the 1930s. Looking into the context I came to discover that this quote was stated shortly after Ruth was being dragged away from the home plate umpire by his teammates while screaming vulgarities. He had been struck out. By a broad. Well, a 17 year old girl. In front of 4,000 fans.

Jackie Mitchell was born in Chattanooga, TN in 1913. Her father was a baseball enthusiast who had his daughter on a diamond soon as she could walk. As luck would have it her next door neighbor was pitching great "Dazzy" Vance who showed her how to throw the "drop ball" which helped him strike out 2045 players in his career. A fact made more amazing considering he only played 33 innings before he turned 30. 

During a baseball camp she caught the attention of the Chattanooga Lookouts (still active) owner Joe Engel (not active). As a publicity stunt, Mr. Engel signed Jackie on March 25, 1931. On April 2, 1931 she was put into an exhibition game against the New York Yankees making her the second woman to play major league baseball. (As a quick side note: Do not be afraid to look into the publicity stunts of Joe Engel including trading a player for a turkey to serve in the press box.)

The idea that a 17 year old girl would be facing the great New York Yankees created the buzz that Engel was hoping to create. However, there was an issue. Jackie had been playing basketball for the past 6 months and had not been throwing a baseball. Although I cannot find out how much she practiced for the big event we do know that the Washington Post claimed "she was laid up with a sore arm." Luck was on history's side, however, when a rain out pushed the game back a day giving Jackie some needed rest. 

April 2, 1931 Jackie buttoned up her loose fitting uniform and warmed up with Ruth and Lou Gehrig watching. If you are like me and had to know, take a look and then let me describe the scene:

A crowd of 4,000 eager fans are waiting to see a girl pitch to Murderer's Row. The press box is full of men in hats writing sentences such as, "The curves won't all be on the ball when pretty Jackie Mitchell takes the mound" or "She swings a mean lipstick." The Yankees are on the field watching warm ups and making remarks best left in the last century. 

The starting pitcher for the Lookouts is Clyde Barfoot. The first batter he faces, Earle Combs, rips a double off the outfield wall (fence?) which is followed by Lyn Larry driving a single up the middle and scoring the first run of the game minutes after it started. Next up is Babe Ruth. Chattanooga's manager calls for a "snip-nosed blue-eyed girl" and, according to the Washington Post "[w]ithout so much as powdering her nose or seeing if her lipstick was on straight, Jackie strode to the mound."

After warming up Ruth strides into the batters box, tipped his hat, and assumed "an easy batting stance." Mitchell winds up "as if she were turning a coffee grinder" and lets loose a side arm delivery of the "drop ball." Ruth lets it go for ball one. Her second pitch is also a breaking ball that Ruth swings through or according baseball historian Andy Broome "missed the ball by a foot." The third pitch is "a hell of a curve" that Ruth once again swings through.

At this point, the Bambino asks the umpire to check the ball. The fourth pitch is an overhand fast ball straight down the middle that freezes Ruth. As the umpire calls the third strike, Ruth slams his bat to the ground and begins to lay into the umpire. His teammates help him back to the dugout.

Next up is Lou Gehrig. Less is written about this battle but the Iron Horse goes down in three straight pitches. The Baltimore Sun has a great line, "Lou could hear Jackie’s girlfriends squealing delightedly." He, being an adult, walks calmly back to the dugout. 

The third batter Mitchell faces is Tony Lazzeri whom she walks in four straight pitches the last of which does not make it to the plate. My speculation is that sore arm was coming back into play. That fabulous Washington Post article has a slightly different theory, "Jackie probably remembered by that time that she was a woman, and after all the excitement she undoubtedly wanted to go off and have a good cry so they let her retire from the game."

As Jackie walked off the field to "a hail of cheers" and went into the dugout to watch her team get trounced 14-4.

The next day her picture was in the New York Times with the headline "Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig" and a very different tone than all other newspapers, "The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists." Unfortunately, the commissioner agreed with the Ruth statement which starts this article and voided her contract although to be fair each article I have read claims that there is no proof of this outside word of mouth.

That is where this story ends. However, I encourage you to look into Jackie Mitchell as her story does not stop here. To "tickle your ass with a feather," as my grandma would say, Jackie went on to play for the House of David, one of the most popular barnstorming team in history known as the "Beards of Summer" while occasionally sporting a beard. Here is their picture. Enjoy.