ONE OF THE MOST CHARMING old-time baseball tales concerns a seventeen-year-old girl pitcher striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a 1931 exhibition game in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There are at least three children’s books that celebrate Jackie Mitchell’s unlikely pitching feat, including The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth (2000). A headline on a feminist.org story states, “Today in Herstory: Jackie Mitchell Strikes Out Baseball’s Greats,” and treats the double strikeouts as a straightforward case of a distaff pitcher outdueling the two best hitters in baseball.
Jackie Mitchell did strike out Ruth and Gehrig on April 2, 1931. The question is, did the two Yankees whiff on purpose?
I can hear the protests already. “Of course she did!” “No one strikes out intentionally!” “Men will never admit that a girl beat their heroes!”
I’d like to believe that Ruth and Gehrig were doing their best and Mitchell was just too good. It makes for a better story. It’s certainly possible that Mitchell’s lefty delivery and slow-moving pitches flummoxed the Yankee sluggers, who were used to hard-throwing big leaguers.
Baseball writers — granted, male baseball writers — reported that Ruth and Gehrig were just putting on a show for Mitchell’s hometown crowd. The Baltimore Sun wrote that Ruth “could have knocked the ball onto the outlying railroad tracks” but instead, “taking careful aim,” swung and missed twice. According to a 2013 Smithsonian story by Tony Horwitz, a grainy newsreel of Ruth’s strikeout shows the slugger flailing “wildly at the ball, and his fury at the called third strike looks theatrical.” But the blurry film makes it impossible to conclude anything about the quality of Mitchell’s pitching and earnestness of the two batters.
Major League Baseball historian John Thorn considers the strikeouts an act. “The whole thing was a jape, a jest, a Barnumesque prank,” he told The Smithsonian. “Jackie Mitchell striking out Ruth and Gehrig is a good story for children’s books, but it belongs in the pantheon with the Easter Bunny and Abner Doubleday ‘inventing’ baseball.'”
Hall of Fame research director Tim Miles, on the other hand, thinks the strikeouts may have been genuine. “Much of batting has to do with timing and familiarity with a pitcher, and everything about Jackie Mitchell was unfamiliar to Ruth and Gehrig,” he told The Smithsonian.
What do I think? Like I said, I wish Ruth and Gehrig were trying their best, but I have doubts about that. I think all those who write about “The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth” should mention the possibility that it might have been a farce.
For more about the Mitchell strikeouts, check out this well-researched story in The Smithsonian: