When it comes to Chattanooga's contributions to the story of professional baseball in America, the legend of the late Jackie Mitchell has to be near the top.
This 1975 photo of Jackie Mitchell Gilbert, by then a 63-year-old widow living in East Ridge, shows her flashing an impish smile 44 years after her shining day of fame.
On April 2, 1931, Beatrice "Jackie" Mitchell, then a 17-year-old Chattanooga school girl, took the mound for the Chattanooga Lookouts in an exhibition game against the visiting New York Yankees — one of the world's most famous sports teams — and struck out baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
It marked one of the most famous moments in Chattanooga sports history.
The male-vs.-female showdown was orchestrated by legendary Lookouts owner Joe Engel, who has been called the "Barnum of Baseball" for his over-the-top minor league promotions.
The at-bats against Mitchell became part of the lore of two of the greatest baseball players who ever lived and signaled the first time a woman had ever pitched in a game against big league batters.
This photo, from a box of slides recently discovered at the 11th Street offices of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, was shot to illustrate a Page One article by then-Chattanooga News-Free Press sports editor Allan Morris (now deceased) in September 1975.
In a column a week earlier, Morris had pondered the question "What ever happened to Jackie Mitchell" and, to his surprise, she called him up. Retired by then, she was living on Stump Street in East Ridge and invited Morris over to look through her scrapbook and talk about old times, specifically the events of April 2, 1931, and the game with the Yankees. Morris would call the resulting article one of the most popular of his career.
"Her performance against Ruth and Gehrig was Joe Engel's biggest, most publicized stunt," Morris wrote at the time. "The story ... was new to the younger generation and veteran fans had wondered what had happened to her."
But were the strikeouts a sham or legitimate?
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Despite Mitchell's lifelong insistence that she simply overpowered Ruth and Gehrig with her nasty sinker balls and fastballs, reports from the scene make it appear likely that the two major league giants may have taken a fall, or at least not tried all that hard. Morris' 1975 article notes that Mitchell was summoned from the bullpen after two Yankees reached base in the first inning, which sounds a little contrived.
Morris wrote: "The Lookouts manager beckoned his little lefthanded girl reliever from the bullpen to face the mighty Babe. Mitchell delivered three pitches and Ruth 'took' them all — all called strikes." (Other reports say there was one "ball" mixed in, for a total of four pitches.)
Next up was Gehrig, who struck out swinging. Morris says history notes that on the third strike, Gehrig missed the ball by a foot.
Again, it is possible that the great Gehrig was overpowered by a teenage girl pitcher, but it seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, the strikeouts propelled Mitchell to fame. She was written about in the "Ripley's Believe it or Not" newspaper feature, and newsreels of the day recorded her momentous achievement and spread the news across the nation.
After her short "career" with the Lookouts ended, Mitchell joined a traveling baseball team called The House of David, which played exhibitions against pro clubs across the United States. She was the only woman on the team.
She retired from her athletics career in 1937 and later settled into a job assisting her father, a Chattanooga optometrist named Dr. Joe Mitchell, according to newspaper archives. Dr. Mitchell, legend has it, had conspired with Engel to arrange his daughter's appearance against the Yankees.
Engel once drew almost 25,000 fans to a Lookouts game by raffling off a house. But by the mid-1960s the team barely drew 25,000 fans for a full season, according to previous reports. The team folded in the 1960s only to re-emerge 11 years later.
Jackie Mitchell Gilbert died in 1987 in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, according to a newspaper report.
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