Jahn: Jackie Mitchell held her own against the greats

Jahn: Jackie Mitchell held her own against the greats

September 28th, 2014 by Janna Jahn in Opinion Columns

Second of two parts

An 18-year-old female pitcher named Jackie Mitchell famously struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at Engel Stadium in 1931. Labeled a publicity stunt, the event also marked the beginning of Jackie's baseball career.

After a season with the Lookouts' farm team, the Junior Lookouts, she became an "itinerant" pitcher for minor league teams throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic. By 1933 she had played 100 games against men's teams and won 60.

Historical accounts indicate she was good.

The great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson said, "I never thought I'd live to see a girl pitch that well."

One Chattanooga Times story confirmed a particularly outstanding performance in Cleveland, Ohio.

"Jackie Mitchell, Chattanooga blonde, was so impressive under the arc lights here that Otis Crandall (former New York Giant) signed her this afternoon to appear with his pro outfit in New York and other Eastern cities."

In 1933 she made headlines again by signing a contract to pitch for the famous House of David barnstorming team. Similar to today's Harlem Globetrotters, the entrepreneurial religious colony sponsored popular exhibition teams that traveled coast to coast playing against major and minor league teams, the Negro leagues and anyone else who wanted a go.

The players were distinctive; the men let their hair and beards grow long. Other famous "outsiders" who joined the House of David roster include Satchel Paige and Babe Didrikson, the Olympic medalist who later became America's first female golf celebrity.

Jackie became a star attraction for the House of David's Eastern Traveling Team. Her $1,000-a-month salary, worth roughly $17,800 in today's dollars, was comparable to the $5,000 average yearly pay for major leaguers. Chief Bender, the group's other star pitcher said, "I class her with the best men flingers this club ever has used. And that's a promise. Not only because she's a girl, but because she can win ball games is she worth that much dough to us."

While Ruth and Gehrig may have been the first major leaguers Jackie faced, they weren't the last. One notable encounter took place on Sept. 12, 1933, when the House of David beat the St. Louis Cardinals at Sportsman's Park. Other greats she played against include Pepper Martin, Dizzy Dean, Hans Wagner and Leo Durocher.

Where did her ability come from?

No doubt it started with her father who once played professional baseball. As a young child, neighbor Dazzy Vance worked with Jackie during the family's years in Memphis. Known for his fastball and curve, the future Hall of Famer was the dominant major league pitcher of the 1920s. Kid Elberfeld, who spent 16 years in the majors, was undoubtedly influential. He coached Jackie at his famous Atlanta baseball school for aspiring major leaguers and later both coached and played with her on the Junior Lookouts.

In the off-season Jackie played basketball. She and Babe Didrikson were teammates on Babe's All-American men's team. Jackie retired from baseball in 1937, returned to Chattanooga and later married. In the 1940s she declined an offer to pitch for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Over time, memories of her baseball career faded but weren't completely forgotten. Stories about Jackie continue to surface today in books and the media. Tristar Productions released a baseball card in Jackie's honor in 2009.

The idea of a woman playing professional baseball caused quite a sensation in 1931. As Ruth said when he heard he was to face Jackie, "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."

Jackie had a different view. "If women have the ability to do it, I think they should be allowed to do anything they want."

While we weren't there for the famous strikeout in Chattanooga, we do know this: Any rookie pitcher making a professional debut would not find it easy to face Ruth and Gehrig. For a teenage girl, it must have been challenging, especially in 1931 with the eyes of the world looking on. It took extraordinary courage, confidence and ability, and Jackie had all three.

Janna Jahn is the founder of the Engel Foundation. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.