On April 2, 1931, world famous New York Yankees sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were struck out by a 17 year old female pitcher named Virnett ‘Jackie’ Mitchell in Chattanooga, TN.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball,” grumbled Ruth off-field. “Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”
Joe Engel, owner of the Southern Association’s AA Chattanooga Lookouts, had recently signed Mitchell after spotting her in a baseball camp in Georgia. Engel, a former big league player who scouted for the Washington Senators after his playing days, was known for his innovative, entertaining, and often zany promotional stunts.
The local papers were full of stories about the first woman to ever play in the minor leagues, though Jackie Mitchell was actually the second woman to sign a minor-league contract. In 1898, Lizzie Arlington played one game, pitching for Reading (PA) against Allentown.
The Yankees had stopped in Chattanooga for an exhibition game that day, on their way home from spring training down south. Major league teams often traveled the country playing against members of their minor league’s farm system. This gave the locals an opportunity to see big league players in towns that did not boast big league franchises. It also kept the players in off-season shape – both in body and mind. Billed as a huge event due to the appearance of “Murderers Row” —Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri— the game brought out a crowd of 4,000, including scores of reporters, wire services, and even a newsreel camera.
Manager Bert Niehoff started the game with Clyde Barfoot, but after Barfoot gave up a double and a single, the manager signaled for Jackie Mitchell. The rookie southpaw took the mound wearing a baggy white uniform that had been custom-made by the Spalding Company. The first batter she faced was Ruth.
Jackie, a left-hander, only had one pitch, a wicked, dropping curve ball. Ruth took ball one, and then swung at — and missed — the next two pitches. Jackie’s fourth pitch caught the corner of the plate, the umpire called it a strike, and Babe Ruth “kicked the dirt, called the umpire a few dirty names, gave his bat a wild heave, and stomped out to the Yank’s dugout.”
The next batter was Lou Gehrig. He stepped up to the plate and swung at the first sinker — strike one! He swung twice more, hitting nothing but air. Jackie Mitchell had fanned the “Sultan of Swat” AND the “Iron Horse,” back-to-back.
After a standing ovation that lasted several minutes, Jackie pitched to Tony Lazzeri, who drew a walk. At that point, Niehoff pulled her and put Barfoot back in. The Yankees won the game 14-4.
The 17-year old had squared off against three future Hall of Famers, striking out two of them. The next day, one newspaper would speculate that “maybe her curves were too much for them.”
But a few days after the exhibition game, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Jackie Mitchell’s contract, claiming that baseball was “too strenuous” for a woman.
Crushed and disappointed, Jackie began barnstorming, traveling across the country pitching in exhibition games. In 1933, when she was 19, she signed on with the House of David, a men’s team famous for their very long hair and long beards. She traveled with them until 1937, but eventually got tired of the sideshow aspects of barnstorming — like playing an inning while riding a donkey.
At the age of 23, she retired and went to work in her father’s optometry office, although she continued to play with local teams from time to time. Forty-five years later, in 1982, the 68-year-old Jackie threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Chattanooga Lookouts on opening day.