Once upon a time, there was a deadly duo in baseball. They struck fear into the hearts of the most dominant pitchers. Their names were George Herman Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The year was 1931, and the Sultan of Swat and Iron Horse were unstoppable. They even tied for most home runs in the league that season.
And then, for a brief, shining moment, Jackie Mitchell came along.
Jackie Mitchell was neither an MLB pitcher nor was she a man. The 17-year-old southpaw was a GIRL, taught to love baseball by her father and trained to pitch by Major League pitcher and future Hall-of-Famer Dazzy Vance. And that GIRL struck out the first two batters she faced on April 2, 1931: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Originally, the matchup was largely viewed as a publicity stunt, the dominant New York Yankees versus the Chattanooga Lookouts Class AA minor league baseball team and their female pitcher in an exhibition game. It was the height of the Great Depression, and teams were doing anything to draw a crowd. A girl taking on the greatest hitters in the league? Cute way to sell newspapers and tickets, but no way she’d actually amount to anything. Papers called her “pretty” and talked about her skill at applying lipstick. But in an epic showing of girl power, Jackie Mitchell proved everybody wrong. In her first professional game ever, she first struck out The Bambino, who was so salty about it that he threw his bat and asked the umpire to inspect the ball. Gehrig came next, swinging and missing at three straight pitches. They were the first two batters she faced; the lefty had struck out two of the greatest left-handed hitters in Major League history.
The next day, the newspaper headlines were decidedly different. The New York Times sports section read, “Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig.”
Decades later, I have to wonder why there are still no women playing in the MLB. Babe Ruth thought we were too delicate. First Commissioner of the MLB Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract and said that baseball was “too strenuous” for women. But Jackie Mitchell persisted for a time, playing on amateur teams in various leagues. She retired in 1937 and left the baseball world, sick of the showy antics of the leagues that allowed women players, more circus than game.
Growing up, I dreamed of being the first female Red Sox pitcher. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a sportswriter, even though my baseball knowledge eclipses that of most of the guys I talk to. Just today, someone told me that a reference had ‘gone over my head.’ My love of the game and choice of profession are challenged and belittled on an almost-daily basis. Almost one-hundred years later, it’s as if Jackie Mitchell never even took the mound.
I bet that when Jackie Mitchell took the mound that day, she was nervous. I’d definitely be, facing down two men who, even now, are some of the greatest in baseball history. And once she struck out those two great men, she thought, “maybe things will begin to change.” And in some ways, they have. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League existed from 1943 to 1954, as immortalized in “A League of Their Own.” Girls can play in Little League and college ball. Over 100,000 girls play youth baseball. The US even has a women’s hardball team. But there has never been a female player in the Major Leagues. A few women have trained for minor league teams. In 2011, Justine Siegel became the first woman to throw a batting practice for a Major League team. In 2015, she became the first-ever female coach.
If you don’t think women belong in baseball, you’re wrong. Period. Many of us grew up loving the same game you did. We watched, studied, cheered, and cried, just like you. Our hearts and minds deserve the same space, and someday soon, we’ll have it.
Me? I may never pitch from that beautiful Fenway Mound, but I’m not giving up hope that some girl will one day.