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A baseball mystery: Did a teenage girl really strike out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig?

New York Yankees Lou Gehrig, left, and Babe Ruth study the form of 17-year old Jackie Mitchell, a minor league pitcher for the Chattanooga Lookouts, before an exhibition game on April 2, 1931. (AP Photo)

There she stands on the pitching mound. The black-and-white video footage is grainy, but clear enough to see Jackie Mitchell’s hat is tilted just slightly to the right.

In front of her, on home plate, stands the familiar figure of Babe Ruth in a number 3 jersey, bat in hand.

She winds her left arm and lets the ball fly.

He swings. He misses.

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This happens once more. With her next pitch, Ruth pulls the bat toward him, avoiding contact with the ball, but it’s declared a strike. He flings the bat to the ground.

Mitchell was 17, one of the first female pitchers with a baseball contract, and on that day, April 2, 1931, she had just struck out the Great Bambino.

She then did it again with the next person up to bat – Lou Gehrig.

A headline in the New York Times the following day read, “Girl Pitcher Fans Ruth and Gehrig.” The subhead: “Hurls Only Six Balls to Strike Out the Yankee Aces in Chattanooga Game.”

Baseball season opened this week, marking that time of year when fans inevitably find themselves mentally cataloging the sport’s great moments. For many, Mitchell’s minutes at the mound will likely not be among them. Few people, even die-hard fans, know her name.

The reason for this, historians say, speaks to baseball during the Great Depression and the place of women in the sport then – and now.

“It was sensational at the time, and then fell by the wayside because who’s going to believe some young 17-year-old kid struck out Babe Ruth?” said Leslie Heaphy, a history professor and the chair of the Women in Baseball Committee for the Society for American Baseball Research. “It’s easy to dismiss it and say, ‘That can’t be.’”

Back then, teams were known to put on performances to draw crowds from a public that had limited funds, and Mitchell was signed with the Chattanooga Lookouts by Joe Engel, a known showman. So that moment has remained much debated: Were those strikeouts genuine, or did two of the sport’s best known hitters take it easy on a woman? There is also another theory: Could there have been an after-the-fact effort to debunk that moment to preserve egos in a male-centric sport?

“I would like to think that it happened. and it happened legitimately, but nobody knows that, unfortunately, except for those involved,” Heaphy said. “They certainly brought in someone who could pitch. Even if it was for publicity, she could pitch.”

Mitchell was quoted at the time saying she learned to throw from her neighbor, MLB Charles Arthur “Dazzy” Vance, who later landed in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

She never stopped believing she’d struck the Yankees out, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine that quotes her not long before her death in 1987 as saying that the only instruction the Yankees received was to try to avoid hitting the ball directly at her. “Why, hell, they were trying, damn right,” she said. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”

Timothy Wiles, who served as the Baseball Hall of Fame Research Director for about 20 years, said he straddles the fence between whether the strikeouts were genuine or part of a show. The video of the moment is too blurry to say anything definitively, but Mitchell was a left-handed pitcher and that would have made it more difficult for Ruth and Gehrig who were left-handed hitters, he said.

“I just don’t think it’s fair to women or girls in general or to Jackie Mitchell to be dismissive,” he said. “If she did this today, it would become a permanent part of the consciousness because of the media we have. If ESPN was around, it certainly would be their lead story.”

Wiles said that in 2006 he and others at the Hall of Fame, in an effort to expand a history of baseball exhibit, started looking into the role of women and came to an interesting conclusion.

“There is frustrating amnesia about the contributions of women and girls in the history of the game,” he said. “For whatever reason, baseball collectively, and I’m not pointing a finger at any commissioner or particular player, but baseball wants to remain male.”

A 1992 Hollywood movie, “A League of Their Own,” is one of the few reminders that women have always played baseball. The film was a fictionalized account of a team that played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which existed from 1943 to 1954.

Even so, most Americans probably don’t know that the U.S. has a national women’s hardball team that competes internationally, Wiles said.

They are the heirs of Jackie Mitchell’s pitching prowess.

A New York Times article published a day before the exhibition game between the Yankees and the Lookouts describes Babe Ruth as being “greatly perturbed at even the thoughts of women entering professional baseball.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball,” he was quoted as saying. “Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”

Soon after the April 2 game, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis pulled Mitchell’s contract.

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