The Woman Who (Maybe) Struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig
July 12, 2013 9:29 AM   Subscribe

In 1931 a 17-year old girl faced off against baseball Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig. They both struck out swinging. Was Jackie Mitchell for real?
posted by Chrysostom (33 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is the part I found most intriguing:

In Thorn’s view, it is players like Yoshida, throwing knucklers or other off-speed pitches, who represent the likeliest path to the majors for women. Asked if this breakthrough might occur in his lifetime, the 66-year-old historian pauses before replying: “If I live to 100, yes. I believe it could be possible.”


I think it could be sooner than that if Chelsea Baker has her way. (previously on the blue)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:45 AM on July 12, 2013


As for Jackie Mitchell, I love the story. And I have high confidence that baseball with eventually be the first major league team sport in which men and women compete on equal footing. But given the fact that we're talking about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in their primes, and given the fact that sinkerballs weren't exactly anything they hadn't seen before... Well, when you consider that this was an exhibition, that the major leaguers were said to have been overly theatrical in their strikeouts, and given that Ruth had maybe the most heralded soft spot for kids in baseball history...

Well, it's a great story. And I like it that we'll never know for sure. Baseball is a great sport for legends, so let's just enjoy this story the way Mitchell tells it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:56 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fun fact: Babe Ruth hit 49 home runs in 1930, more than the entire Boston Red Sox team.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:57 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Doesn't seem to be much of a "(Maybe)" about it - seems well documented that she did strike out Ruth and Gehrig. The question is whether Ruth and Gehrig intentionally struck out, not whether they did strike out. For what it's worth, it seems pretty likely to me that they did do it intentionally, but regardless, that's just supposition.

In any case, this (from her) seemed kind of weird:
“Why, hell, they were trying, damn right,” she said of Ruth and Gehrig not long before her death in 1987. “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”
Better hitters than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig like... uh... who?
posted by Flunkie at 10:00 AM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Fun fact: Babe Ruth hit 49 home runs in 1930, more than the entire Boston Red Sox team.
In 1920 he hit more than any American League team other than his own.
posted by Flunkie at 10:02 AM on July 12, 2013


I'm assuming she was referring to better hitters in the non-white male leagues. Race, not talent, was still the defining factor at least 16 years after Mitchell faced Ruth and Gherig, when Jackie Robinson finally took the field. Gender still is, for many, though I love the line from the author's son at the end as a sign of how much things have changed/are changing. Anybody know where I can watch those Japanese women's games?
posted by postel's law at 10:13 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Better hitters than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig like... uh... who?

Al Simmons and, um... yeah. Sorry, was that "hitter", singular?
posted by ardgedee at 10:13 AM on July 12, 2013


The write-up sounds like it was a good bit of "kayfabe" baseball:
At Mitchell’s second offering, Ruth “swung and missed the ball by a foot.” He missed the next one, too, and asked the umpire to inspect the ball. Then, with the count 1-2, Ruth watched as Mitchell’s pitch caught the outside corner for a called strike three. Flinging his bat down in disgust, he retreated to the dugout.
Emphasis mine. Were there trick balls used in those days? Still, an interesting story and a good article. Thanks!
posted by filthy light thief at 10:19 AM on July 12, 2013


At Mitchell’s second offering, Ruth “swung and missed the ball by a foot.” He missed the next one, too, and asked the umpire to inspect the ball....

Were there trick balls used in those days?


He was asking the umpire to see whether she had doctored it (see spitball).
posted by Etrigan at 10:34 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Were there trick balls used in those days?

Oh, sure, some pitchers were (and still kind of are) dirty as hell.
posted by Sokka shot first at 10:38 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


And I have high confidence that baseball with eventually be the first major league team sport in which men and women compete on equal footing.

This is unlikely, as girls are funneled into softball very early in their development. Boys train with big-league equipment from childhood - and it's not a sport easily picked up late in life by athletes who can compete professionally. There's very little crossover between pro cricket and pro baseball.

Women regularly fling 90+ mph fastballs - but they're doing it underhand. The range of motion and hand-eye co-ordination of overhand and underhand pitches are completely alien to each other. A woman who wants to try the bigs has to teach herself a new sport her male competitors have been playing since they were in elementary school. Same deal with fielding - the athletic ability required to field in both baseball and softball at the top echelons is astounding, but a MLB third baseman would look like a bozo trying to guess the trajectory and gauge his throw to a top-tier college softball coach. A woman who played softball all her life would look similar to MLB scouts fielding the small ball.

There have been some women knuckleballers appearing in the minors lately, and if a woman does break in, it will be from that direction - the best knuckleballers figure it out later in life, and improve as they age.

TL;DR - They should let girls play hardball little league and avoid softball if they're serious about becoming baseball players.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:04 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


There have been some women knuckleballers appearing in the minors lately, and if a woman does break in, it will be from that direction - the best knuckleballers figure it out later in life, and improve as they age.

You're no doubt thinking of Phil Neikro who was throwing the same 18MPH pitches well past his prime. The knuckleball is a tough pitch to master though - the list of knuckleballers is short - and harder to catch. "You wait until it stops rolling and then you pick it up" is how one of Neikro's catchers described it.

If a woman limit does break in as a knuckleballer, then keeping runners at first base will be her undoing. Maybe a left-hander would have a chance, but without fast ball speed, stealing second base is a piece of cake.
posted by three blind mice at 11:30 AM on July 12, 2013


Homerun hitters strike out quite a bit. Swing for the fences, and you strike out a lot.

Did she strike them out, for real...who knows? In all honesty, who cares. The fact that she's now part of a legend in baseball is great.

Should women be allowed to play baseball in the MLB? Sure. Lets do it. I'd love that for a few reasons, but overwhelmingly, the main reason would be this:

Men are stronger. There probably won't be a heavy hitter that can rival McGwire or Sosa (with or without enhancements), but women can fill that niche which sometimes goes missing: the pure athleticism of a sport. Speed and agility.

I would start watching every Cubs game if I knew there was a chance that someone would try to steal home.

Also, some of the nastiest (legal) plays I have seen were plays at home plate, if a woman can handle that situation (regardless of the outcome), dust herself off, and continue on, I say we integrate. I've seen plays at home plate like that in women's college softball, so I don't see any reason not to introduce women into the MLB.

Baseball sometimes sucks now, and I would love it if the introduction of speed and agility made for a better game. The women seem to be able to handle playing baseball, but can the men handle women playing baseball?
posted by hal_c_on at 11:35 AM on July 12, 2013


filthy light thief: The write-up sounds like it was a good bit of "kayfabe" baseball...
I'd agree with you, except: Babe Ruth's macho ego. I find it hard to believe that anything could bribe or threaten that famous carousing, womanizing overeater to fall in line for any gimmick that scuffed The Babe's reputation.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:43 AM on July 12, 2013


If a woman limit does break in as a knuckleballer, then keeping runners at first base will be her undoing.

Not necessarily. Control and accuracy are more important than velocity unless you're playing deep in the outfield.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:48 AM on July 12, 2013


I'd agree with you, except: Babe Ruth's macho ego. I find it hard to believe that anything could bribe or threaten that famous carousing, womanizing overeater to fall in line for any gimmick that scuffed The Babe's reputation.

You should read Robert Creamer's wonderful bio of Ruth, Babe. Although Babe was ever a mercurial person, he was capable of tremendous kindness towards children and young people.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:54 AM on July 12, 2013


This is unlikely, as girls are funneled into softball very early in their development. Boys train with big-league equipment from childhood - and it's not a sport easily picked up late in life by athletes who can compete professionally.

I agree with you that girls should be encouraged to play hardball instead of shooed into softball. That said, I think the real hangup has been that female baseball players (necessarily) end up in the roles that best suit them and their team when playing against other women, even though these roles may not translate when playing mixed gender.

That is, coaches put their biggest, strongest players at first base or in a corner outfield slot and encourage them to hit for power. But a 5'10" player of any gender isn't going to get far in major league (and affiliated minor league) baseball as a power-hitting corner player. Had the same player been encouraged to focus on playing, say, second base, and taught to focus on line drive hitting and speed, those skills might have translated better at that size.

Similarly, Ila Borders (who famously pitched in the independent leagues) had been brought up as a "power pitcher," because her 82/83 mph fastball was tough for other women in her league to hit. But a low 80's fastball against men was never going to wash. If she'd been trained from the start as an off-speed/control pitcher or a knuckleballer, she'd have had a shot.

The first woman to cross over will be one who planned the transition from the start and focused from a young age not on taking advantage of her comparative larger size to other female players, but on developing skills that are better matched for her size in general when facing men's professional teams.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:05 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Same deal with fielding - the athletic ability required to field in both baseball and softball at the top echelons is astounding, but a MLB third baseman would look like a bozo trying to guess the trajectory and gauge his throw to a top-tier college softball coach. A woman who played softball all her life would look similar to MLB scouts fielding the small ball.

As a former high school player who has been fielding softballs for the past three years, I don't think the fielding represents anywhere near a dramatic change for even more talented players. Throwing the ball in a fielding situation is remarkably the same except of the size and weight difference which is not very hard to accommodate after a little practice. I've played with college softball players and I have no doubt that they would be able to switch over to a baseball pretty effortlessly for fielding. The ball on the ground might behave somewhat differently, but fielding it still requires the same instincts, skills and reflexes for a ball of any size. The skills are the same, keep your glove down and stay in front of the ball.

I think the greatest difficulty would be as a batter, adjusting to the delivery of the pitch, and as a pitcher, adjusting to making that delivery the proper way. If you're talented enough, I think with enough practice, you could over come the batting - the pitching would probably be a much harder hill to climb.

The Joplin Miners in 1931 almost allowed Vada Corbus to try out for them as a catcher until league officials made a stink. About ten years later, Mickey Mantle would put on the same uniform.
posted by Atreides at 12:24 PM on July 12, 2013


Wow, I can't believe it fit.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:29 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Better hitters than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig like... uh... who?
Al Simmons and, um... yeah. Sorry, was that "hitter", singular?
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were far, far better hitters than Al Simmons, regardless of the fact that Simmons had a higher batting average in one particular year. Batting average is a poor measure of batting skill, and even ignoring that, both Ruth and Gehrig had higher overall batting averages than Simmons did.

But anyway, am I understanding you correctly that Al Simmons couldn't hit her either?
posted by Flunkie at 1:35 PM on July 12, 2013


Women regularly fling 90+ mph fastballs
This is false. They pitch something like 75 MPH or so at the fastest.

When you see "90+ MPH" in articles about softball pitchers, what they're actually saying is "the equivalent of 90+ MPH". By this, they mean that the softball travels from the softball pitcher's mound to the plate in the same amount of time that a 90+ MPH baseball would travel from the baseball pitcher's mound to the plate. This is not because the softball is going at 90+ MPH; it is because the softball pitcher's mound is a lot closer to the plate than the baseball pitcher's mound is.
posted by Flunkie at 1:41 PM on July 12, 2013


I agree with you that girls should be encouraged to play hardball instead of shooed into softball. That said, I think the real hangup has been that female baseball players (necessarily) end up in the roles that best suit them and their team when playing against other women, even though these roles may not translate when playing mixed gender.

Girls are shunted into softball before they develop as position players. Maybe something has changed big time since I was in kindergarten, but tee-ball was co-ed in kindergarten. Softball started in 1st grade. Girls were allowed to play baseball (with no fuss, but it was still called 'boys baseball'). A total of three my age did. (Two quit in favour of soccer in fourth or fifth grade, the third switched to softball in seventh or eighth grade, as she wasn't going to be allowed to play baseball in high school, so why not learn a sport you're allowed to play?)

Rhode Island has an all-girls league. San Francisco and Chicago have all-girl teams playing in leagues otherwise comprised of all-boy teams. Most girls playing baseball really are going to be playing on co-ed teams, never mind in co-ed leagues.

Similarly, Ila Borders (who famously pitched in the independent leagues) had been brought up as a "power pitcher," because her 82/83 mph fastball was tough for other women in her league to hit.

Ila Borders played against boys/men in high school and college. Someone of her age wouldn't have been playing in a league with significant numbers of women. It actually wouldn't surprise me if she never had a female opponent (I think she converted from softball, so after that anyway).
posted by hoyland at 2:12 PM on July 12, 2013


To synthesize out arguments then, I guess we'd say that the best chance of a female baseball player breaking through into major league baseball would be a young woman who had: played extensively against male competition all her life; and who had, along the way, focused on the development of skills that reflected not her place at the far end of the spectrum for female players where size/strength are concerned, but instead matched up more with how she sized up against her male competitors.

How do we feel about that argument?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:21 PM on July 12, 2013


There's very little crossover between pro cricket and pro baseball.

Surely softball is far far more similar to baseball than cricket is?
posted by jacalata at 3:36 PM on July 12, 2013


I think that is true, jacalata, but the small differences become pretty profound at the highest level. Pro baseball pitchers will spend thousands of hours working on the right grip to throw a variation of a pitch they already have down, like the 'splitter' (split-finger) fastball. And that's what you're up against trying to break into the big leagues.

Have you seen the MLB draft? THere are like 4x10^8 rounds! All terrific ballplayers! Most will never wear a major league uniform. Some, like RA Dickey, will be overnight sensations in their mid-30s.

Here's another anecdote: Michael Jordan - pretty good athlete, right? Best coaching and training money could buy and all he could muster was a low .200s batting avg in the minors.

So I think the first woman MLB pitcher will be sorta trained from birth in a pseudo-Soviet system to be just that. However, is it so insane to think a woman could be a middle infielder? Anticipation and a good glove are more important than size or speed there, and at the plate, well, obviously she'd need to take many cuts at 90-mph fastballs but stranger things have happened.
posted by Mister_A at 5:39 PM on July 12, 2013


I agree with all that, Mister_A - it just sounded odd to say softballers can't be baseballers because cricket is very different to baseball :)
posted by jacalata at 5:58 PM on July 12, 2013


it just sounded odd to say softballers can't be baseballers because cricket is very different to baseball :)

Yeah, I don't know why cricket came into things. However, its mention does give me an excuse to point out that a couple of people who play at the highest levels women's cricket play for men's club teams (which is, I think, the third tier of domestic cricket in England). I don't know if there's expectation that a woman will play men's county cricket sooner or later. (It was half-rumoured (and half-media hype) that Sarah Taylor would play second XI county cricket this summer, but that isn't happening.)

However, is it so insane to think a woman could be a middle infielder? Anticipation and a good glove are more important than size or speed there, and at the plate, well, obviously she'd need to take many cuts at 90-mph fastballs but stranger things have happened.

Honestly, I think sexism is a much greater barrier here than ability. Because, realistically, there are bound to be women out there who are better at baseball than the Augie Ojedas of the world. (As much as I have a soft spot for Augie Ojeda, he wasn't that great a player. I picked on him because he was particularly small for a baseball player and like half the USA women's team is taller than him.) But a woman would have to be a lot better than just mediocre to have a shot. Middle infielders don't have the expectation of being power hitters, which is where women would be at a disadvantage size-wise.
posted by hoyland at 6:32 PM on July 12, 2013


> But anyway, am I understanding you correctly that Al Simmons couldn't hit her either?

No, it was my inept way of saying, "Dunno, man... I got nothin'."
posted by ardgedee at 4:36 AM on July 13, 2013


Better hitters than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig like... uh... who?

Josh Gibson?
posted by drezdn at 7:56 AM on July 13, 2013


We'll never really know, drezdn. My own gut feeling is that Gibson would have been a fantastic major leaguer, probably a star. That said, indications are that the level of competition in the Negro Leagues was a bit like the upper minor leagues on the whole, with the obvious difference that a healthy number of the players were fully capable of being major leaguers, with some of those being star caliber. Was Gibson better than Babe Ruth? It's profoundly unfair that we'll never know. But I kinda doubt it, if for no other reason that basically no one ever has been.

Bringing it back around to the main topic, women and baseball is an entirely different question because the prejudice against women affects whether or not they are ever encouraged to learn the game at all. Plus, physiological questions.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:44 AM on July 13, 2013


Yeah, Gibson's often said to be "better than Ruth", with some people who'd seen him saying things like "best I've ever seen". And maybe he was; who knows; we don't and no one does, unfortunately. What we do know is that Ruth was not only better than anyone who we could unambiguously compare him to in a non-anecdotal and reasonably direct way, but that he was far better than them. Even far better than, for example, Gehrig, who himself was absurdly awesome.

You can get in debates about Ruth vs. a very select few number of later players -- Williams, Bonds -- but things are pretty much hazy at that point, and there is at the very least a strong case for Ruth being better than even them. At that point, it really starts depending upon what exactly you mean by "better": It's pretty clear that Ruth was significantly better relative to his contemporaries than even Williams or Bonds were relative to theirs. But then you start arguing back and forth: Well, yeah, but his contemporaries were probably worse than theirs, and Ruth (and to a large degree Williams) didn't have to play in integrated leagues, and Ruth didn't have to face Mariano Rivera's cutter, but then again Bonds never had to face legal and common spitballs, and Bonds had modern training techniques and probably steroids which made him better, but then what if Ruth had also had access to modern training techniques and steroids, and there were less teams and therefore less dilution of talent in Ruth's day, but then again there was a smaller pool from which to draw that less diluted talent, and are we talking "temporally teleport the 29 year old Ruth to 2003" or are we talking "temporally teleport the infant Ruth to 1974", and blah blah blah and so on and so on. And the end result is that it's no longer reasonably clear and direct what exactly is meant by "better"; we're back to all we can really say being "Ruth was far, far better than anyone we can relatively unambiguously and non-anecdotally compare him to, and depending on what you mean by 'better', maybe (or maybe not) far better than anyone else ever, too".

But then with Gibson, the same problem is only exacerbated. We can't really compare the two of them in anything but an anecdotal way. And even then, you've still got ambiguities like "Ruth didn't have to play in an integrated league", and "Well yeah but neither did Gibson, and Gibson's league had a much smaller talent pool and a whole lot of his games were actually against questionably competent things like semipro teams and local teams", and blah blah blah.

So, was Gibson better than Ruth? Maybe. Who knows. I don't. Neither does anyone else; not even the people who say they do.

Finally, one thing that surprised me: A few years back, Baseball Reference started publishing Negro League stats (which is incredibly cool). The numbers are unfortunately incomplete and sporadic, and of course there's still the seemingly intractable issue of the extremely wide range of opponents' talent levels that the typical Negro League team would face, but in any case, having heard and believed all my life that Gibson was at the very least comparable to Ruth, Gibson's numbers seemed, to me, shockingly less than awesome. Don't get me wrong - they look great to me. But they sure don't look even remotely Ruthian to me.
posted by Flunkie at 10:48 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


FWIW, we only have sixteen games to go on, but in his barnstorming games against Negro League All Stars, Ruth positively annihilated, hitting .455 with 12 home runs in 55 at bats. There are small sample size issues, obviously. But if Gibson was roughly (because that's all you can ever say confidently using the available stats for the Negro Leagues) a career .350-ish hitter against the entirety of the Negro Leagues and Ruth hit .455 with home runs in more than 20% of his appearances against the best of that league... it would certainly seem to reinforce the notion that Ruth was light years ahead of everyone, Gibson included.

Also: the trump card that Ruth has in any best player of all time argument is this: he was also a fantastic pitcher. Before becoming a full-time outfielder, Ruth was a left-handed starter who'd won twenty games twice, led the league in ERA (and ERA+) once (he was arguably the best pitcher in the AL in 1916) and set a record for consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series (29 2/3) which would hold for 70 years. Even if you plausibly make the case that Williams or Bonds (or whoever) was as good or slightly better a hitter than Ruth, how do you make up for the fact that Ruth could pitch?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:04 AM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, to be clear, I strongly agree with the "even if others were close or maybe even better as hitters, Ruth's unquestionably by far the best overall player because he was an excellent pitcher" argument. In my posts above, I was just referring to pure batting, not to overall value.
posted by Flunkie at 10:52 AM on July 14, 2013


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