Back in 1931, a 17-year-old lefty named Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Well, maybe not so seriously. It was an exhibition game, and Jackie Mitchell hailed from the fairer gender. But the legend has endured, and there's an article in the new Smithsonian that's the best thing I've read on the subject.
Were Ruth and Gehrig really trying their hardest against Mitchell?
Debra Shattuck, the historian of women in baseball, is skeptical. While Mitchell may have been a good pitcher, she says, “I really doubt she could hold her own at that level.” But Tim Wiles, the Hall of Fame research director, thinks it’s possible the strikeouts were genuine. “Much of batting has to do with timing and familiarity with a pitcher, and everything about Jackie Mitchell was unfamiliar to Ruth and Gehrig,” he says. Also, Mitchell was a lefty side-armer facing lefty batters, a matchup that favors the pitcher. And Ruth striking out wasn’t a rarity; he did so 1,330 times in his career, leading the league in that category five times.
Wiles also wonders if sportswriters and players who suggested that the strikeouts were staged did so to protect male egos. “Even hitters as great as Ruth and Gehrig would be reluctant to admit they’d really been struck out by a 17-year-old girl,” he says.
John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, vigorously disagrees. He believes Ruth and Gehrig were in cahoots with the Lookouts’ president and went along with the stunt, which did no harm to their reputations. “The whole thing was a jape, a jest, a Barnumesque prank,” he says. “Jackie Mitchell striking out Ruth and Gehrig is a good story for children’s books, but it belongs in the pantheon with the Easter Bunny and Abner Doubleday ‘inventing’ baseball.”
You can imagine whose side I'm on. If you want to judge for yourself, you can read the whole article, which is accompanied by a video that includes Mitchell's strikeout pitch to Ruth (which I'd never seen before; it's at the 6:54 mark if you're pressed for time).