Jerry Summers: Jackie Mitchell Wasn't First

Saturday, October 3, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The legend behind Joe Engel’s (Barnum of Baseball) promotion on April 2, 1931 at Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, Tennessee involving the tiny left handed female pitcher, Jackie Mitchell, who struck out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in an exhibition game, is part of baseball history as one of Engel’s numerous crowd pleasing promotions.

Jackie at the age of 17 was a member of the Engelettes, a women’s team in Chattanooga, and the creative Engel signed her to a contract to play for the all-male Lookouts on March 25, 1931, just a week before her first diamond appearance, but that was time enough for Joe Engel to stir up media interest.

The Babe struck out on four pitches and walked back to the dugout while verbally abusing the umpire for calling him out on a third strike.

Gehrig “the Iron Horse” followed the Babe by missing Jackie’s first three pitches to strike out what would be the young lady’s moment of fame in the spotlight of major league baseball by striking out two Hall of Famers considered by many to be two of the greatest baseball players in history.

A few days later Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract with the Lookouts under the pretense of the game being “too strenuous” for the fairer sex.

She would continue to play professional baseball until she retired in 1937 at the age of 23 while playing for teams such as the House of David where she often wore a fake beard for publicity purposes to match the facial hair of her male teammates.

Engel in his later years would admit that the event was a publicity stunt and the barnstorming veterans of the New York Yankees agreed to become strike out victims who allegedly received some additional financial consideration.

As entertaining as her story was she was not the first ever female professional baseball player.

That honor and distinction belongs to a lady by the name of Elizabeth Stroud (Stride) who played under the name of “Lizzie Arlington”.

She made her baseball debut on July 3, 1898 for the Philadelphia Reserves against a Richmond nine of Philadelphia.

She was described as “doesn’t look over five feet in height, is stockily built, (oops) has brown eyes and hair and is 22 years old.

She was signed to a contract by a promoter who agreed to pay her $100 a week, which in 1898 would be a good salary.  (Worth the equivalent of $3,027 in 2018).

She was heralded as “the most famous lady pitcher in the world” and her initial appearance drew a crowd of over 1,000 spectators, including 200 ladies.

To add some excitement to her debut, she rode into the stadium in a stylish carriage drawn by two white horses.

She was further described by attending spectators who beheld “a plump (oops again), young woman with attractive face and rosy cheeks.”

Her attire for the occasion consisted of a “uniform with skirt coming to her knees, black stockings and a jaunty hat!”

To dispel any negative talk about her feminity when she took off her hat she was coiffured in the latest fashion.

She presented herself as a credible ballplayer at second base in pre-game practice and pitched the last inning as her team won 5-0.

She also pleased the crowd by spitting on her hands and then wiping them on her uniform.

Several other scheduled appearances were cancelled and the records indicate that, in spite of the ballyhooed publicity, Lizzie only played one inning of minor league baseball on July 5, 1898 where she pitched for one inning against Allentown.

Although Jackie Mitchell’s 1931 performance became the most publicized event of this type it was the result of the promotional genius of Joe Engel as the owner-president of the Chattanooga Lookouts.

He was happy with the publicity results and placed his female pitching phenomenon on the Reserve list but did the gentlemanly act of having her continue to do promotional work on behalf of his ball club, which certainly didn’t hurt attendance.

(Thank you Jackie but Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves might be more difficult to strike out these days.)

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr.

Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)  

Lizzie Arlington
Lizzie Arlington

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