On April 1, 1931, Jackie Mitchell became the first woman to break down the gender barriers in baseball after she became the first female in professional baseball.
After the then 17-year-old struck out baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, she quickly rose to stardom within baseball culture. She had signed onto the roster of the all-male Tennessee minor league team, the Chattanooga Lookouts, just a week before and incredibly struck out Ruth in the first inning of the game against the Yankees.
Mitchell was born “Virne Beatrice Mitchell,” and learned to play baseball with her father. The family lived near baseball great Dazzy Vance, who later was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mitchell credited Vance’s style as one of her influences, as he taught her how to throw a “drop ball” which is known today as a sinker. Mitchell was also left-handed, which gave her an advantage over many right-handed batters.
She was recruited by Joe Engel, the owner of the Lookouts at the time. He first noticed Mitchell at a training camp in earlier in the same year. He realized that with Mitchell, the Lookouts would become the only professional team with a female pitcher and recruited her then and there.
In a profile done by Leslie Heaphy of Kent State University, Heaphy described Mitchell as “something the players had never seen before.”
“Think about a pitcher coming in they’ve never seen before,” Heaphy added. “She’s a lefty with a very deceptive pitch from all accounts.”
Mitchell’s contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts, however, was not honored by Engel. Mitchell only played one game with the Lookouts, which the Lookouts ultimately lost with a final score of 14-4 against the Yankees. She is said to have played for another one of Tennessee’s teams, the Chattanooga Junior Lookouts, as well as playing various exhibition games throughout the country, but very few people are sure what happened to her after she hung up her glove in 1937.
Before Mitchell, very few women had dipped their toes into the male-dominated sport. Women played on “Bloomer Girls” teams from the 1890s through the 1930s and would often attempt to play against men’s teams. The women’s teams were rarely ever truly all women’s teams, as they usually had at least one male member on the team. The teams were often looked at for entertainment and ridicule, rather than garnering any true respect for their abilities. The last of these leagues were disbanded in 1934.
Nine years later after the “Bloomer Girls” teams were disbanded, Philip Wrigley started up the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The league gained attention for maintaining the public interest in baseball while most of the able-bodied men were being enlisted for WWII. The league eventually gained over 600 players, mostly in the Midwest, and the women succeeded in forming ten teams.
After Mitchell had long retired, Ila Borders became the first woman to pitch in a regular season professional game in 1997. She played with the St. Paul Saints in Minnesota. In 2006, Effa Manley became the first woman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, after she played for the Newark Eagles from 1936 to 1948.