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Editorial


Front Page - Monday, March 13, 2017

Jackie, my fellow traveler, re-enters my life




Teammates Lou Gehrig, left, and Babe Ruth study the form of 17-year old Chattanooga Lookouts minor league pitcher Jackie Mitchell, one of the first women to play professional baseball, as the Yankees visited Chattanooga for an exhibition game, April 2, 1931. With a sharp breaking ball, Mitchell thrilled the local fans by striking out both Ruth and Gehrig, back-to-back, in the first inning. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner, voided Mitchell’s contract shortly after the exhibition, saying baseball was “too strenuous” for women. - AP Photo

This past week, when the Chattanooga Lookouts announced their promotions for the upcoming 2017 season, I had to smile. Jackie Mitchell had re-entered my life once again.

After scrapping bobblehead giveaways for the past couple of seasons, the club will, on May 27, give on a first-come, first-served basis, a Jackie Mitchell bobblehead.

For those living in a culture void, bobbleheads are usually foot-high likenesses of familiar people, usually athletes, with an oversized head supported by a spring. Nudge the head with your finger, and it will bounce and wobble – hence, bobble.

“I’ve seen sketches of it, and it looks great,” Lookouts director of public relations Dan Kopf told me when I called him that morning.

“Just make sure they’ve got her throwing left-handed,” I said. “That’s the kind of detail that gets lost in the shuffle. I know you want to do right by Jackie.”

Jackie, who died back in 1987, is the closest thing to a folk hero Chattanooga has ever had, in my opinion. As a feisty, talented teen-ager who’d been schooled how to pitch by a Hall of Famer, she was “signed” by new Lookouts president Joe Engel to pitch an inning or so against a visiting team that happened to be passing through town at end of spring training in 1931.

That team, as fate would have it, was the Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig New York Yankees.

Engel, a former major league pitcher and the only child of a wealthy Washington, D.C., family, was as well-connected as anyone in minor league baseball. After years on the road as the Washington Senators’ top scout, his reward was taking over the Chattanooga ballclub for owner Clark Griffith and overseeing the construction of a new stadium, initially called “Joe Engel’s Stadium.” The name stuck.

The 1931 season would be the second year of the new park, and the Yankees helped dedicate it the season before. The answer to the trivia question as to who hit the first triple in Engel Stadium: Babe Ruth himself.

Once Jackie was ruled ineligible to rejoin the Lookouts by the commissioner, she turned to big-league barnstorming for a living, with no scenario too silly or humiliating.

At any rate, Jackie retired from barnstorming in 1937 and eventually became a happily married housewife. She was widowed fairly young, however, and was living out her days as what would commonly be called a spinster in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, when a timely anniversary drew us together.

In 1982, when the Lookouts’ ownership was trying to run the franchise on a shoestring, someone realized that they’d missed the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s duel with the Yankees. Jackie’s feat had drawn a brief flurry of interest when former sports editor Allan Morris – he was at the game in 1931 – updated her life story back in 1975, but the milestone – and the realization to many that Jackie was still alive and well – meant a new story was required.

I did not read Allan Morris’ story until later, because I wanted to rely on my own impressions and take a fresh look. So, newly graduated from college, eager cub reporter me was assigned to drum up some interest in her Opening Day appearance at Engel Stadium.

Photographer Steve Grider and I went to a modest apartment complex (long bulldozed) that was across the street from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School and met the living legend.

Who I met was Jackie Gilbert (her married name), who would have been the perfect grandmother, save that she had no children of her own. She was happy and eager to be the subject of media attention again, and it was a wonderful afternoon of conversation. But most enlightening were her beloved scrapbooks.

Every piece of publicity from her barnstorming career right up to the Morris article was meticulously saved. Even when she went about her day-to-day existence in obscurity, her accomplishments meant a great deal to her.

She knew that, for a time, she was one of the elite female athletes in the United States. Confirming that was none other than Babe Didrickson Zaharias, who recruited her for several barnstorming baseball and basketball tours.

Babe, who even had a movie made about her, was much more publicity hungry than Jackie ever wantedto be. In fact, Jackie desired a normal life far sooner than her ability was prepared to allow.

After years of wearing a joke beard to pitch for the House of David team and pitching while riding a donkey (not for Engel), a frustrated Jackie retired in 1937 at the age of 23, never to play the game again – not even when the All-American Girls Professional League formed in 1943, when she was still only 29 years old.

Morris had passed away by the time my story appeared. As Jackie’s legend began to circulate anew, the Lookouts would be besieged by various people seeking to learn, use or exploit Jackie all over again. She soon was befriended by a local lawyer, Pam Berke, who helped her get her just rewards when a huckster began marketing a photo of Ruth, Gehrig and her, thinking that no way that she’d still be alive in 1985. Wrong.

Rather than paraphrase or quote myself, the following passage comes from Allan Morris’ fine story that ran September 1, 1975 – announcing to the world that Jackie was still alive, well and a fan of the Atlanta Braves:

“Her performance against Ruth and Gehrig was Joe Engel’s biggest and most publicized stunt. It was an idea of her father … Dr. Joe Mitchell, a local optometrist, who suggested to Engel he sign Mitchell’s teenage daughter Beatrice, a fine all-around athlete.

Engel, who had just arrived in Chattanooga to run the Lookouts, was anxious for anything to pack his new park. He readily agreed. Jackie, a student of the old Central High School, was at the time playing in a basketball tournament in Dallas. Engel quickly fitted her in a Lookouts uniform and got permission from the Yankees to pitch an inning on a spring exhibition game that was already scheduled for that April 1.”

That game was rained out, but it was a sign of how well-regarded Engel and Griffith were that the Yankees agreed to play the game on April 2. The rain-delayed turnout that was estimated as well over 4,000 did not have to wait long to see the young girl strut her stuff.

Bob Cain began the game for the Lookouts, walked the first two hitters and may or may not have been surprised when manager “Raw Meat” Rogers went to the mound and took the ball. He signaled to his bullpen, and from behind the grandstand came the teenage girl. Her first hitter: Babe Ruth.

Using her “drop ball,” a pitch taught her by Dazzy Vance years before, she threw Ruth four pitches – not three, as most accounts would tell you.

“I’ve seen where a lot of stories have written that I struck them out on six straight pitches,” Jackie told me that day. “But I had a one-two count on Babe. He looked at all three called strikes.”

Gehrig followed and swung and missed strike three by about a foot, according to accounts. Tony Lazzeri came up next, drew a walk to load the bases, and Rogers made the move to remove Jackie. The game proceeded normally from that point with the Yankees winning handily, 14-4.

The next day, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled her contract invalid, effectively ruling that women would not be allowed to compete with boys or men. Perhaps oblivious to the entire “show biz” aspect of her performance, she expressed a desire to continue pitching for the Lookouts. Landis then doubled down on his confirmation that no one attempt to sign her as a player. The barnstorming days got old, but an injury made retirement an easy option.

“Back in my younger days, I wasn’t a person who wanted to settle down,” she told me that day in 1981. “I didn’t get married until my 50s, and then it was to someone I had known a long time.” Her husband, Eugene Gilbert, died in 1974.

Her scrapbooks and the Braves on cable TV, for years, were essentially her only companion, as Jackie spent most of her golden years as a fan.

But there was one more big moment awaiting her. Word got to the Atlanta Braves that one of their die-hard fans once struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and Jackie and her family were invited to attend an upcoming game.

Jackie had no immediate family, so her lawyer, her lawyer’s husband and I accompanied her to Atlanta. And like many things the Braves did in the 80s, her moment in the spotlight was half-assed, to say the least.

The Braves seated Jackie in the highest reaches of the field level seat, in theory to protect the now-frail celebrity from a forecast of rain. But she did not throw out a first pitch, or even go onto the field for a tribute and a wave. She was stuck where half the stadium could not see her and the 15-second tribute was rushed through between innings with no set-up.

But she was there to see her beloved Braves play, and that was enough for Jackie.

I only had a couple of brief phone conversations with her from that point forward, which is something that bothers me to this day. But her friend and confidant, Pam Berke, was with her until the end, and her reward was that Jackie left her all of her precious scrapbooks when she passed away.

The indication was that a book or even a movie of her fascinating life would be forthcoming, but none of it came from Berke, who guarded the scrapbooks, allowing no other would-be authors access to their contents.

Which was another reasons I was such a go-to person for Jackie lore.

As the years passed, one book after another – some directed towards women, more directed towards kids (or female kids) – came out to portray Jackie and her life and times.

Jean L.S. Patrick authored “The Girl Who Struck out Babe Ruth” with the art cover a decent likeness of both she and Engel Stadium, and “Girl Pitcher vs Babe Ruth; the Baseball Adventure of Jackie Mitchell,” with the cover portraying her as throwing right-handed (shame on you, Jean Patrick).

“Jackie Mitchell, Baseball Player” was authored by Kaye Sharbone. Andy Broome penned “Her Curves Were Too Much for Them.”

And just this week, a play will debut in New Jersey about myth and reality of Jackie Mitchell. Entitled “Unbelievable,” it will be put on by the Skyline Theater of Bergen, New Jersey. It is a musical.