Women have long been dogged with the question of whether they could compete in sports alongside men.
In the spring of 1931, one East Tennessee woman answered that question by striking out two of the biggest names in baseball history.
However, her amazing performance left some to believe this true life event was really a form of art in disguise.
Chattanooga native Jackie Mitchell Gilbert took to the game of baseball as a little girl. Her father, a former professional ballplayer, noticed her skills at an early age.
He sent her to a baseball academy in Atlanta, where she honed her skills working with Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance and former Chattanooga Lookouts manager Kid Elberfeld.
As the founder of the Engel Foundation, Janna Jahn spent years studying the history of the minor league organization. She describes how the news of the southpaw standout’s talent made its way to Lookouts owner Joe Engel.
"Joe Engel got a phone call from Kid saying ‘You gotta look at this girl! She can really pitch,'" said Jahn.
Soon after, the ball club owner signed the 18-year-old pitcher to a contract. However, Engel’s decision to add a woman to the roster led some to believe Jackie was set up to become the organization’s next big promotion.
David Jenkins is the author of "Baseball in Chattanooga," a book highlighting the city’s history on the diamond.
He says Engel was known as the “P.T. Barnum of Baseball” for his knack for putting on a grand show.
“Joe Engel did a number of amazing things as a promoter,” said Jenkins. “And this one happened to be a local kid who got the chance to have her time in the spotlight.”
From there, Engel set in motion the game that could be her minor league debut. The Lookouts owner took advantage of Chattanooga’s reputation as a train hub to have the New York Yankees at Engel Stadium.
The game was set for April 1, but the rain postponed the matchup. Despite the rain delay, Jackie stayed focus as she took the mound on April 2 against the heart of the “Murderers' Row” line-up featuring Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
She struck out “the Babe” before picking up another strikeout against Gehrig in three straight pitches. Mitchell walked Infielder Tony Lazzeri before her manager pulled her from the game.
And that's how she ended her career in a Lookouts uniform.
Just two days later, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis declared her ineligible to play pro ball and voided her contract. No one knows for sure why the contract was canceled, but the issue could have been out of her control.
“Because she was a woman,” Jenkins suggested.
For the next two years, Jackie went on to have a solid career on the diamond. She traveled the country playing semi-professional baseball before stepping away from the game forever. But the lefty hurler will always be known for her epic strikeouts against two of the game’s best hitters ever.
Over the years, Jackie’s story has been the focus of several books and articles. But the truth behind that legendary moment will always be up for debate.
Were Ruth and Gehrig in on the event? Or did they try to really hit?
According to Jahn, the only instructions the Yankees received were to not hit the ball up the middle of the field.
"So to her dying day, she maintained that she absolutely struck them out,” said Jahn. “And they never said anything to the contrary. So who knows?"
After hanging up her cleats, Jackie settled back into a quiet life in Chattanooga before spending her final years in North Georgia.
In 1987, she died of a heart attack at the age of 73.
Despite nay-sayers, her inspiring feat will always be a part of East Tennessee history.
"Jackie Mitchell was a sweet soul and a wonderful lady who did something very remarkable that would never be duplicated," said Jenkins.
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