Last week, the US women’s soccer team won the World Cup final. But their victory was dampened by the fact that three months earlier they had filed a lawsuit against the US soccer federation arguing that women players should be paid the same as men. In the stadium, the fans sided with the players, chanting, “Equal pay.”
This week’s Torah portion reminded me of another US female athlete — one who beat the men. On Thursday, April 2, 1931, Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old left-handed pitcher, struck out the two best batters in the New York Yankees.
The Yankees had completed spring training in Florida and toured the US South as they headed back to New York City. On the fateful day, they played an exhibition game against the Chattanooga Lookouts.
Mitchell had been pitching since she was old enough to walk. Her father would take her out to the baseball diamond and teach her how to play. Her neighbor, future Hall-of-Famer Dazzy Vance, watched her pitching, noticed her skills as a left-hander, and gave her some lessons. He showed her his “drop ball” pitch, where the ball would come in level, but then drop just before it reached the plate. Though she was still only 5- or 6-years-old, she learned how to throw it just like Dazzy.
When Mitchell was 17 years old she signed to play for the Chattanooga Engelettes, a minor league team owned by Joe Engel. Engel had been a major league pitcher with the Washington Senators, and then became a talent scout. Once he bought the Chattanooga Lookouts, he became famous for his wacky publicity stunts. He built the Engel Stadium for the team, and had the players parade into the ground on elephants. He once traded a shortstop for a turkey, which he roasted and sent to a local journalist who had been “giving him the bird.”
On March 28, 1931, Engel signed Mitchell to play for the Chattanooga Lookouts, just a couple of days before the team was due to play the Yankees.
At the time there was no rule against women playing professional baseball, but Mitchell was only the second female player, after Lizzie Arlington, who had played in a minor league game for the Reading Coal Heavers in 1898.
Mitchell was not the starting pitcher against the Yankees. Clyde Barfoot was. He was hit for a double and a single. So team manager, Bert Niehoff, sent Mitchell to the mound.
The next batter was Babe Ruth. The first pitch Mitchell threw was a ball. But then a strike, and another. The final pitch she threw was the drop ball she’d learned from Dazzy and the umpire called a third strike.
Ruth yelled at the umpire and threw down his bat in disgust.
The next batter was Lou Gehrig, who was similarly dispatched by Mitchell in three pitches. She struck out two of the biggest names in baseball in only seven pitches.
Incredibly, there is footage of the moment Babe Ruth was struck out by Jackie Mitchell.
Some say the whole thing was yet another of Engel’s publicity stunts and that Ruth and Gehrig intentionally missed the ball. Others say that even if Ruth was the kind of showman who might have done that sort of thing, Gehrig certainly wasn’t. Either way, for the rest of her life, Mitchell was known as “The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth.”
Mitchell received a standing ovation and made headline news after the game (which the Yankees eventually won 14-4). But only a few days after the game, the baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract. He explained that baseball was “too strenuous” for women. In fact, he was echoing Ruth’s comments after the game, when he said:
I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.
Mitchell continued to play with amateur teams, and in 1933 was offered a contract by a barnstorming team called the House of David. The team toured the country playing exhibition matches against local sides. The team was famous for their long hair and beards, and occasionally Mitchell would put on a fake beard too, to generate more publicity. But she soon tired of being just part of a sideshow act.
In 1937, at the age of 23, she retired from baseball and joined her father in his optical business. In 1943, she refused an invitation to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. By 1952 women were officially banned from playing Major League Baseball.
Mitchell continued to receive fan mail her whole life and inspired generations of female athletes. She died in Chattanooga on January 7, 1987.
Although there are still huge gender gaps in professional sports, things have improved tremendously since Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth. It is due to women like Mitchell and countless others that women today are able to compete at the highest levels in many different sports.
This week’s Torah portion speaks of five women who successfully challenged Moses and stood up against discrimination.
Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were the daughters of Zelophehad. Their father had passed away some years earlier, during the 40-year sojourn in the desert.
As the Israelites stood overlooking Canaan and preparing to enter the promised land, Moses taught them the laws of inheritance. To put it simply, the land of Israel was to be apportioned into a number of parcels of land based on the number of men who left Egypt. Then those parcels were subdivided according to the number of sons that man had.
Zelophehad was one of those who left Egypt. However, he had no sons. His daughters were not arguing for gender-based equal inheritance rights; but they wanted their late father to have his share in the land along with all the others who left Egypt.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 119a) says that they walked into the study hall, in front of Moses, Elazar and all the leaders, and asked why their father should miss out. The Talmud describes them as “wise, learned and righteous.”
The Torah states that Moses did not know the answer, and had to ask God (Numbers 27:7).
Truly, the daughters of Zelphehad speak. You shall surely give them a portion as an inheritance among their father’s brothers, and shall pass their father’s inheritance to them.
Why did God not tell Moses the law of female inheritance from the beginning?
The Talmud (ibid.) says that God initially did not tell this law to Moses so that the daughters of Zelophehad would be able to earn their place in history by asking the question. This is in keeping with the principle that “merit is given to those who are meritorious.”
Those five women were in the right place and the right time and saw an opportunity to fight against injustice. Therefore, they were immortalized in the Torah for their wisdom, knowledge and righteousness.
Sometimes, there are pivotal points in history where we have the opportunity to stand up for equality and justice. Often it takes a lot of courage and strength. And it always requires seizing the moment and not letting it pass.
Only very rarely does it also require wearing a false beard.
With thanks to the wonderful Memory Palace podcast for the inspiration.