Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #38

This is the thirty-eighth in a series of examinations of baseball-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, we learn about the teenage girl who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back, plus whether Ted Williams lost the 1947 MVP because a crotchety Boston sportswriter left him off of his ballot completely, plus…what Hall of Fame Basketball coach was ejected from a Major League Baseball game despite never actually ever playing a baseball game in the Majors?

Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL LEGEND: A female baseball pitcher struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back!

STATUS: True

Joe Engel was associated with Clark Griffith for nearly his entire professional career (Engel’s career ended about eight years after Griffith passed away), playing for Griffith’s Washington Senators in his first four years in the Major Leagues as a pitcher (1912-1915) as well as his final year in the majors (1920). Engel then went to work as a minor league scout for Griffith throughout the 1920s. In late 1928/early 1929, Griffith purchased a baseball team in Chattanooga, Tennesse called the Chattanooga Lookouts to be a minor league affiliate for the Senators. Griffith put Engel in charge of the franchise, and Engel embarked on a three decade-long stint as the head of the Lookouts. In those three decades, Engel worked on dozens of publicity stunts designed to raise attendance. While the intent of these stunts were nothing more noble than to get people into the seats, one of those stunts managed to result in a remarkable and little-known piece of feminist history.

Read on to learn about the teenage girl who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back!

Engel first seemed ready to purchase the Atlanta Crackers minor league team (who played in the Southern Association) on behalf of Griffith, but out of seemingly nowhere he changed his plans and instead purchased the Chattanooga Lookouts (also of the Southern Association). Part of the deal to purchase the Lookouts was a promise from Griffith that he would build a new stadium. The stadium was quickly built to be available in time for the 1930 season, and Griffith and Engel spared no expense in creating one of the greatest minor league stadiums of the era (it cost over $150,000!). Engel, always humble, named the stadium after himself. Engel Stadium was completed in October 1929.

As you might recall, something else took place in October 1929, the great stock market collapse that led to the Great Depression. So right from the get-go, Engel had to fight an uphill battle to get people to come to see the Lookouts.

Opening day in 1930 saw over 15,000 people in attendance. 1931′s Opening Day did even better, with over 17,000 customers. But the rest of the decade saw much harder times, leading to Engel coming up with crazier and crazier stunts. Perhaps his most famous was the 1936 event where the Lookouts gave out an actual house to a winning ticketholder. Over 24,000 people (an attendance record at the time) attended the game (amusingly enough, the winning ticket was not actually at the game). In 1938, Engel started an “Elephant hunt,” where paper mache elephants would be hunted by “savages” in loin clothes. The elephant hunt became so popular that Engel took the event on the road to other minor league stadiums. He did other strange stunts like a joke “call to Hitler.” Attendance fell over the years to the point where Engel was pushed out as head of the team in the late 1950s.

But the story at issue today occurred in the earlier, headier days of the team in Chattanooga, when Joe Engel signed a 17-year old pitcher named Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell, one of the very first female pitchers in professional baseball history!

When Mitchell was a young girl, she was taught how to pitch by her next door neighbor. Her neighbor’s name was Charles Vance. Vance was seemingly a career minor leaguer at the time (after having a short stint in the majors in the mid-1910s). Soon after, though, at the age of 31, he had a resurgence during the 1920s with the Brooklyn Dodgers. You might also know him as Dazzy Vance, member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (I featured Vance’s remarkable career path in a piece here). The pitch Vance taught her was a unique breaking pitch she called a “drop ball.” In 1930, when she was 16 years old, Mitchell played on an all-girls team in Chattanooga. It was while on that team (named, of course, the Engelettes), that she came to Joe Engel’s attention. She began training with other future major players and playing in tournaments across the South. On March 25, 1931 (while she was in Texas playing in a tournament), Joe Engel announced that he had signed Mitchell to a contract to pitch for the Lookouts.

Mitchell’s signing itself got the Lookouts a goodly amount of publicity, but even more was due to come. You see, back in the 1920s and 1930s, Major League Baseball clubs would do exhibition tours playing against their minor league affiliates during spring training (this would be the only way some small town residents could see Major League stars in person – it also kept the ballplayers in shape). After spring training in 1931, the Yankees scheduled an exhibition game against the Chattanooga Lookouts on the way back up North. The game was scheduled for April 1, 1931.

The New York Daily News covered the upcoming game thusly:

The Yankees will meet a club here that has a girl pitcher named Jackie Mitchell, who has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick. I suppose that in the next town the Yankees enter they will find a squad that has a female impersonator in left field, a sword swallower at short, and a trained seal behind the plate. Times in the South are not only tough but silly.

The Lookouts started the game with pitcher Clyde Barfoot. He promptly gave up a double and a single, bringing up the tremendous back-to-back duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, two of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff then called for the 17-year-old Mitchell. The rookie lefthander (wearing a custom-made uniform) threw ball one to Ruth, but the Bambino swung and missed at the next two pitches (all breaking balls – that’s all that Mitchell threw). The next pitch caught the corner for a called strike three! Ruth threw his bat on the ground in “anger” (I have no idea if he was actually angry or not).

Gehrig came up and promptly struck out swinging on three pitches!

Mitchell then walked the next batter, Tony Lazzeri, and was pulled from the game. She received a standing ovation. Barfoot returned to the mound and proceeded to see the Yankees win the game 14-4.

Babe Ruth was quoted after the game as stating “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.” The New York Times noted, though:

Cynics may contend that on the diamond as elsewhere it is place aux dames. Perhaps Miss Jackie hasn’t quite enough on the ball yet to bewilder Ruth and Gehrig in a serious game. But there are no such sluggers in the Southern Association, and she may win laurels this season which cannot be ascribed to mere gallantry. The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists.

However, misogyny won out in the end. A few days later, Mitchell was cut from the team (it is unclear why exactly – some say baseball’s commissioner put pressure on Engel, some say Engel just got his publicity and wanted to move on). Either way, it was a big blow to women trying to break into men’s professional baseball. Two decades later another minor league team tried, and this time, it actually led to women being banned from baseball period (I covered that story in a previous column here).

Mitchell continued to play baseball as a barnstormer, but eventually grew sick out of the circus-like atmosphere of the games (like having to play an inning while riding a donkey) and retired at the ancient age of 23 in 1937 and took an office job working for her father’s company. She refused to un-retire when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in 1943.

She threw out the first pitch at a Chattanooga Lookouts game in 1982. She passed away in 1987.

Thanks to Jean L. S. Patrick’s The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth, David Jenkins’s Baseball in Chattanooga and Michael Aubrecht’s great feature on Mitchell for the Baseball Almanac (where he found the great newspaper quotes featured above).

BASEBALL LEGEND: Ted Williams lost out on the 1947 AL MVP because a voter from Boston left him off of the 10-person ballot entirely!

STATUS: I’m Going With False

With the Major League Baseball season coming to a close, thoughts begin to turn to who will win the major individual player awards in each league like the Cy Young, the Rookie of the Year and, most importantly, the Most Valuable Player Award. Famed Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox won a pair of American League MVPs during his career, but he is perhaps more famous for the MVPs he did not win! In 1941, he hit .406, the last person to hit over .400 in a season. However, Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees had his 56-game hitting streak that season and the Yankees won the American League pennant, so DiMaggio won the MVP. In 1942, Williams won the Triple Crown in the American League (leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average), but the voters went with Joe Gordon of the Yankees, who once again had won the AL Pennant. In 1947, a year after finally winning the MVP, Williams once again won the Triple Crown in the American League, but he still managed to lose the closest MVP race in the history of Major League Baseball, coming short by a single point to the eventual winner, Joe DiMaggio’s, 202-201.

Williams’ poor showings in the MVP voting has often been attributed to his poor relationship with the media (who vote for the award), and that led to the most amazing story about the 1947 MVP race – that Williams had been left off the ballot completely by Boston sportswriter Melville Webb and that had Webb simply given Williams a 10th place vote, Williams would have won the award. That story has become part of baseball history.

And it’s also almost certainly false.

The story was obviously greatly helped by Williams, himself, spreading it. In his 1969 auto-biography, My Turn At Bat, Williams recounted: “then it came out that one Boston writer didn’t even put me in the top ten on his ballot. A tenth-place vote would have given me two points and the Most Valuale Player award…. the writer’s name was Mel Webb.” It’s a notable enough story that many renowned sports writers repeat it as fact. The great Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated mentioned it in a column a few years ago as if it were clear that the story was true.

First of all, no matter what else happened in the voting, it appears as though it definitely was not Webb who cast the vote. Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe wrote an article on the 1947 MVP voting in 1948 and he identified the three voters from Boston (each of the eight American League teams had three local sportswriters vote) as Joe Cashman of the Boston Daily Record, Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald and Jack Malaney of the Boston Post (all three voters had separately been identified as having been the voters for Boston in 1946 and as being the voters for 1948, as well, making it seem quite likely that they were, indeed, the three Boston voters in 1947). In addition, in 1947, Melville Webb was 71 years old and had not covered baseball regularly in years. He certainly HAD written some pieces in 1946 and 1947 and was critical of Williams, but there is effectively no chance that he had a ballot in the 1947 American League MVP voting.

All three of the aforementioned writers who likely did vote in the 1947 MVP race had been vocal public supporters of Williams after the results of the vote were given out, and it was not that any of them were close friends of Williams, they all had had their clashes with the hitter, as well, but they also all felt that he had been robbed of the award. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that all of them voted Williams at number one on the ballot (Williams finished first on three ballots to DiMaggio’s eight), none of them expressed any indication that they had left Williams off of their ballot completely.

Furthermore, Kaese had written an earlier piece in 1948 as a magazine article blasting the Baseball Writer’s Association of America for how they handled the 1947 MVP voting. In that article, Kaese declared that it was “a Mid-Western writer who couldn’t even see Ted ranked with the top ten!” Kaese had a great deal of access to the voting, so it’s very likely that he knew what he was talking about.

The “Mid-Western” writer that Kaese referred to has never been identified, but it really does seem that the best answer to the voting is something that is still present to this day – sometimes sportswriters cast dumb votes. To wit, in that very same election that Williams was left off of a ballot, DiMaggio was left off of three ballots! And on three other ballots, DiMaggio got a third-to-last vote, a second-to-last vote and a last place vote. Whatever you thought of DiMaggio in 1947, he was clearly one of the top seven players in the American League, so to be left off of three ballots and finish between eighth and tenth on three others is ludicrous, as well.

In the same election, Yogi Berra, a rookie that year who had roughly 300 at-bats, received two second-place votes!

Eddie Joost, a shortstop for the Philadelphia Athletics who hit .206 with little power but played great defense (he was one of those guys who covered so much ground that he ended up making more errors than most shortstops) received two first-place votes!!!

So there did not have to be some specific incident between Williams and a Boston writer to explain seemingly illogical votes – they happened all over the voting that year. In fact, as I mentioned before, voting like that continues to this day on occasion (like in the 1999 AL MVP voting where two voters left Pedro Martinez off of their ballots entirely, with one of the two reasoning that pitchers shouldn’t win MVPs despite that same voter having both David Wells and Rich Helling on his ballot the previous year! I detailed that story here).

So when you combine Haese’s 1948 research, Webb’s position in the sportswriting community in 1947, Cashman, Whitman and Malaney’s vocal support of Williams along with all of the other sketchy seemingly “locale-biased” voting (like Joost’s two first-place votes) and it seems evident that Williams is mistaken about how he lost the 1947 AL MVP. Then again, I don’t know if “some writer thought that the White Sox’s Taffy Wright was better than you” or “some writer felt that the Browns’ Vern Stephens was better than you” is really all that more comforting.

Thanks to Glenn Stout’s seminal Sporting News article, “The case of the 1947 MVP ballot,” for much of the above information, plus, of course, thanks to those sources (such as Harold Kaese). And a special thanks to reader Jorge, who suggested that I feature this one!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Bill Sharman was ejected from a game in the Majors but never actually played a game in the Majors.

STATUS: True

Bill Sharman is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player (as a longtime star for the Boston Celtics) and as a coach (as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers when they set a then-record for the most wins in a single season with 69 wins – since surpassed by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls). I actually featured a basketball legend about Sharman awhile back (you can read it here).

However, in his early years as a Celtic, Sharman also split time playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team. He was in the Dodger system from 1950 through 1955 (he was a Celtic from 1951-1961).

Sharman actually got called up to the Majors on September 27, 1951. That might have been the beginning of a new era in his life, except for a close play at the plate. You see, in a game between the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers on that date, a Brave was called safe on a close play at the plate. The Dodgers disagree vociferously, and the umpire ejected the catcher, the pitcher plus the players who were giving him guff from the bench – Sharman included!

Sharman did not get back into the Majors, and now holds the distinction as the only player ever to be ejected from a game without ever PLAYING a game in the Majors!

However, being a two-time Hall of Famer in Basketball, I think Sharman is okay with it all…

Thanks to reader Hugh O’Malley. I don’t recall if he suggested this particular story, but he did suggest I do more stories on Sharman, so close enough! Thanks, Hugh!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

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