The Underhill Curio: Throwing Like A Girl

underhill.ethanEthan Underhill, MBA Class of 2016

1907: James Casey founded United Parcel Service (UPS) in Seattle. Rudyard Kipling received the Nobel Prize in literature. Henry Ford had not yet revolutionized affordable automobile transportation with the Model T, which would release the following year. The British passenger liner RMS Lusitania made its maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York City – the sinking of the ship by a German U-boat in 1915 would prove instrumental in America’s decision to declare war on Germany. Legendary major league pitcher Walter Johnson debuted for the Washington Senators, securing the first of his 417 career wins.

Another baseball pitcher made a debut in 1907, giving up only four hits and one run in five innings. This 17-year-old rookie on the semiprofessional Vermillion Independents of Ohio had previously wowed the team’s manager by striking out fifteen men in a local game. He was so impressed with the display that he overcame his orthodoxy and signed young Alta Weiss to his team. The female phenom attracted large crowds (by early nineteenth century Ohio standards), and extra trains ran to the stadium on game days so fans could see Alta throw heat. She was no stranger to playing with the boys, having pitched on male teams since the age of 14. She used her intermittent semiprofessional career to pay for medical school – where, of course, Dr. Alta Weiss was the only female graduate in her class.

underhill alta_weiss

1931: the Great Depression hobbled the world’s economies, as it had since the Black Tuesday stock market crash of 1929. Nevada legalized gambling. The Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world for nearly 40 years, was completed. Authorities finally sentenced notorious gangster Al Capone to prison – on tax evasion charges. Baseball dominated American sports, and fans across the country worshipped the stars of the New York Yankees. In 1931 Babe Ruth hit his 600th home run (of 714 in his career), and Lou Gehrig played his 1,000th consecutive game (of 2,130 in his career). Both men are still considered some of the greatest players in baseball history.  

Jackie Mitchell signed on to pitch for the Chattanooga Lookouts, a minor league team in the Yankees farm system, and one of the first (and last) women to play men’s professional baseball. Like Alta Weiss in 1907, she was 17 years old. In an exhibition game between the Lookouts and the Yankees on April 2, 1931, she was called in to the game in the first inning to relieve struggling starting pitcher. With the first pitches of her first appearance of her professional career she had to face two of the greats of the era, members of the infamous “Murderers’ Row” Yankees batting order – Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

underhill jackie_mitchell

She struck out both men in seven total pitches; she threw a ball to Ruth on her first pitch. This legendary feat was rewarded by the revocation of her contract and a personal ban from professional baseball a few days later by no less an illustrious personage than major league commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, on the grounds that the sport was “too strenuous” for women. She continued playing professionally on barnstorming teams, but finally left the sport in disgust at the age of 23 after years of being treated like a sideshow attraction instead of a competent pitcher. The breaking point came when she was asked to pitch a game from the back of a donkey. She retired to a quiet life, working in her father’s optometry office.

Reading the improbable histories of Alta Weiss and Jackie Mitchell, it almost seems as though they snuck into a man’s world and made their mark before anyone knew what was happening. The reactionary expulsion of Mitchell from professional baseball after her amazing pitching feat reflects a fear that such women could somehow embarrass the hallowed American pastime with their prowess. “The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists,” declared a New York Times article published after Mitchell’s debut game and prior to her nonsensical ban. For a few miraculous innings, Weiss and Mitchell made the prospect gloomy indeed.

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