On a Teen Pitching Phenom

Here’s a bit of baseball trivia that you may not have known. The reason Babe Ruth was given number three for the New York Yankees, and the reason Lou Gehrig was given number four for that team was because that was their order in the lineup. That gives you an idea of what a great hitter Gehrig was that he would bat clean up! 

Back in the late 20s and early 30s, major league baseball teams would often play exhibition games against minor-league teams as sort of a de facto spring training. It also was a way to give fans in cities that did not have major league ball teams a chance to see their favorite major league stars in action.

Three years after their World Series championship of 1928, the New York Yankees faced the minor-league Chattanooga Lookouts in an exhibition game on April 2, 1931. The Lookouts’ starting pitcher, a man named Clyde Barfoot, who had once been a major league player, took the mound to face the mighty Yankees lineup.

Barfoot gave up a double and a single to the first two batters. Lookouts manager, Bert Niehoff, yelled for time to the home plate umpire as he came out of the dugout. When he reached the pitchers mound, he took the ball from Barfoot and said, “Hey, it ain’t gonna get any easier, Clyde. Why don’t you sit this one out.“ Barfoot headed to the dugout, and Niehoff barked, “Mitchell! Warm up!”

Jackie Mitchell was a thin 17-year-old pitcher who was actually born in Chattanooga. The Lookouts had only recently signed the youngster to their roster. It would fall to this kid to face Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with two men on base and no outs. Such a daunting task would make the most seasoned professional pitcher weak at the knees, but Jackie showed no fear in taking the mound.

Ruth first. The Bambino watched the teenager’s first pitch come in to the catchers mitt for ball one. You could tell that he was judging the delivery and the speed with his well-seasoned eye. Mitchell’s second pitch surprised The Babe with its speed, and he swung at it and missed for strike one. Quickly, the teen came back with a breaking ball, which had Ruth off balance, and he clumsily swung at it for strike two. Ruth was now furious. Mitchell took the sign from the catcher and floated another offspeed pitch in towards home plate. Ruth held back, thinking the ball was out of the strike zone. “Strike three!“ yelled the ump. 

Even though the game was an exhibition, Babe Ruth began verbally haranguing the umpire and had to be pulled away by teammates. Meanwhile, the hometown crowd cheered lustily for the native pitcher. 

Gehrig next. The Iron Horse had, for his career, one of the highest batting averages in the history of major league baseball. There was no way that the kid would be able to do to him what had been done to Ruth. Yet, Lou Gehrig struck out on three consecutive pitches. He shook his head in wonderment as he slowly made his way back to the bench.

When he sat down, the normally taciturn Gehrig turned to the other Yankees in the dugout and said, “That’s a great pitcher. I don’t care if she’s a girl.“

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