In researching Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, who holds the record for the longest baseball throw by a woman, I learned she made appearances in exhibition games for several major league baseball teams during spring training in 1934. The only web site I’ve found that accurately lists all of her appearances is Baseball-Reference.com, but it offers few details. I’ve not found complete and accurate information in any published biography, and her autobiography includes one glaring piece of apparent misinformation. I’m here to share everything I can find.
Didrikson was the most famous female athlete in the country, and one of the most famous athletes period, after winning two gold medals and just missing a third in track and field in the 1932 Olympics at Los Angeles. She was also a standout basketball player and spent the winter of 1933-34 traveling the country with a basketball team, reportedly earning $1,000 a month (a staggering amount of money for the time) playing local teams in various communities. The basketball venture was put together by a promoter from Muscatine, Iowa, named Ray Doan.
When March 1934 arrived Didrikson turned to baseball as a means of earning cash, as the news broke that she would spend the summer playing with the House of David barnstorming team, with and against men. On March 4 she arrived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to “enroll in the baseball school taught by big league ball players who are training and resting here,” according to a United Press dispatch. The school was run by Doan. From there she would join major league teams in spring training as a publicity stunt, to get some space in the newspapers and some people at the ballpark. In return Didrikson was reportedly paid $200 for a one-inning appearance, according to her biography “Whatta-Gal: The Babe Didrikson Story,” by William Oscar Johnson and Nancy P. Williamson, published in 1977. (Johnson and Williamson don’t have a bibliography, let alone footnotes, which was typical for non-academic works like this in that era, so we don’t know where the $200 claim comes from. The book is also the source of the claim, in an interview with a teammate years after the fact, that Didrikson made $1,000 a month playing basketball. We’ll find some problems with “Whatta-Gal” later, so I don’t want these numbers to be assumed to be correct.)
Babe’s time in Hot Springs was well publicized, and future Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes (then still hanging on as an active player with the St. Louis Cardinals) did his part, posing for numerous photos with Babe and talking up her abilities:
HOT SPRINGS, ARK., March 14 — AP — Babe Didrikson would be one of the best prospects in baseball if she were a boy, said Burleigh Grimes of the Cardinal hurling staff after watching the noted woman athlete work out here with pupils of the Ray Doan Baseball School.
But since Babe is a girl, Grimes still thinks she is the wonder of the athletic world. The Texan, who flashed across the Olympic horizon, also convinced newspaper correspondents here that she can play ball, and that she is fully competent to take her place in the box.
The Babe has mastered somewhat of a curve, too, that surprised those who gathered to watch her in action. She also showed a flash of the speed that enabled her to hang up a record in the eighty-meter Olympic event when, during batting practice, she hit one to short and easily beat out the throw to first.
Here are some of the photos that were published during her time in Hot Springs (you’ll notice one of the photo cutlines erroneously places the Cardinals’ training camp there):
The plan, according to the March 14 AP story, was for Babe to go to New Orleans and pitch for the Cleveland Indians on March 18 (not against the Indians, as the photo cutline above says) and then go to Florida to appear with the Philadelphia Athletics on March 20 and the St. Louis Cardinals on March 22. The New Orleans Times-Picayune did its part to promote her appearance with this game-day feature:
Babe was to pitch three innings against the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, a Cleveland farm club. Ray Doan was in full promotional mode in his comments for the story:
“Babe, who will be the first woman in the history of baseball to pitch for a major league team, will demonstrate that as in other sports she is a first-rater in baseball.”…Mr. Doan explained that a number of the greatest baseball players of the world have been in Hot Springs and have seen Babe in action. “They are all of the opinion that she is a real player and would be in organized baseball now, if she were a man,” he said.
And Babe did her part to build up her appearance:
“I know that I will be facing the keenest of competition. I know also that I know how to play baseball, and all I ask is a chance to prove it….Boys used to let me play on their teams, and I was a good hitter and fielder. I bat from either shoulder and modestly say that I am a good hitter….I certainly hope that the New Orleans pitchers will not feel sorry for me and try to feed me perfect strikes. I ask no quarter and ask that they pitch to me as if I were the most dangerous of hitters — I’ll get by.”
But Didrikson’s debut against a professional opponent was delayed by rain. The Indians and Pelicans did play their scheduled game on March 18, but the Times-PIcayune reported, “The heavy downpour shortly before game time played havoc with the crowd and caused the postponement of Babe Didrikson’s appearance on the mound. The gal pitcher will appear here next Sunday instead.” The game was played “before a small crowd…hardly more than 1500 fans,” which apparently wasn’t enough bang for the 200 bucks due Ms. Didrikson.
So Babe went on to Fort Myers, Florida, to suit up for the A’s against the Brooklyn Dodgers on March 20, and she retired only one batter in her single inning on the mound…but she got three outs, as her teammates pulled off a triple play behind her. Here’s the way the story was told in a special report by an unidentified author in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Jersey Joe Stripp pulled the Merkle on this occasion. He just doesn’t know the Didrikson slow curve, developed under the tutelage of the ancient Burleigh Grimes at Hot Springs, Ark. In an unhappy situation after she walked Danny Taylor and nicked Johnny Frederick with a fast one, the Texas Babe faced the menacing war club of Stripp.
[A's manager] Connie Mack, waving his traditional scorecard, moved the outfielders back, but he, too, doesn’t know the Didrikson slow curve. The Babe, undaunted, wound up, threw that change of pace offering and Jersey Joe lined right into the hands of Dib Williams at shortstop. Dib tossed to Rabbit Warstler at second to double Taylor and the Rabbit’s heave to Jimmy Fox [sic] at first nipped Frederick before the latter could get back to the bag.
Fortunately, the Dodgers were not compelled to face any further slants served by the Babe….
Roscoe McGowan added details in his account in The New York Times:
Miss Didrikson, who pitches with a graceful, easy delivery that would do credit to any hurler, undoubtedly profited a bit from the chivalry of Danny Taylor and Johnny Frederick, but the triple play was an honest one.
Danny and Johnny both swung lustily at a pair of strikes each, missing the ball by wide margins, but Babe walked Danny and nicked Frederick with a pitched ball. Then, with first and second occupied, Joe Stripp lined a hard one to Dib Williams and the triple killing was completed, Williams to Warstler to Foxx.
This sequence is misreported in “Whatta-Gal” and in the more recent Didrikson biography, Don Van Natta, Jr’s 2011 “Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias,” which uses “Whatta-Gal” as its source for the story. Johnson and Williamson cite the New York Times story, but somehow came away with the impression that both Taylor and Frederick struck out with their chivalrous swings. They then say Didrikson walked a batter and hit one with a pitched ball before the next batter lined into a triple play…which, of course, isn’t possible to do when there are already two out. Van Natta fell into the same trap in describing the inning the same way. Johnson was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and Van Natta a national correspondent for The New York Times; both should have known better. At any rate, Didrikson did not strike out a batter in any of the three games she pitched in spring training.
A brief item in The Sporting News of March 29 (at left) said Taylor “was thwarted in a seeming attempt to strike out when the girl’s pitches were too wide for him to make a show of swinging at them” and Frederick “was right in the way of an inside delivery.”
By the way, McGowan added this in his New York Times story: “Following the game Miss Didrikson repaired to a local golf course, where she had promised to give a demonstration of her driving power.” He didn’t mention if she was paid for that. An account of the event in the Sarasota Herald on March 21 said Didrikson “made 40 drives, dubbed two, and out of the other 38, not one traveled less than 250 yards.”
Here’s the box score for Babe’s debut, as printed in The New York Times:
This picture of Babe with Jimmie Foxx, reportedly taken before the March 20 game, appeared in the Seattle Times on April 1:
Here’s another photo from that same session…the cutline provided misidentifies the date of the A’s-Dodgers game as March 19:
From Fort Myers Didrikson went up Florida’s Gulf Coast to Bradenton, where she pitched for the Cardinals against the Red Sox on March 22. At right is the Sarasota Herald’s front-page headline of March 21 previewing the event. The unidentified author of the piece wrote:
The noted Texas athlete said today her invasion of baseball was not a mere publicity stunt. She really intends to take it up seriously. And according to none other than Burleigh Grimes, the famous spitballer, she really has the “stuff.” Burleigh attended Doan’s baseball school before joining the Cardinal camp and he says he was astonished when she showed him her curves — that is, with a baseball. And they say she can run the bases like the Ty Cobb of old.
Unfortunately Babe did not live up to her billing when game time rolled around, as she gave up three runs in the first inning. The Cardinals wound up winning, 9-7.
Most of the accounts I’ve read from the next day’s newspapers don’t go into great detail about what transpired. The Sarasota Herald had a story by Jack Malaney of the Boston Post; he doesn’t address Didrikson until his sixth paragraph:
Babe Didrikson pitched one inning only and the Sox made four hits off her, it merely being a case of smacking the ball if it were near the plate. It was well that Babe started for she was the only one that Moose Solters was able to hit. He hit a long ball off her which landed in the trees beyond left field for a two bagger that brought in a couple of runs…
Melville E. Webb, Jr., was also sparing in his account in the Boston Globe: “At the go-off ‘Babe’ Didrickson was in the box for the Cards. This young lady athlete…was clipped for three singles and a double which netted the Sox three runs in the one inning she pitched.” The Associated Press game stories had very little to say about Babe’s performance.
Boston Herald’s John Drohan also didn’t have much to say about the events on the field, but he offered a little more information about the day:
So far as could be learned Babe Didrikson isn’t a member of the Cardinals but it was just another scheme on the part of [Cardinals general manager] Branch Rickey to coax a few shekels into the box office. That it worked is best explained by the fact 400 cash customers were present where less than a hundred generally spend the afternoon.
Babe may be all right in her class, but the best advice to her is that she remain in it. Our boys resented the feminine intrusion in the national pastime and rallied three runs on four hits in the first inning….She then retired to the dugout, where she kidded around like the rest of the ball players.
I haven’t found a play-by-play of Babe’s work against the Red Sox, but the most information is from a syndicated column by John Lardner that was published several days later; the headline at left appeared over the column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It’s entirely possible Lardner was not at the game to see Didrikson’s performance but put together his story from second-hand accounts, and as a result it’s entirely possible not everything he wrote is correct. Here’s part of what he wrote:
Big Julius Solters parked one of her slants in the top of a tree in left field. The ball dropped cautiously from limb to limb, and big Julius was rounding second before it dropped to the ground.
Others who hit Miss Didrikson safely were Bill Cissell, Eddie Morgan, Dusty Cooke and Rick Ferrell. [Note: the accounts published in the Sarasota Herald, Boston Globe and Boston Herald all said Didrickson allowed only four hits; Cooke is not shown with a hit in the box score.] All the boys profited by a tip from Max Bishop, the first hitter to oppose the Babe.
“Count ten before you swing,” Max advised them. “This girl does not throw as fast as she runs.” [I don't know what happened in Bishop's at-bat, but apparently he was put out.]
“That don’t seem possible,” said Eddie Morgan, but it turned out that Max was correct.
When the first half of the inning was over the Cards clustered around Miss Didrickson and patted her on the back. They patted her in the direction of the nearest exit. Virgil Davis paid the Babe a brief tribute as he removed his mask.
“One thing, she’s got a change of pace,” said Mr. Davis. “She can go from slow to slower.”
Cards second baseman and manager Frank Frisch added to the unkind comments when he told Lardner, “A woman’s place is in or around the home. I was glad to give this dame a lift, but there’s such a thing as carrying a thing too far.”
But Lardner did write, with apparent sincerity, “The comments of the athletes and the spectators…must not be interpreted as a reflection on the ability of women to play ball. The time is not far off when women will be playing in the big leagues.”
For a completely different account of Babe’s performance against the Red Sox, let’s read a letter Ray Doan sent to his hometown paper, the Muscatine Journal, that was published in the “Sports From The Wings” column on March 29:
She should not have been scored on as there were two out, two men on bases [sic] and she pitched a perfect third strike to Solters which was called a ball by an experienced umpire. Solters followed with a double and Pepper Martin and Collins, first baseman, made errors. [Collins is shown with an error in the box score, Martin is not.] Then followed another hit, scoring another run.
None of the game stories identifies the player who drove in the third run off Didrikson; perhaps it was Ferrell. Here is the box score of the game that appeared in the Boston Globe:
Three days later Didrikson was back in New Orleans to make up the appearance there that had been cancelled the previous Sunday. There was no report of the size of the crowd this time. Facing minor league competition, she pitched two shutout innings for the Indians against the Pelicans, allowing three hits. Clifton Dreyfus’ story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune said she “showed the speed, control and hooks [breaking pitches] of a man.” She walked one batter and did not strike out anyone. There are no further details about her pitching in either the Times-Picayune or the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The box score shows she had two assists, presumably on ground balls back to the box; she had no fielding chances in her earlier games.
She also got a hit of her own, described by Dreyfus as a “clean single.” That came when she was allowed to bat out of turn to get another chance at the plate; the inning is not specified. In her first trip to the plate, in the bottom of the first (she was batting third in the order specifically to ensure she would get to bat), she “socked a hefty line foul and then grounded out, second to first,” according to Dreyfus. The newspaper didn’t say whether she batted left or right; her comment quoted when she was in Hot Springs implied she could switch-hit.
Gordon Cobbledick wrote in the Plain Dealer Didrikson “smacked out two line drives, one fair and one foul, and looked as if she had been playing baseball in fast company all her life.” But Cobbledick added some information about her first at-bat: “[Catcher] Chick Autry dropped her pop foul on purpose so that she could have another chance to hit the ball.” (The box score does not list an error for Autry.) Cobbledick said that helped the Indians score their first run, as Dick Porter moved from first to second on Didrikson’s eventual groundout, then scored on Joe Vosmik’s single.
I haven’t found who was managing Didrikson’s team in New Orleans. Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson was the Indians’ skipper, but he took a split squad to Lafayette, Louisiana, that day to face the minor league Kansas City Blues. Johnson put himself in to pitch in that game (he was 46 years old) and wound up scoring the winning run after hitting a ninth-inning double.
Here is the box score of Babe’s game against New Orleans as published in the Plain Dealer:
Didrickson traveled from New Orleans to her home in Beaumont, Texas, according to Ray Doan’s letter to the Muscatine newspaper, thus ending her brief tour of baseball training camps.
Missing from this post is one story that appears in all her major biographies. The source for it is Babe’s own 1955 autobiography, “This Life I’ve Led.” The problem is, it seems to be completely fabricated.
Here’s the tale in Babe’s words (or those of her “as told to” co-author, Harry Paxton):
In Florida before the baseball tour [with the House of David team] started, I did a little exhibition pitching against some of the major-league and minor-league teams. One day I was at Bradenton, Florida, where the St. Louis Cardinals were training. They were going to play an exhibition game with the Philadelphia Athletics. I was sitting in the grandstand before the game with Dizzy and Paul Dean of the Cardinals. Jimmy [sic] Foxx of the Athletics was there too.
Dizzy Dean was always bragging, you know. That is, people called it bragging. Actually, it was just his way. It was Southern Texas talk. Dizzy was good and he knew it. He’d say, “I’m gonna do something big” and then go ahead and do it.
Well, we were talking there, and the fellows were kidding each other back and forth. And Dizzy says to Jimmy Foxx, “We’ll pitch Babe against you, and I’ll betcha that me and Paul and Babe can beat you guys.”
So it wound up with me pitching the first inning for the Cardinals. Frankie Frisch was managing the team then, and he was a fellow to enjoy a stunt like that. Dizzy Dean wasn’t in there at the start of the game, but they put Paul Dean out in left field, because he was going to come in anyway and pitch after I finished.
Pretty soon the bases were loaded with none out. Those bases got loaded on hits, not walks. I always had pretty good control. I seldom walked anybody. But I couldn’t seem to throw the ball past these major-leaguers.
The next batter hit a line drive, but it turned into a double play and nobody scored. That brought up Jimmy Foxx.
There was a big grove of orange trees out back of left field. I don’t suppose many balls were hit that far, but with a girl pitching and Jimmy Foxx batting, Paul Dean wasn’t taking any chances. He was backed up almost to the edge of the orange grove.
And Jimmy Foxx hit a ball deep into those trees. Paul Dean turned and started running back. He disappeared right into the orange grove. A couple of moments later he came trotting out. He was holding up his glove for everyone to see. There was a baseball and about five oranges in it. That’s how we made the third out. And that was enough pitching for me that day.
I have no hesitation in saying this never happened. Didrikson was quite famous at the time and, as we’ve seen, her baseball appearances gained attention. I have found no contemporaneous news report of this event.
But it mixes elements of things that did happen in 1934. Didrikson started a game in Bradenton…pitched for the Cardinals (Dizzy Dean pitched in relief in the game she started) and the A’s (and had her picture taken with Foxx)…there was a line drive that turned into multiple outs when she pitched (the triple play against the Dodgers)…somebody hit a ball into a tree against her (although it was Moose Solters).
Apparently Didrikson’s biographers made no effort to find out, say, exactly when the game Babe described took place. Johnson and Williamson swallow the tale whole in “Whatta-Gal,” describing it as having happened “another day” during spring training in 1934. (They don’t provide the dates for her game against the Dodgers or Red Sox, but erroneously placed them on consecutive days, and don’t mention her game against the Pelicans.) Van Natta likewise repeats the story pretty much verbatim; he also doesn’t give a date for the game against the Dodgers, and he ignores the games against the Red Sox and Pelicans.
The other major Didrikson biography is “Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias” by San Diego State University professor Susan E. Cayleff. She says merely that Babe “pitched in exhibition games against minor and major league teams” in the spring of 1934 without specifics. Later, during a passage about Babe’s time with the House of David, Cayleff launches into a description of the orange grove incident:
To increase her visibility and her income, Babe set up one-on-one pitching outings against big leaguers. Her first was against Jimmy [sic] Foxx and his Philadelphia Athletics. Her ‘team’ would be Dizzy Dean and Paul Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals.
I don’t know how she came up with this scenario, or when and where she thought this had taken place. From there she told the story as Didrikson did, concluding with, “The papers went wild and reported that Babe Didrikson got Jimmy Foxx out with the bases loaded (there was one on, but ‘loaded bases’ makes for more excitement).” I have searched a number of archival sources and have not found any newspaper account of an event anything like what is described here; if you know of one, please share it in the comments below.