The Cleveland Naps met the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 11, 1914. The pitching matchup was intriguing: The Naps started Willie Mitchell, a 24-year-old left-hander with a biting curveball, and the Red Sox sent a 19-year-old lefty, Babe Ruth, to the mound for his major league debut. The Naps were anxious to take a look at Ruth, to see what all the hype was about. Ruth was “heralded from one end of baseballdom to the other, this season, as the greatest youngster developed in the minor league ranks…”1 In the second inning, he made his first major league plate appearance and was struck out by Mitchell.2 Both pitchers allowed eight hits, and Ruth came away with a 4-3 victory, with relief help from Dutch Leonard. Mitchell, as a member of the Detroit Tigers, outdueled Ruth, 1 to 0, in a rematch at Fenway Park on September 20, 1917.
William Mitchell was born on December 1, 1889, in Pleasant Grove, Mississippi, the son of John B. Mitchell (1847-1921) and Jennie T. Mitchell (1854-1940).3 John, a Confederate “cavalry hero” during the Civil War,4 was a wealthy landowner. Willie grew up on his family’s large plantation in Panola County, near Sardis,5 in northwest Mississippi, about 60 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. From 1905 to 1909, he attended the Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College in Starkville, and he was the star pitcher on the school’s baseball team. In 176 innings over four seasons at Mississippi A&M (now called Mississippi State University), the teenage southpaw struck out 302 batters.6 As a senior, he hurled a perfect game against Louisiana State University with 26 strikeouts. He graduated in the spring of 1909 with a degree in agriculture.7
Mitchell was coached by Monroe “Dolly” Stark at Mississippi A&M. Stark played for the San Antonio Bronchos of the Class C Texas League, and he persuaded Mitchell to join the Bronchos in May 1909, after graduation.8 On June 26, 1909, Mitchell threw a no-hitter against the Shreveport Pirates, and San Antonio fans bestowed on him “a hatful of coin.”9 His strikeout numbers were eye-popping. He had two 14-strikeout games and three 13-strikeout games for the Bronchos.10 When he fanned 20 batters on August 21, in a four-hit shutout of Galveston,11 the baseball world took notice. Sporting Life called his 20-strikeout game “a world’s record for professional base ball under organized conditions,” and reported that the southpaw has “a great ‘jump ball,’ a world of speed, a good drop and an excellent change of pace.”12 Major league scouts were buzzing over the phenom, and it was the Cleveland Naps of the American League who signed him.13
Mitchell made his major league debut as a 19-year-old, on September 22, 1909. He pitched well, but Cleveland lost the game, 3 to 1, to 19-year-old Smoky Joe Wood and the Boston Red Sox.14 A week later, Mitchell tossed a six-hitter in Washington but was defeated, 2 to 1.15 He earned his first major league victory on October 3 in St. Louis.16 The talented Southerner was unfazed by his leap from Class C to the major leagues.
After a winter of chopping trees in Mississippi, Mitchell filled out his 6’0” frame, and he weighed 173 pounds in the spring of 1910.17 His pitching was inconsistent at the beginning of the season, and his record was 2-7, when the turning point came: He threw a five-hitter to cut down Wood and the Red Sox on August 6.18 From that day until the end of the season, his record was 10-1. On September 11, he pitched his first major league shutout, a one-hitter in St. Louis.19 Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins predicted he would be the best southpaw in the American League in 1911.20
“Willie Mitchell Proves a Huge Disappointment,” declared the Cleveland Plain Dealer, after Mitchell posted a 7-14 record in 1911; he “never showed his 1910 form, except in flashes…”21 One of those flashes came on June 3 in Philadelphia, when he pitched 12 solid innings but lost, 4 to 3.22 Athletics manager Connie Mack was impressed: “Willie Mitchell showed us as good pitching as we have been up against this year. … And he knew just how to pitch Eddie Collins, too. Struck Eddie out three times.”23 In Mitchell’s next start, he lost to Walter Johnson in Washington, 4 to 2.24 On June 20, Mitchell surrendered seven runs to the Tigers in 1-2/3 innings.25 In his rematch with Wood and the Red Sox on September 16, Wood prevailed, 6 to 0.26 Umpire Billy Evans said, “Willie Mitchell has far more stuff than many southpaws regarded as stars of the game. All he needs is the old-time confidence.”27
Before an Opening Day crowd of 19,302 at Cleveland’s League Park on April 11, 1912, Mitchell allowed five hits in an 11-inning victory over the Tigers. Cobb went hitless in the game and struck out in the 11th inning.28 After the stellar first start, Mitchell faltered, and he was demoted to Toledo for two weeks in July. He finished the season with a 5-8 record for Cleveland.
Mitchell was mild-mannered, good-natured, and popular with his teammates. When he got into a rare scrap with feisty teammate Ivy Olson in May 1912, and received a black eye in the incident,29 teammates were quick to side with Mitchell.
In 1913 the 23-year-old Mitchell emerged as the star he was predicted to become. He compiled a 14-8 record with four shutouts, and his 1.91 ERA was fifth best in the major leagues. He ranked second in the major leagues (behind Walter Johnson) in hits per nine innings (6.35) and strikeouts per nine innings (5.85). Mitchell’s best start of the season was a one-hit shutout against the Chicago White Sox on July 6; the lone hit was Buck Weaver’s sixth-inning single. White Sox manager Jimmy Callahan said, “Mitchell is as effective a southpaw as there is in the league. No pitcher, right or left-handed, has a better curve ball than he.”30 Cleveland slugger Joe Jackson added, “Willie Mitchell is the hardest pitcher in the league for me to hit. He has a ball that looks like a balloon and the only thing I’ve ever been able to do with it in practice is to get it on the handle and break all my bats. I’ve given up trying to hit him. The cost of bats adds up.”31
Among pitchers, Mitchell was below average in fielding and hitting. He had a career fielding percentage of .904 and a career batting average of .130. He surprised everyone when he singled on June 21, 1913, against Detroit; it was only his second hit of the season. “It was so long ago that he hit the ball to the uninhabited sections of the field, that baseball statisticians have considered dropping him from the averages altogether,” said the Cleveland Plain Dealer.32
Mitchell was sidelined with a sore arm near the end of the 1913 season.33 In 1914 he pitched 257 innings, his major league career high. His performance in the first two months of the 1914 season was disappointing, with a 4.47 ERA through June 10. In games after June 10, his ERA was 2.49.34 He finished the year with an 11-17 record and led the last-place Naps in innings pitched and victories. His curveball was still potent, but he struggled with his control; he was second in the league in strikeouts (179) and second in the league in walks (124).
In 1915 Mitchell compiled an 11-14 record with a 2.82 ERA for a weak Cleveland team. After a slow start in 1916, the Detroit Tigers acquired him on waivers on June 20, 1916. He shut out the New York Yankees on July 18, and the St. Louis Browns on September 8. In 1917 he threw five more shutouts for the Tigers and posted a 12-8 record with a 2.19 ERA.
After one appearance for the Tigers in April 1918, Mitchell joined the Army, and he served as a machine gunner in France during World War I.35 He returned to the Tigers in May 1919, but was released after three appearances. From 1919 to 1921, he pitched for the Vernon (California) Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. Vernon won the pennant in 1919 and 1920 with Mitchell’s help. He worked 348 innings for Vernon in 1920, with a 25-13 record and a 2.38 ERA, and was regarded as the best left-hander in the league.36 He retired from professional baseball after the 1921 season, at the age of 31.37
In 1925 Mitchell married Daisy Lou Finch (1902-2003), and the couple settled in Greenville, Mississippi, where Mitchell worked for many years as a sales representative for the Standard Oil Company.38 Their only child, William Jr., was born about 1932.
Mitchell was one of the first Mississippians to play in the major leagues. The nice guy with the nasty curveball was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1966.39 He died in Sardis, Mississippi, on November 23, 1973, at the age of 83.
1 Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 12, 1914.
2 Robert W. Creamer, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974).
3 Ancestry.com and findagrave.com.
4 Fort Wayne (Indiana) Daily News, June 26, 1917.
5 Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 6, 1910. Willie’s father owned “a few thousand acres” in northwest Mississippi.
6 Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-Gazette, May 23, 1908, and http://msfame.com/hall-of-fame/inductees/willie-mitchell/.
7 Unless otherwise noted, information about Mitchell’s college career came from Reveille, the Mississippi A&M yearbooks, 1906 to 1910, and the 2012 Mississippi State University Baseball Media Guide, available online at http://www.nmnathletics.com/fls/16800/pdf/bb/bb_12mg.pdf.
8 San Antonio Daily Express, May 5 and 25, 1909. Mitchell turned down an offer from the Chicago Cubs, feeling he was not ready for the major leagues.
9 San Antonio Daily Express, June 27, 1909.
10 San Antonio Daily Express, July 5, 8, 25, 29, and August 17, 1909.
11 San Antonio Daily Express, August 22, 1909.
12 Sporting Life, September 4, 1909.
13 San Antonio Daily Express, August 29, 1909. Mitchell was signed by Cleveland’s “Deacon” Jim McGuire. Mitchell was not the only phenom in San Antonio at this time; future Hall of Famer “Cyclone Joe” Williams pitched for the San Antonio Black Bronchos from 1907 to 1909.
14 Sporting Life, October 2, 1909.
15 Sporting Life, October 9, 1909.
17 Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 16, 1909, and March 27, 1910; Sporting Life, January 22, 1910.
18 Sporting Life, August 13, 1910.
19 Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 12, 1910.
20 Sporting Life, October 15, 1910.
21 Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 17, 1911.
22 Sporting Life, June 10, 1911.
23 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 5, 1911.
24 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 9, 1911.
25 Sporting Life, July 1, 1911.
26 Sporting Life, September 23, 1911.
27 Cincinnati Enquirer, March 17, 1912.
28 Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 12, 1912.
29 Ogden (Utah) Standard, June 7, 1912.
30 Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 7, 1913.
31 Janesville (Wisconsin) Daily Gazette, September 3, 1913.
32 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 22, 1913.
33 Washington Post, September 12, 1913.
34 Retrosheet.org, accessed January 2015.
36 San Francisco Chronicle, March 13, 1921.
37 Baseball-reference.com, in January 2015, incorrectly listed Mitchell as a member of the Topeka (Kansas) minor league team from 1922 to 1924. It was a different William Mitchell who pitched for Topeka – “Wild Bill” Mitchell, a right-hander from Topeka – according to the Springfield (Missouri) Republican, April 22, 1924.