RICK CLEVELAND: Willie Mitchell was a star way ahead of his time

RICK CLEVELAND

RICK CLEVELAND

This was 105 years ago, before metal bats, before luxury suites and before any pitch was known as a split-fingered fastball or a circle change.

This was even before Mississippi State was Mississippi State.

Willie Mitchell was a 19-year old Mississippi A&M senior from the tiny Panola County community of Pleasant Grove, located near Sardis. Mitchell was a left-handed pitcher.

One spring weekend, the A&M baseball team took the train to Baton Rouge to face LSU in a doubleheader. Mitchell took the mound in the second game and pitched what must remain the most perfect game in the history of perfect games.

Mitchell struck out 26 of 27 LSU batters and retired the 27th on a ground ball to second base. You read right: Only one LSU batter hit a fair ball.

Those A&M Aggies were good, finishing with a 22-4 record. Mitchell was virtually un-hittable with a 6-1 record and 97 strikeouts in just 56 innings pitched.

Willie Mitchell once struck out 26 of 27 batters against LSU. (Mississippi State archives)

Willie Mitchell once struck out 26 of 27 batters against LSU. (Mississippi State archives)

And if you are wondering how he did it, the line forms behind this writer. We have a hint.

The Revielle, State’s yearbook, tells us, Willie’s favorite pitch was “one that has a very sharp downward break, which is called the ‘Willie Ball’ for the simple reason that no batter has been able to connect with it.”

Come to think of it, maybe this wasn’t before the split-fingered fast ball. Maybe that’s what Willie Mitchell was throwing in 1909, only back then they didn’t know what to call it so they named it after the only guy who threw it.

We’ll never know, but we do know Willie Mitchell, a future Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, turned pro later that same spring and went directly to the Texas League and then to the Major League Cleveland Indians before the summer was over. And if this reads like something out of Ripley’s, just keep on reading.

Later that same year, Willie Mitchell struck out a Texas League record 20 batters pitching for San Antonio in a game against the Galveston Sand Crabs.

That and performances like it earned Mitchell a ticket to Cleveland and The Show, though it wasn’t known as The Show just yet.

In one of his first Big League performances, Mitchell pitched against the Washington Senators and the great Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Johnson, who won 412 Major League games, got one of those 412 that day, but it took him 12 innings — going head-to-head against the rookie from Pleasant Grove — to eke out a 2-1 victory. Mitchell turned 20 three months later.

Willie Mitchell went on to pitch 11 Major League seasons, averaging 12 victories a year. His lifetime earned run average was 2.88. He must not have had much support. In 1913, he was a career-best 14-8, despite a 1.91 ERA. He was the first pitcher to face Babe Ruth in an American League game. Of course, he struck him out, presumably with a Willie Ball.

His career was interrupted – and surely shortened – by injuries suffered in a German mustard gas attack in France in World War I.

Willie Mitchell was Mississippi’s first Major League star and an almost life-sized photo of him hangs in the baseball room at your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, the only place where pitches named after pitchers are remembered.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.