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Great Moments in Reds Fan History: July 31, 1935

A look back at a truly historic accomplishment by one Reds fan

Kitty Burke
Kitty Burke

On the evening of July 31, 1935, the Reds were facing off against the St. Louis Cardinals at Crosley Field in the sixth night game held at that facility. The first night game had been played just a few months prior, and night baseball was still very much a novelty. This likely explains why the game attracted dignitaries including baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as well as a more-than sellout crowd. All those fans thought they were going to see was a game between the Reds and Cardinals. They did, and it was a good one, with the Reds winning 4-3 in ten innings. But they also saw a unique event in baseball and another great moment in Reds fan history.

When a game was oversold, the practice at the time was to pack the extra fans in on the field, behind ropes in foul territory along the first base and third base lines. This has always struck me as a strange policy, since it seems like these standing-room-only customers would have had a better view than the fans sitting in the first few rows of seats, to say nothing of the increased potential of fan interference brought about by this setup. But the bottom line is the bottom line, and in an era before cable TV contracts, attendance was the primary source of income for ownership and they weren’t about to turn away paying customers.

Among the fans crowding the playing field was a Cincinnati nightclub performer, blues singer, renowned beauty and avid Reds fan named Kitty Burke. In the eighth inning, Burke began heckling Cardinals batter Joe "Ducky" Medwick. Coming from her vantage point at field level just feet from home plate, Medwick could clearly hear every word, and responded by informing her that "You couldn’t hit if you were swinging an elephant!" While this is certainly technically true, one wonders who Medwick believed could get a hit in a Major League game while swinging an elephant. Certainly someone with unnatural upper body strength, especially by 1930’s standards. Also, Medwick neglected to clarify further as to whether the elephant in question would be alive, and if so, whether it would be a willing participant in getting swung, both of which seem to be fairly important factors. The mind boggles with the possibilities.

Regardless of the unanswered questions and physical impossibilities inherent in Medwick’s retort, Burke was still fuming at his gall when the Reds came to bat in the bottom of the inning. With one out and a runner on first base, Reds left fielder Babe Herman was preparing to take his turn at bat. Burke chose that moment to charge onto the field. One account has her snatching Herman’s bat out of his hands, another has her asking him for the bat and Herman politely handing it over. Either way, Burke stepped into the batter’s box armed with Herman’s bat and wearing a dress and high heels, and began staring down Cardinals pitcher Paul Dean.

Dean and home plate umpire Bill Stewart seemed unsure how to handle this unprecedented turn of events. Stewart looked toward Commissioner Landis in the stands for guidance, but Landis apparently gave no indication of what he should do. Eventually, Burke grew impatient and yelled at Dean, "Hey, you hick. Throw me a pitch!"

Dean complied, lobbing the ball in underhanded, softball style. Burke swung and made contact, grounding back to the pitcher. Dean fielded the ball and threw it to first baseman Ripper Collins for the out, at which point Burke returned to her place in the cheering crowd. Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch actually argued that the out should count against the Reds, but he was denied the request.

In the aftermath, Burke parlayed her notoriety from the event into her nightclub act, promoting herself as the only woman to have ever batted in a Major League game. Reds general manager Larry McPhail – a notoriously enthusiastic promoter in his own right – gave her an official Reds uniform, which she wore on stage during performances.

Since Kitty Burke’s at bat was not official, her claims were not entirely true, and her name therefore does not appear in any official MLB records. Baseball is still waiting for its female Jackie Robinson. She is remembered just the same, clearly being one of those not-so-well-behaved women who tend to make history. Today, her feat is memorialized in a t-shirt you can buy that literally tells her story. Perhaps more appropriately, a Cincinnati based mixologist named Molly Wellman honored her by naming a cocktail after her. The Kitty Burke involves gin, triple sec and cucumber, and according to Wellmann, "It’s the perfect drink for bad-ass women to drink while watching and playing baseball better than men!"

*Special thanks to Bryan Harris for alerting me to the existence of this story