The Legends of Engel Stadium

Chattanooga’s landmark stadium remains a local icon through new efforts aimed at its renewal.

 

For 83 years, Engel Stadium has sat at 1130 E. Street in Chattanooga—at times a focal point of city life, at times an afterthought—but always an icon of the Scenic City’s love for the most American of sports: baseball.

 

By Michael E. Haskew

 

The Stadium is Born

In 1929, while the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, entrepreneur extraordinaire Joe Engel came to Chattanooga with a cash offer in his hand for Chattanooga’s minor league baseball team. Engel believed in baseball, and he believed in Chattanooga. Acting as an emissary for Clark Griffith, owner of the major league Washington Senators, he purchased the Lookouts from Sammy Strang Nicklin, a Chattanooga-born big leaguer who had helped the New York Giants win the World Series in 1905.

On that same trip, Engel also brought $150,000 for the purpose of building a gleaming new ballpark to replace Andrews Field, which had acted as the Lookouts’ home field since 1911. The new stadium was completed the next year.

 

The Center of City Life

Into the 1930s and beyond, Engel promoted the Lookouts tirelessly, and through his influence, a baseball game at Engel Stadium became more than balls, strikes, outs, and runs. It was a spectacle.

One of those came in May of 1936, when nearly 27,000 fans jammed into Engel Stadium after Engel broadcasted he was raffling off a house on Rivermont Road. Another was on opening day 1938, when Engel, nicknamed “the Barnum of Baseball,” staged a “wild elephant hunt” at the stadium complete with costumed hunters and quarry. Later, opening day would become such an event that area schools started dismissing early.

Engel became famous for his wild antics. He once sold the contract of shortstop Johnny Jones for a 25-pound turkey, explaining, “the turkey was having a better year.” A sandwich was named for Jones and served at the stadium for some time afterward. Later, when Griffith decided to sell the Lookouts for $125,000 in 1937, Engel stood on downtown street corners hawking shares of ownership in the team for $5 each, calling on citizens to “invest in their town and their national pastime.” More than 1,500 did, and Engel kept baseball in Chattanooga for $100,000.

 

 

The Greats Come to Town 

 

A different kind of spectacle, but no less astonishing, came in April of 1931 when the vaunted New York Yankees came to town for an exhibition game against the Lookouts. Pitching was Jackie Mitchell, a female phenom Engel had just signed to the Lookouts. At just 17 years old, the Lookout’s freshest face bravely took the mound against two of the most legendary baseball players of all time: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. And in a feat of defiance and extraordinary athleticism, she struck out both Hall of Famers as the crowd roared its approval.

Through the years, other luminaries came to Engel. The great Rogers Hornsby played and managed the Lookouts at Engel Stadium for much of the 1938 season. In 1947, sixteen-year-old Willie Mays took center field at Engel while playing for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos of the Southern Negro League. Then in the 1950s, future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew became the only player to hit a home run over Engel Stadium’s centerfield wall during a short chapter with the Lookouts.

There were other great players, too many to name. And all the while, the promotions and events kept up—from clown Max Patkin to used car raffles to free haircuts and spitting camels.

 

 

Changes for Engel

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were hard-hitting years for Engel Stadium. Between major league teams pulling their affiliations and the disbanding of the Southern Association, baseball came to a halt in Chattanooga for over a decade. When Joe Engel passed away in 1969 at the age of 76,  the flagpole in center field flew at half-staff for a week. The abandoned stadium fell into disrepair.

In 1976, baseball returned to Engel thanks to Woody Reid, a Chattanooga businessman who agreed to invest $150,000 in the cleaning up of the stadium on the condition that an affiliate was found. Reid sold 60% of his shares in the franchise two years later, leading to a decade in which the Lookouts had three different owners.

In 1988, Rick Holzman took over leadership for the team. Concerned about Engel’s dilapidated state, Holzman played a key role in convincing the City Council and County Commission to fund a $2 million renovation. It was completed just prior to opening day 1989, and for the next 10 years, the Lookouts called Engel Stadium home while continuing to be under different owners. Then, following the 1999 season, owner Frank Burke moved the team to the brand new AT&T Field atop Hawk Hill—a field he had self-funded near the revitalized Chattanooga riverfront.

For a while, Engel Stadium hosted high school and college baseball games, but inevitably fell into decline once again. In March of 2011, the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County padlocked the stadium due to a deteriorating roof and other safety concerns. In the autumn of that same year, they formally transferred ownership of the stadium to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

 

 

The Stadium Today

Today, Engel Stadium continues to rest in the hands of UTC in partnership with the Engel Foundation, a non-profit formed in 2009 to bring the facility back to its former role as a center of activity in Chattanooga. With support from local government, foundations, and Cornerstones, Chattanooga’s historic preservation group, the Engel Foundation works to solicit private donors to buy into the future of the stadium.

“Over the next few months, we will be conducting a study to determine the future use of the ballpark, not only for baseball, concerts, and other types of activities, but also as an anchor to spark revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood,” says Janna Jahn, chair of the Engel Foundation. “We will also shine a spotlight on the stadium’s history, its role in our community and in the world of baseball.

“Engel is one of the last remaining historic ballparks in the country. Maybe you grew up watching baseball there. Maybe you liked hearing stories about Joe Engel. Maybe you’re walking through the gate for the first time. It doesn’t seem to matter. People love that place. They love being there. It has a great legacy of stories to tell and memories to make for years to come. Why would we throw that away?”

 

 

New Life with “42”

This past year, the Scenic City turned a new eye to Engel Stadium after it was selected as a film site for the major motion picture “42.” Now in theaters, “42” tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the major league baseball player who broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers under General Manager Branch Rickey.

When the announcement came in March of last year that Engel Stadium had been chosen as a stand-in for the Dodgers’ historic home field, the city stirred with excitement as casting calls were issued and the news circulated that stars Harrison Ford (Rickey) and Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) were coming to town. In preparation for the shoot, the aging ballpark underwent yet another series of renovations: an old administration building was demolished, electrical and plumbing systems were repaired, and lead-based paint was removed, among many other infrastructure and cosmetic improvements. Engel’s chance to shine on the silver screen can be credited in part to the “good eye” of Eric Pastore, a location scout for the film industry and author of the book “500 Ballparks: From Wooden Seats to Retro-Classics.” Pastore says he recognized the venerable stadium as a diamond in the rough.

“Engel Stadium captures that old time feel as few ballparks do today,” the scout says. “It is beautifully laid out with its big, green walls, and you can feel the history of baseball in that park. When I was asked to find a park for the film, Engel was one that I thought would be perfect. I would love to see it live forever in some capacity. We can’t forget the history of baseball in Chattanooga and that Engel Stadium has been such a big part of it.”

For those who love Chattanooga and its legacy of baseball, Engel Stadium remains as a testament to the city’s past and present love for the game. Harboring traces of its legacy, yet now with renewed promise for a sparkling tomorrow, Engel Stadium is becoming a showplace once again. Its namesake would be ever so proud.

 

 

 

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