Every day was "Showtime!" for Joe Engel

Every day was "Showtime!" for Joe Engel

April 12th, 2013 by Ansley Haman in Life Entertainment

Joe Engel, right, namesake of Engel Stadium, stands with an unidentified man in front of Engel's homing pigeon house.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

When his playing days were over, he came to Chattanooga in 1929 to manage the minor league Lookouts.

By the time he died a half-century later, his name was on the stadium, he had bought and sold radio station WDEF, and he built a reputation as the "Barnum of the Bushes" - the greatest showman in the minor leagues and one of Chattanooga's most colorful characters.

"Everything he did, it was like he was onstage," says Katy Phillips, 83, whose father ran stadium concessions at Engel's ballpark.

Engel loved a good show. Between 1929 and 1965, he brought to Chattanooga circuses, popular music, thoroughbred horses, a woman who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He gave away a house, opened his stadium to the poor and became the leading advocate for baseball in Chattanooga.

The major leagues gave Engel his baseball acumen; three years in vaudeville taught him about entertainment. Together, those experiences set the stage for the showmanship that became his hallmark.

Engel was also known for his love of children. His own 9-year-old son was killed by a drunken driver. Children were often seen around the ballpark. Phillips and her brothers grew up there, often working.

Engel's early years in Chattanooga were also some of the hardest as locals weathered the Great Depression and World War II.

At times Engel would open the stadium to feed hungry families, says Rachel Simmons, 97, one of the late manager's secretaries. "Long lines of people came for food more than once," she says.

Even after her father's death, Phillips' mother always had a job at the stadium.

Engel Stadium's biggest night became a game-changer for Charles Mills. On a single night - May 1, 1936 - Engel drew more than 24,600 fans to a game at the stadium, where he gave away a fully furnished house and lot at 1 Rivermont Road. Marcia Mills Richie's father, who was 26 at the time, went to the game with his best friend, Charles Brewster. "He was sick that night," his daughter recalls. "Uncle Brewster just insisted he go."

The winning ticket changed all their lives, says Richie, 72, as she looked out her front window across her family's farm.

"It was one of the first, if not the first, fully electric houses in Chattanooga," she says. "He sold it probably within two months for $8,500."

Mills, who had been working in a warehouse, used the proceeds to start his own business. He bought a 219-acre farm off East Brainerd Road and opened the Ryall Springs grocery store with Brewster.

"It really gave him a humble spirit," Richie says. "He helped many poor people over the years who couldn't afford groceries. Dad remained a good friend of Joe Engel up until he died."

This story ran on April 1, 2012 in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.