Future of Engel revolves around baseball

Future of Engel revolves around baseball

April 12th, 2013 by Lindsey Young in Life Entertainment

Engel Foundation Chairwoman Janna Jahn.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.


1926 - In a Negro League game with the Chattanooga White Sox, 18-year-old pitcher Satchel Paige makes his professional debut at Andrews Field, the future site of Engel Stadium.

1929 - Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith buys the Lookouts and replace Andrews Field with a 12,000-seat modern ballpark that costs $150,000.

March 23, 1930 - In the first game at Engel Stadium, the Lookouts play the Washington Senators; 2,500 people attend.

April 15, 1930 - The Lookouts open their first regular season in front of 16,000 fans; in the bottom of the ninth, they score three runs and beat the Atlanta Crackers, 6-5.

January 1931 - Joe Engel sells Lookout shortstop Johnny Jones for a 25-pound turkey. "The turkey was having a better year," Engel says.

April 2, 1931 - Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year old girl pitching for the Lookouts, strikes out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition against the New York Yankees.

1935 - Lights are installed at Engel Stadium.

May 2, 1936 - In the largest crowd in stadium history, 26,639 fans come for a promotion in which a fully furnished house is given away.

1947 - Only 16 years old, center fielder Willie Mays make his professional baseball debut for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos in the Negro Southern League.

1953 - From March 15 to April 14, 283,000 people come to Engel Stadium to attend the Billy Graham Crusade.

Sept. 12, 1959 - The Lookouts and Engel Stadium are put up for sale by the Washington Senators.

1961 - The Lookouts, now owned by the Philadelphia Phillies, win the Southern Association pennant at Engel but only 233 fans are in the stands.

1965 - The Lookouts, who are no longer a part of baseball's minor-league system but still owned by the Philadelphia Phillies, host "Save the Lookouts Night" at Engel on the last night of the season. Only 355 fans show up. The Phillies drop the team and baseball leaves Chattanooga for 11 years.

June 12, 1969 - Joe Engel, 76, dies at Campbell General Hospital. The flagpole in center field flies at half-staff for a week.

April 20, 1976 - Now affiliated with the Oakland A's, the Lookouts attract 8,305 fans to their first home opener in 11 years.

Sept. 12, 1988 - The Lookouts win their only pennant of the modern era in a three-game sweep over the Greenville Braves, the last game before the stadium's renovation.

April 12, 1989 - Engel Stadium reopens after a $2 million dollar renovation.

April 16, 1994 - A modern-era record crowd of 14,137 comes to see Birmingham Barons outfielder Michael Jordan, but he does not play.

Sept. 10, 1999 - The Lookouts play their final game at Engel Stadium before moving across town to AT&T Field.

2000 - Chattanooga and Hamilton County lease the stadium to the Tennessee Temple University baseball team and the school agrees to maintain the facility.

2004 - The city and the county hand over ownership of the stadium to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

December 2009 - Engel Stadium is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Janna Jahn wants to make one thing clear.

The effervescent chairwoman of the Engel Foundation isn't spending the majority of her free time trying to save the venerable Chattanooga baseball stadium.

She's swinging much harder than that. Jahn and her foundation brethren see a day in the very near future where Engel Stadium isn't just seen as a landmark or museum, something to be revered only for its history.

Yes, it's all that, but if Jahn has her way, Engel's newly graded infield - thanks to the filming of the movie "42" - and soon-to-be resodded outfield will reverberate with the familiar sounds of bat striking ball and kids learning the game on the same field where 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell wowed the world when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1931 and where Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel once gave away a house.

Whether it's kids gathering for a pickup game on a steamy summer afternoon or a clinic being run by former Major League players, Jahn sees Engel Stadium's future revolving around the game that inspired its existence.

"It won't be Engel until we have baseball here again, and that's really what we want to see," Jahn says as workers buzz around her and hard rain falls - but does not puddle - on the new infield. "Just look out there. Even on a day like this, Engel is amazing. It has a thousand stories to tell and many more memories to make."

But if not for a push to get it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, Engel, which is owned by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, could very well have faced the same fate as Billy Meyer Stadium in Knoxville. Opened in 1953 as the home of the Smokies, it had many of the same characteristics as Engel. However, a modern stadium was built and, in 2003, Billy Meyer Stadium was demolished.

The Engel Foundation believes a combination of the past and future is the key and has hired Ripken Design to complete a feasibility study on future use with that in mind. The company, co-owned by Cal and Billy Ripken, has worked with several old stadiums, including Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Busch Stadium in St. Louis, to help keep them relevant.

Working with Engel has already piqued interest at Ripken.

"We've done several studies from the major league to youth leagues, but this one is special," Ripken Project Manager Patrick Farno says. "When we first started talking about Engel, Billy Ripken recalled playing there as a visiting player in the Southern League and what a great ballpark it was.

"This is the kind of project that, frankly, gets our baseball juices flowing."

The study will likely be concluded sometime this summer and, though Farno can't talk specifics, he and the foundation are already on the same page.

"It's very important to keep the tradition alive and to take advantage of the historical value of Engel Stadium," Farno says. "I can definitely see a museum full of memorabilia. As far as usage, I think there is a connection with youth sports that can be made, and I believe there needs to be a synergy with UTC."

Ideals aside, the stadium needs to be financially viable. While donations through the 1500 Club, combined with renovations already in place from "42," will get Engel structurally sound and visibly appealing once again, the stadium needs a steady source of income. That's where Ripken comes in.

"The key is to get the community involved," Farno said. "There are numerous possibilities."

The foundation isn't waiting on the report to get started. The Charlie Daniels Band will perform at Engel on May 2, the first of what Jahn hopes to be many concerts and special events on the grounds.

The Renteria family, led by former Atlanta Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria, approached the foundation just after its forming to inquire about locating one of its baseball schools here. Jahn says the family will be one of the first phone calls she makes once work on the outfield is completed.

Lookouts owner Frank Burke has already agreed to play an annual game at Engel, with the foundation getting all the proceeds. Jahn says she's heard from some college programs and select ball teams that have interest in playing there.

Jahn, a Chattanoogan who never experienced Engel as it once was, recalls her first visit to the park. It was a moment that would grow on her over time.

"In 2002 I went for the first time to watch my nephew play a ninth-grade game," she says. "I remember thinking, 'This place is pretty cool, why have I not heard of this?' Just walking into the place grabs you. There's just something about the ambiance that just makes you feel good - maybe it's the wooden roof or the way the grandstands turn or the metal bars - whatever it is it takes you back to a place in time that makes you feel good."

Contact staff Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6296.