Mark Wiedmer: Knothole Gang spurs Engel love

Mark Wiedmer: Knothole Gang spurs Engel love

October 8th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Ed Ingle was a fourth grader at Avondale Grammar School when he earned his Knothole Gang card in 1942.

"That card could [sometimes] get you in at no charge," said the 81-year-old Ingle last week in recalling those long ago summers at Engel Stadium watching the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league team.

"And once a year you got to march around the outfield in your 'team' T-shirts with your friends. It was the greatest thing you could imagine."

Ingle and several other Knothole Gang members hope to spread that great feeling to the rest of the Scenic City on Oct. 18 at Engel Stadium.

Slated to begin at 6 p.m. that Thursday evening, the Knothole Gang Reunion is free to the public. Cokes, hot dogs, Moon Pies and possibly even Little Debbies are supposed to be available. Baseball fans of all ages, from the youngest kid to the oldest kid at heart, are encouraged to attend.

"We all have a love of baseball, and we hope this will help young people develop that same love of the game," Ingle said.

Pem Guerry -- who chairs a task force studying what to do with Engel in the future - hopes some of those in attendance will help the Engel Stadium Foundation find the best uses for the facility.

"It's one of the most historic ballparks in the country," said Guerry. "And it's open for business right now. It's in great shape structurally. It's going to host a screening of the move '42' [about Jackie Robinson] in April. It could host concerts. But it's also first and foremost a baseball facility and we're hoping to have high school events there in the future."

The impact of the movie '42' on the 82-year-old stadium can't be overstated. The crew stripped and repainted many of the seats that had originally been coated in lead-based paint. It made roof repairs, rebuilt the infield and made numerous other improvements.

"That movie was absolutely critical to this," said Guerry. "It brought enthusiasm and interest. It gave the notion of revitalizing the area around Engel some momentum."

Indeed, Guerry's task force isn't just interested in Engel alone, but also much of the surrounding area along Central Avenue, as well as much of the property surrounding Erlanger Hospital.

"There's talk of a possible minor league baseball museum," said Foundation member Janna Jahn. "The Lookouts intend to play a 'retro' game there next year. There's talk of concerts and high school baseball games. It can be a variety of things to a variety of people."

But to those who were members of former Lookouts owner Joe Engel's Knothole Gang between the 1930s and 1969, it will always be about summers filled with minor league baseball.

"We were on the radio promoting the reunion the other day," said Foundation member Dr. Smith Murray, "and a guy calls in to tell us he scaled a wall in 1942 and stole the bases. Now he wants to give that home plate back to its rightful owners. It's amazing the hold that stadium has over the community."

An avid historian, Murray was never a member of the Knothole Gang. But the stories never fail to warm his heart.

"He was just a fabulous person," said Murray. "The P.T. Barnum of baseball. He had a Wild Elephants night one time. He had all these wild elephant sounds in the stadium but he kept the crowds out. Finally, he let them in and it was a bunch of people dressed up in these elephant suits.

"Another time he had a Custer's Revenge night where he 'scalped' a player of Native American descent by shaving his head. Even Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis made Engel promise to never do that again."

And all of those moments certainly added to the aura of the place, or as Guerry noted, "You gradually get sucked into the magic of Engel."

Now comes the chance for that magic to be unleashed on future generations. This past weekend's Wine Over Water designated much of its revenue to the Engel Foundation. Other funding and donations are sure to follow.

Yet at the heart of it all remains the Knothole Gang crew.

"Whether the Lookouts won or not," said Ingle, "we always left happy."

In an age where nobody in sports seems happy win or lose, that alone should be reason to keep Engel around forever.