Wiedmer: Engel Stadium still loved by many

Wiedmer: Engel Stadium still loved by many

June 17th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Engel Stadium

Engel Stadium

The first one through Engel Stadium's black iron gates Monday evening, Bob Mulkey last called Chattanooga home in 1985. But that didn't stop him from leaving his Huntsville, Ala., residence in time to reach Engel before 4:30 on a toasty afternoon more reminiscent of August than June.

"I started coming here in 1964, when I was 7 years old," said Mulkey, who arrived with his wife, Treece, as he always does for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football and basketball games. "I have so many great memories of this place. I just couldn't miss this."

Possibly determined to dress itself to the nines for Monday night's Southern League All-Star Game home run derby, perhaps still benefiting from the Jackie Robinson movie "42" having been partially filmed inside its high walls, the old gem rarely has looked better than it did for the homer contest.

But it's folks such as Mulkey, 56-year-old children who forever keep Engel young in their hearts, that make the 84-year-old structure still matter.

"I remember a game here in 1964," he said. "There were three inside-the-park home runs that day, and two of them were back-to-back. I remember [Hall of Fame third baseman] Brooks Robinson signing autographs here one time. And I remember [former Chattanooga Lookouts and Oakland Athletics pitcher] Matt Keough losing a no-hitter here in the ninth one night."

From his college days at UTC, he also has fond memories of a certain beverage special.

"On Moosehead Nights you could get beers for a quarter," Mulkey said with a smile. "They'd pour them out of the bottle into a cup right at your seat. The drinking age was 18 back then, so those 25-cent Mooseheads were every college kid's dream come true."

A former Covenant College professor whose photography talents have made him a fixture at Chattanooga sporting events for more than 30 years, Tim Evearitt has lived many a fine moment at Engel as both a baseball fan and a member of the working media.

"[Former major league catcher] Matt Stark met my son Tad here when Tad was 8 or 9," Evearitt recalled. "For several years he'd call Tad each winter to ask how he was doing, if he was making good grades, stuff like that. What a great guy."

A few years later, when Tad became a Lookouts bat boy -- "Instead of paying them, they'd take them on a road trip to Florida," Evearitt said -- former Lookout Chris Lombardozzi accidentally swatted the teenager across the bridge of his nose during batting practice.

"Fortunately, it wasn't serious," Evearitt said. "But I was definitely a little nervous when I was asked to report to the training room and I couldn't find Tad."

There have been days and nights when a Chattanoogan couldn't find anything better to do anywhere than drop by Engel. Such as the time in 1931 that the New York Yankees arrived for an exhibition game and a 17-year-old girl named Jackie Mitchell struck out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Or the night in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, that 24,624 fans somehow jammed into a stadium built to hold half that. They weren't there for Joe Engel's baseball team, however, but for a chance to win a house. Stunningly, the winning ticket wasn't at the game.

More recently, Michael Jordan's odd attempt at pro baseball in 1994 brought 14,137 fans to the second oldest minor league park in the country (behind Birmingham's Rickwood Field) and forced temporary seating and fencing to be constructed.

Like everyone who's ever played in Engel except Harmon Killebrew, Jordan failed in every attempt to hit the ball the required 471 feet needed to clear the center-field fence.

Yet the memories don't center on baseball for everyone, no matter how much Martha Penney's late father, Joe Weidner, loved the sport.

"We grew up in Glenmore," she said. "We could literally run right down Third Street to the stadium. I don't remember what food cost at the stadium, but I remember we could get four Krystals and a Coke for a quarter."

Her best memory of those times in the 1950s?

"There was the Mars [gas] station behind the left-field wall," she said. "If someone in our family said something really strange, something that was really 'out there,' we'd say, 'That's farther out there than the Mars station.'"

Her daughter Mandy Penney's best memory is even less related to baseball.

"The Jimmy Buffett concert is something I'll never forget," she said of that early 1980s show.

So they've all walked through those gates at one time or another, everyone from Babe Ruth to Michael Jordan to the Beach Boys. But it's still, thankfully, best known for baseball, even though the Lookouts haven't played there since 1999.

"I was in the Knothole Gang," Doug Fisher said of Joe Engel's kids club, one of his most successful and beloved concepts.

"Once a year they'd have Knothole Night for kids in the Knothole Baseball League and you got to be in a parade at the stadium. It would be a shame if they ever tore this place down."

Its paint once more bright and crisp, its field clear of weeds and debris as befitting a structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places, its ownership now in the hands of UTC, Engel just needs a full-time baseball team to call it home.

But until that day comes, the sentiments of Mulkey should continue to inspire and enthuse those considering its future. Said the man who drove more than 90 minutes to be the first in line: "We're here because of Engel. If the home run derby had been at the new stadium, we wouldn't have come up."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com