Mark McCarter is a Brainerd High School graduate and former Chattanooga News-Free Press assistant sports editor who now is a columnist for the Huntsville Times. He is a four-time Southern League Writer of the Year and a four-time Alabama Sportswriter of the Year.
Here is an excerpt from his newest book, "Never A Bad Game: Fifty Years of the Southern League." He will be signing copies Monday at 5 p.m. at Engel Stadium, in conjunction with the league's home run derby at Engel Stadium.
1976 Chattanooga Lookouts
They landed like one big posse, many of them wearing Western hats that were souvenirs from their spring in the Arizona desert. Even now, hanging on the wall of a guest bedroom in LaJolla, Calif., there is a group photo of several of them, like straight from a spaghetti Western. Bruce Robinson. Matt Keough. Brian Kingman. Derek Bryant. Denny Haines. Steve McCatty.
Deplaning that Saturday afternoon in April 1976, they had no idea what lay in store. In the terminal of Chattanooga's Lovell Field were more than a couple hundred baseball fans greeting their arrival. "It was like the big leaguers were coming back after winning the World Series," Robinson said. Offered first baseman Ron Beaurivage, "We didn't have that many coming out to our games in Birmingham the year before."
Pro baseball was returning to Chattanooga after a 10-season hiatus, and these were the new Lookouts, farmhands of the Oakland Athletics, who were bringing it there. "It was a remarkable year in so many respects," said Robinson, sitting on a deck at his Idaho home, overlooking the Snake River. "We were so fortunate to be the first team back. It was very heartwarming."
"It was magical for minor league players and for anybody, really, with all the history in that stadium," Kingman said from Phoenix.
The man behind the return was a small, soft-spoken gentleman named Woodrow Reid. Few people knew Woodrow Reid and he was certainly a stranger to Chattanooga News-Free Press sports editor Allan Morris, who got the call that Reid and Southern League president Billy Hitchcock had some news for him, that a plan to return baseball to the city was in the works.
The club would play at Engel Stadium, once a sparkling gem in the glory days, but since the end of a dismal 1965 season, it had been left to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga baseball team, the Orchard Knob Junior High football team and hundreds of pigeons. There was a modest clean-up project by friends and family when UTC's baseball team called it home, but it was like trying to scour a sewer with a toothbrush. Wrote Morris, "Paint is peeling off the walls and seats, the floors are filthy, the roof is falling down, and it looks like a tornado hit the place."
It was a shoestring operation. Reid's son, Mark, was the team president. His wife, Sarah, had a box seat behind the dugout, assuming a maternal role toward the players that met with mixed results. The general manager was Jerry Lambert. The only other full-time office staff was an assistant who became part of a running joke. When things weren't just quite right, the mantra was, "Brenda will get around to it by the next home stand."
Rene Lachemann was the manager, and players fed off his leadership. "His philosophy was, you don't like something, then come to the office and shut the door. Then we'll deal with it. Then the door will open and we'll both walk out. No reports. No carrying it over," Beaurivage said from his home in Manchester, N.H.
The Lookouts opened their season on the road, starting 1-4 before Beaurivage produced an inspirational poem about perseverance before a Sunday afternoon game at Savannah, and Chattanooga salvaged that one. They returned for the home opener, on April 20, against Charlotte. Mark Budaska hit a grand slam in the fifth, Kingman scattered eight hits in seven innings, and Rick Tronerud closed the door in relief. The crowd was announced at 8,305. Reid, Lambert & Co. had to rope off sections of the outfield to enable fans to sit there. Said Tronerud, "I got chill bumps when I came in."
"I'm just sorry we missed 10 years," Reid said. It was not a night without some hiccups. But Brenda had 'em fixed by the next home stand.