Group fights to save Engel Stadium

Once home to the Chattanooga Lookouts and a stage for some of baseball's most notorious and celebrated players, Engel Stadium sits relatively dormant, forgotten and weather beaten.

Rotten boards line the stadium's roof. Old paint flakes off the walls. Chairs gather cobwebs.

"I walked into that stadium last summer, and there were weeds higher than the fence," said Drew Whitley, who coaches baseball for Tennessee Temple University, the only team that plays at Engel. "There were homeless people living in the locker room. They had lamps. They had a fold-up sofa. They were living high on the hog."

But leaving Engel -- the second-oldest minor league stadium in the nation, behind Birmingham's Rickwood Field -- to crumble is unacceptable to some.

A group of community members, impressed by the stadium's rich history, have been organizing to fight for Engel's preservation and say they want to step in, manage the Third Street stadium and raise money for its revitalization.

"It is just kind of sitting there," said Janna Jahn, a Chattanooga resident and member of the Engel Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed to support the stadium. "It is not getting the maintenance it needs. It is not being promoted."

The Engel Foundation plans to solicit $150,000 in private donations to make basic repairs to the 80-year-old, 5,997-seat stadium, named to National Register of Historic Places in December 2009. The group then wants to market the venue as a spot for everything from Little League baseball to community movie nights.

Later, Ms. Jahn said, there may be plans to create a museum that would honor the Lookouts, some of the team's famous games and, of course, Joe Engel, who came to the team in 1929 as general manager and later bought it. Called the "Baron of Ballyhoo," he was known for his eccentric promotional gimmicks, including a raffle contest for a house that attracted 24,000 people to the stadium.

One of his biggest stunts took place in 1931, when he brought in Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old female pitcher and one of the first women hired in minor league baseball, to pitch in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. She struck out the first batter she faced -- Babe Ruth -- and also struck out Lou Gehrig.

The game, plastered on newspaper headlines across the country, sparked outrage, and Ms. Mitchell spent most of her life trying to convince people the game wasn't fixed.

Most people don't know Chattanooga hosted the fabled game, said Ms. Jahn, who fell in love with the stadium after learning Ms. Mitchell's story several years ago.

"Even though the paint is peeling, Engel still has that mystique," she said. "It still draws people emotionally."

But one big roadblock stands in the way of restoring Engel: No one really knows who owns the stadium.

Hamilton County gained ownership of the property when the Lookouts moved to the new AT&T Field on the other side of the city a decade ago. In 2004, the county transferred the deed to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which was hungry for the land surrounding the stadium, but the state never has approved the deal.

For six years, UTC officials have been pushing various state agencies to finish the paperwork, said Richard Brown, UTC vice chancellor of finance and operations. The agencies haven't put their official stamp on the plan because of concerns over legal and liability issues, he said.

In the next month, Dr. Brown said, UTC expects to finally get the go-ahead from the state to accept the property.

ENGEL TIMELINE1930 -- Engel Stadium hosts its first home game.1931 -- Female pitcher Jackie Mitchell strikes out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition against the New York Yankees.1948 -- A 16-year-old Willie Mays plays for the Chattanooga Choo Choos in the Southern Negro League.1953 -- 283,000 flock to Engel for the Bill Graham Crusade.1959 -- Lookouts put up for sale by the Washington Senators.1965 -- Final game in Engel stadium for a decade because of falling attendance.1969 -- Joe Engel, the Lookouts' former owner, dies in a local hospital at 76.1976 -- Lookouts baseball returns to Engel and 8,305 attend home opener.1988 -- Lookouts win only pennant of modern era in a three-game sweep, defeating Greenville.1989 -- Rededication of "historic" Engel stadium after $2 million renovation.1994 -- 14,137 people turn out to see Michael Jordan play for the Birmingham Barons against the Lookouts.1999 -- Lookouts play final game at Engel Stadium.2004 -- Hamilton County turned the deed for Engel over to UTC.Source: Times Free Press archives

Still, even with full control of the complex, UTC officials always have said they can't afford to launch a full overhaul of Engel Stadium. The school doesn't even have a baseball team.

With a growing, landlocked campus, UTC plans to use the Engel lot to expand parking and build a track-and-field facility. It has pumped $1.5 million in student fees to construct intramural fields on the property already.

"The university's intent is to own Engel Stadium," Dr. Brown said. "That is 28 acres of land the university desperately needs."

The college will rely on Tennessee Temple, the only real users of the stadium, and the Engel Foundation to support revived interest in the site's baseball history. UTC wants to see the stadium restored and plans to keep it standing, Dr. Brown said.

Once UTC gets full ownership of the property, Ms. Jahn said, she is ready to start plugging the stadium and its history to donors.

"Engel has become my baby," she said. "The more I learned about Jackie Mitchell, the more I learned about Joe Engel, the more I learned about the Negro League and the famous ballplayers that played in that stadium, the more I realized we really have a rich community asset here."

But Mr. Whitley, Tennessee Temple's coach, said he doesn't think the Engel Foundation efforts will amount to much unless more community members become interested in saving the landmark.

"Old ballparks like that are something worth preserving. To do away with Engel is doing away with a lot of Chattanooga history," he said. "I think someone needs to buck up and prioritize. This is either part of Chattanooga's history or it's not.

"Everyone who comes in that stadium says they loved being there, but when it comes to getting things done, there are very few that step up to the plate, no pun intended."

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Engel Stadium Restoration

Times Editorial: Honoring local landmarks

Article: Observatory, church, stadium added to National Register