(Editor's note: Second of three parts)
Born in the District of Columbia in 1893, Joseph William Engel served as batboy, mascot, pitcher and scout for the hometown Washington Senators before owner Clark Griffith tapped him in 1929 to oversee the club's new Southern farm team, the Chattanooga Lookouts. By 1930 the team's ballpark, Andrews Field, had been replaced by a new 12,000-seat stadium bearing Engel's name.
No mere master of self-aggrandizement, Joe set about to fill Engel Stadium through legendary promotions that forged his national reputation as the "Barnum of Baseball." After the "Great Light Switch Throwing" for the stadium's first night game attracted only 4,000 fans in April 1936, a house giveaway in May drew nearly 25,000 spectators. Amid the Great Depression, the entrepreneurial Engel also lured paying fans with the spectacle of a base-running and egg-laying ostrich, haircuts and shaves, and car raffles.
For some, Engel's antics garnered a less flattering moniker, the "Baron of Baloney." One opening day featured a re-enactment of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. But in Engel's retelling, George Custer and his soldiers emerged victorious over their Native American foes. The 1938 season opened with a long-touted but racially-tinged "Wild Elephant Hunt." Engel's hijinks also could be unnecessarily cruel. In 1931, decades before the advent of free agency and players' unions, Engel traded a Lookouts shortstop for a turkey. Joe Engel's creativity and enterprise, however, prevented the relocation of the Lookouts in 1937 when he raised more than $100,000 to purchase the team by selling ownership shares to hundreds of Chattanoogans for as little as $5.
Engel is hardly the only consequential name in the city's baseball past. Born in Chattanooga in 1913, Virne Beatrice "Jackie" Mitchell made national headlines and baseball history during an exhibition game against the New York Yankees at Engel Stadium on April 2, 1931. Joe Engel, in what many characterize as one of his Great Depression-era publicity stunts, signed the 17-year-old pitcher to a contract with her hometown Lookouts before the 1931 season.
Often dismissed, then and now, as merely a girl, a blonde, a burlesque — a rain-out delayed April Fool's joke — Mitchell in fact was a prodigy southpaw with a crafty side-arm sinkerball who had been coached years earlier by future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Arthur "Dazzy" Vance. A sports writer for the New York Daily News nevertheless informed readers on the morning of the exhibition, "The Yankees will meet a club here that has a girl pitcher named Jackie Mitchell, who has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick. I suppose that in the next town the Yankees enter they will find a squad that has a female impersonator in left field, a sword swallower at short, and a trained seal behind the plate."
With several thousand spectators in the stands, Mitchell watched from the bullpen as the Lookouts' starting pitcher gave up hits to the first two Yankees batters. With Babe Ruth due up and Lou Gehrig on deck, Jackie Mitchell was summoned to the mound and proceeded to strike out both baseball legends in just six or seven pitches. Within days the embarrassed commissioner of major league baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, voided Mitchell's contract with the Lookouts, effectively barring women from professional play. Reflecting the sexism of the early 20th-century United States, men such as Landis and Ruth paternalistically reasoned that baseball was too strenuous for women's "delicate" bodies.
Debate continues to this day whether Jackie Mitchell's remarkable feat was attributable to skill or subterfuge. For her part, Mitchell insisted until her death in 1987 that the strikeouts were no ruse: "Why, hell yes, [Ruth and Gehrig] were trying, damn right," she told a reporter in 1986. "Hell, better hitters than them couldn't hit me. Why should they've been any different?"
As for Joe Engel, his 35-year reign as team owner, president and general manager came to a frustrating end in 1965 after his "Save the Lookouts Night" filled only 355 seats in the aging ballpark. That entire final season drew a dismal 25,707 fans, only slightly more than had packed the grounds for Engel's house giveaway nearly three decades earlier. Residing in Chattanooga for four more years, Joe Engel died in 1969 at the age of 76. He is buried in historic Forest Hills Cemetery.
The third and final column in this series will highlight Chattanooga's "Negro League" teams and the history of baseball at Lincoln Park.
Mike Thompson is a UC Foundation Associate Professor and Head of the UTC History Department. Nate Collyer is a senior History minor at UTC and a graduate of Hixson High School.
Correction: In last week's Local History column, "New Markers Highlight Chattanooga's Baseball History," the wrong photograph was published with the story by Mike Thompson and Nate Collyer. The correct photograph can be seen online at timesfreepress.com (https://tinyurl.com/wse7xbq).