by Steve Martini
Joe Engel was named the president of the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1929, months before the stadium that would bear his name was complete.
Having grown up around Washington Senators baseball – working as a mascot, a batboy, a not-so-good pitcher, and a budding talent scout – he was the easy choice for Senator’s owner Clark Griffith to make.
Joe Engel: Community Leader
Joe moved into Engel Stadium while the rubble of the crashing stock market was still falling on American citizens all over the country. At a time when he was trying to draw people to the ballgame, people were trying to draw what was left of their life savings from the nearest bank teller’s window.
Engel knew in order to spike fan interest, he’d have to offer more than a baseball game to a nation full of unemployment and despair. He had to offer entertainment, a sense of prosperity, and hope.
That winter, 11,000 Chattanoogans headed to the stadium not to see a high fly ball or hear the crack of the bat, but to receive a kind smile and a warm meal. Engel not only chose to use the stadium as a soup kitchen, but also a warehouse. During Christmas, he stockpiled 7,500 board games, featuring Senators great Walter Johnson, distributing them to needy children who might not otherwise find a gift wrapped under their tree.
Engel fed the poor and hungry masses for two more years, receiving another 15,000 people through the stadium’s inviting gates.
He added a special section of seats inside the park, specifically for Joe Engel’s Knothole Gang. This gang, made up of schoolboys who kept good grades and regular attendance at school and church, received free admission to the baseball games and a chance to play baseball against each other around the community.
Engel was so passionate about weaving the Chattanooga Lookouts into the fabric of the community that when, in 1937, the Senators put the club up for sale for $100,000, Engel leapt into action, raising more than half the funds selling shares of the club to private and corporate investors in the community to keep the team in town.
Joe Engel’s Antics
Selling shares of a baseball team to private, local investors was just the tip of the creative iceberg when it comes to the list of Engel’s antics.
On May 2nd, 1936, Engel partnered with the local newspaper – The Chattanooga Times – to raffle a house to one lucky ticket holder in the crowd. By the time the teams took to the dugout, 26,639 people overflowed the stands, stood along the baselines and sat along the outfield walls. So many people were in the outfield, in fact, that Engel froze all the baseballs to make sure they were too heavy for any hitter to knock one into the crowd.
Engel treated the stadium like his own house.
On opening day in 1938, Engel staged a large, papier-mâché elephant hunt, sending safari-clad hunters onto the field to chase men wearing pachyderm costumes in a ruckus, wild African adventure! The event was so well-received, Engel turned the performance into a travelling road show to baseball stadiums across the South.
Joe made Opening Day such a huge event in Chattanooga that schools often let out a half-day early to keep from having to explain all the missing students. Of the 30 seasons Engel ran a Southern League ball club, he held the League’s Opening Day attendance record for 28 of them.
When Engel learned one of his players – Don Grate – could throw a baseball more than 400 feet, he saw an opportunity. Publicizing both events, Engel helped Grate set, then break, world records for the furthest distance to throw a baseball.
In September 1952, Grate through a dozen baseballs – the furthest ball landing 434 feet 1 inch away. One year later, he tried again, throwing one of five baseballs 443 feet 3 ½ inches.
Joe treated the stadium like his front porch, once hanging fifty bird cages filled with canaries inside the park simply because he liked to listen to songbirds. The field, he treated like his backyard, racing greyhounds, jackrabbits, and even stuffed ostriches.
Perhaps his most controversial promotion involved signing a 17-year-old girl – Jackie Mitchell – to pitch for the Lookouts in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees in an exhibition game originally scheduled for April Fool’s Day, 1931. When the game was rained-out and rescheduled for April 2nd, Mitchell struck out two Yankee greats – Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig – before being pulled from the game. Whether Mitchell, an accomplished pitcher and athlete, achieved the feat by her own merits or simply went along with yet another Engel ruse has never been answered with certainty.
Joe Engel: Savvy Manager
For all his antics on the field, Engel had a shrewd mind for baseball and a keen eye for talent. And he didn’t back down to get the player he wanted.
During a particularly tough season for shortstop Johnny Jones in 1931, Engel made the choice to trade him to the nearby Charlotte Hornets (the minor league team at the time) in exchange for a 25-pound turkey for Thanksgiving. Said Engel, “The turkey was having a better year.”
Joe caught word of a local boy who could really hit and called him to the stadium. When a young Hillis Layne showed up to talk, Engel asked if Layne ever wanted to play professionally and, the following spring, Layne found himself in Americus, Georgia with a bat in his hands, where he stayed for two years before coming up to the Lookouts in 1940.
When Joe needed firepower from the Senator’s Single-A affiliate in Selma, Alabama, he called for Layne. But the Selma Manager didn’t want to let Layne go, positive he could win the Southeastern League title with Layne’s strong bat and quick defense, so he put up a noisy fight.
Unwavering in his decision, Joe called for Layne anyway and, in his place, sent the manager a truck full of ice, which was unloaded into the man’s office with a note: “To help you cool off.”
Layne went on to be named one of the greatest Minor League Baseball players of all time by the Society for American Baseball Research.
Engel led the Lookouts to championship seasons in 1932, 1939, 1952, and 1961.
The End of an Era
Joe’s legacy at Engel Stadium ended with a fizzle rather than a brilliant bang it likely deserved.
In 1959, the Senators sold their franchise to new owners in Minnesota, changing the club’s name to the Twins. The Lookouts were dropped as an affiliate and Engel was hired as a scout for the Minnesota club. Working in a volunteer capacity, Joe continued to gather players from various teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, to field a team and keep baseball alive in the Scenic City.
Engel Stadium fell into the hands of interested private citizens operating as the Lookouts Youth Foundation, then the Lookouts Booster Club.
The Southern Association folded and Joe helped the Lookouts link up with the South Atlantic League to keep play going. But despite all his efforts, the average citizen’s interest in baseball waned thin.
Some days, he would sit on the roof of Engel Stadium and watch traffic pass on East Third Street.
“See those cars?” he once asked. “I’ve counted about 50 now in 10 minutes. And at least three out of every five is pulling a boat headed for the lake. That is the funeral procession for baseball here – everywhere – in the minors. Too much free time, too many free attractions that are new and fresh. Baseball can’t keep the pace; too costly.”
Organized baseball left Engel Stadium for the first time in 1966. Joe Engel, still striving daily to keep the eyes of the nation’s baseball world focused on Chattanooga, died still making his efforts in 1969.
“Joe Engel was a man of many interests, ambitions, desires and benefactors,” wrote columnist E.T. Bales. “Of these, one could write a book, but not with his blessings. He neither wanted nor expected thanks for the things which he did for his friends, or the unfortunate of his neighborhood or community.”
The Chattanooga Lookouts & 100 Years of Scenic City Baseball
Steve Martini is the author of: The Chattanooga Lookouts & 100 Years of Scenic City Baseball