Joe Engel’s legacy as big as Engel Stadium

Chattanooga Times Free Press
April 1, 2012
by Ansley Haman

Joe Engel played major league baseball at a time when the pay was measured in peanuts, not millions of dollars.

When his playing days were over, he came to Chattanooga in 1929 to manage the minor league Lookouts.

By the time he died a half-century later, his name was on the stadium, he had bought and sold radio station WDEF, and built a reputation as the “Barnum of the Bushes” — the greatest showman in the minor leagues and one of Chattanooga’s most colorful characters.

“Everything he did, it was like he was onstage,” said Katy Phillips, 83, whose father ran stadium concessions at Engel’s ballpark.

Engel loved a good show.

Between 1929 and 1965, Engel brought to Chattanooga circuses, popular music, thoroughbred horses, a woman who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and Jackie Robinson at least three times.

He gave away a house, opened his stadium to the poor, and became the leading advocate for baseball in Chattanooga.

Now his namesake stadium has drawn a major motion picture to town.

A movie about Robinson, “42” starring Harrison Ford, will be filmed here this summer and is slated be the biggest project ever shot in Chattanooga.

And Phillips thinks Engel, who died at age 76 in 1969, would have loved it.

“He’d be in it and entertaining royally,” she said.

Three Chattanooga families directly affected by Engel readily recall the spectacles he created and the generosity that changed their lives.


After a six-year career as a pitcher for the American League’s Washington Senators, Engel became the Lookouts manager and took up with Phillips’ father, Chris Demos. They hunted and fished, and eventually Demos took over concessions at Engel Stadium.

Demos was a Greek immigrant. Engel’s father, a Washington, D.C., hotelier, was a German immigrant. They had much in common; they both loved business and practical jokes, Phillips said.

Engel had spent three years working in vaudeville shows before coming to Chattanooga.

Engel, whose son was killed by a drunken driver at 9, loved children. Phillips and her brothers grew up at the ballpark, often working.

During World War II, when Coca-Colas were being rationed, Phillips and another girl would periodically open a stand to sell the only bottles they had.

“If they had a dime, I’d take the dime and she’d open the Coke,” she said. “We’d be out in five minutes.”

She remembers riding an elephant in one of Engel’s shows.

“I was the only little girl around to dress up,” she said. “Those were the happiest days of my life.”

Engel’s early years in Chattanooga were also some of the hardest as locals weathered the Great Depression and World War II.

At times Engel would open the stadium to feed hungry families, said Rachel Simmons, 97, one of the late manager’s secretaries.

“Long lines of people came for food more than once,” she said.

Even after her father’s death, Phillips’ mother always had a job at the stadium.


Engel Stadium’s biggest night became a game-changer for Charles Mills.

On a single night — May 1, 1936 — Engel drew more than 24,600 fans to a game at the stadium, where Engel gave away a fully furnished house and lot at 1 Rivermont Road.

Marcia Mills Richie’s father, who was 26 at the time, went to the game with his best friend, Charles Brewster.

“He was sick that night,” Richie said. “Uncle Brewster just insisted he go.”

A young boy crawled into a barrel blindfolded to select the winner and pulled out one of Mills’ 34 tickets.

The winning ticket changed all their lives, said Richie, 72, as she looked out her front window across her family’s farm.

“It was one of the first, if not the first, fully electric houses in Chattanooga,” she said. “He sold it probably within two months for $8,500.”

Mills, who had been working in a warehouse, used the proceeds to start his own business. He bought a 219-acre farm off East Brainerd Road and opened the Ryall Springs grocery store with Brewster.

“It really gave him a humble spirit,” Richie said. “He helped many poor people over the years who couldn’t afford groceries. Dad remained a good friend of Joe Engel up until he died.”

Richie and her brothers worked the farm, where they grew corn, cotton and tomatoes.

Mills owned the store until the mid-1960s when Red Food Store opened nearby. Her father could no longer compete, Richie said.

Sometimes she drives down Hixson Pike past the prize house just to marvel at what it did for her family.


Around 1940, Engel bought radio station WDEF and hired Simmons from McKenzie Business College.

She warned him that her shorthand wasn’t the fastest, but he said she wouldn’t need it. He would tell her what to write.

“I got so that when he told me to write a letter, he didn’t even dictate it to me,” Simmons said. “I knew what he was going to say.”

Simmons and her sister, Ruby Williams, both worked for Engel. When Phillips’ father died, Williams took over concessions at the stadium. She quickly put the whole family to work, including Simmons and her two sons.

Bill Simmons, Rachel’s youngest son, was born in 1952. He remembers making change for people at age 5 while sitting on his mother’s lap. He now works as an investment adviser, and said his early jobs at the ballpark taught his family business skills.

Williams later ran the dining hall during spring training in Winter Garden, Fla. Rachel Simmons would go down each year and work with her sister.

Engel also advised Williams and Noble Simmons, Rachel’s husband, to invest in beer distributing.

“That turned into a good business,” Bill Simmons said.

Another of Engel’s suggestions, a bat company, didn’t pan out. Still, the family learned a lot about taking risks and marketing.

“He definitely was a creative businessman,” Bill Simmons said. “He did things to keep baseball alive in this city that probably a lot of people wouldn’t have been able to do. He had fun.”

Article courtesy of Chattanooga Times Free Press:

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