Engel’s fate solidifies as fans speak up for 80-year old lankmark

Hamilton County Herald
April 2, 2010
by Erica Tuggle

Everyone has something to say about the fate of Engel Stadium, but soon the 80-year-old stadium may be able speak for itself, as the possibility of the doors reopening becomes more of a reality for this Chattanooga landmark that has been vacant for almost 11 years. Engel is currently owned by both the state and Hamilton County, but the negotiations that have stretched over the years for UTC to acquire the property are almost complete. Chuck Cantrell, the assistant vice chancellor of university relations, wrote in an email, “We expect ownership transfer to UTC to be completed very soon—perhaps in the next 45 days—and we are very excited to have the property. UTC has said from the beginning of these conversations that we are committed to maintaining the stadium for community recreational use, but we cannot afford to renovate and maintain the facility, so UTC is happy to work with private donors.”

As part of the agreement, since UTC does not have a baseball team, Tennessee Temple University has been using, and will continue to use, the facility, Cantrell says. Janna Jahn, the grants planner for Hamilton County, says once the transfer to UTC is complete, the Engel Foundation will actively pursue an agreement with UTC to manage, lease and make sure interested parties take responsibility for the stadium. The issue that comes with the aged building is the upkeep and repairs. Scott Shaw, the Engel Foundation board chair says, “Engel has good bones, and is by no means falling down, but has things that need to be addressed. Being built 80 years ago, nothing lives that long without having some creaky joints.”

The main points of repair before it can be used for major community events are the roof and field and updating the plumbing and fire system, Jahn says. The Engel Foundation, established in April 2009, has worked with the local company, Cornerstones, to pursue the restoration and revitalization of Engel, Shaw says. Through these joint-efforts, Engel was named to the National Registrar of Historical places in November of last year, and has been on the Cornerstones list of Endangered properties for 10 years. Shaw says they worked last year to remind the community of Engel’s presence by sponsoring two Legends baseball camps, taught by former major league players like Rick Honeycutt and Steve Trout, and an event that showcased the stadium to the community. Cornerstones, Chattanooga’s only non-profit historic preservation organization, has already given $50,000 toward renovation of the roof which has been leaking water onto the old wooden seating inside, Shaw says, to encourage the county to think about keeping the structure. “Engel is too important a historical landmark to let it be demolished by neglect,” Shaw says. “No one has said we are rolling in the wrecking ball, but the fact is, if the city and county continue to not make progress on property, it is as good as demolished. That stadium can’t sit there essentially unused forever.”

Jahn says the first step they are focusing on is raising money for the repairs and beginning the active promotion of the stadium, with hopes to convince the Lookouts to play a game at Engel next season. In the long-term, once the stadium is actively used in the community again, there will be justification for raising significant money for a complete renovation to restore Engel to its former glory, she says.

“Once you do that, it becomes marketable as an economic asset for things like regional tournaments, a tourist venue and eventually someday the idea for a baseball museum here,” she says. “These are all ideas on the table that just need an organization whose sole focus and purpose is to make these things happen with community support. It is not going to happen without the community buying into future plans for the stadium and getting behind it to show support through volunteers, partnerships and donations.” One individual who is a strong champion for Engel Stadium is Brian Wright, a CSAS senior, who has made it his personal mission to spread the word about preserving Engel. “It is such a simple ballpark, that it allows your imagination to take control and you can see baseball and America as they once were. I also see an empty ballpark, which saddens me, because I know that hundreds of kids in Chattanooga would love to play on a field such as Engel, if only they could,” Wright says.

“Ten years from now, I see Engel Stadium hosting baseball games everyday and night from spring to summer to fall, once again becoming the center of Chattanooga, where fans of the game come to see their children play on the same field their heroes once did.” Engel’s local and national significance to history is enough to fill several books. Joe Engel, former manager of the Lookouts, for whom the stadium was named, was called the Barnum of Baseball and known for his stunts to bring fans out to the ballpark.

Shaw says, “You can’t have a name like Joe Engel and not have great stories.”

These stories include the giving away of a house in the midst of the Great Depression, which brought over 24,500 people to the 12,000 seat capacity of Engel, elephants on the field, and the signing of a 17-year-old teenage girl named Jackie Mitchell to the Lookouts where, five days later, she pitched against the New York Yankees and struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Engel was the first ballpark to have a press box, camels were brought to the outfield to encourage ticket sales. Engel had a separate entrance for African Americans through which Willie Mayes entered to play for the Negro league Chattanooga Choo-Choo’s, and the list of buried history behind the peeling paint of Engel stadium stretches on and on.

Jahn says the reasons to keep Engel stadium alive is as much about its future as its past. “We want people to look ahead the same, if not more, than remembering the past of Engel stadium. We know we are ready to move to the next chapter for Engel,” she says. “The time is right for the community to get behind this.”

Article courtesy of Hamilton County Herald: http://www.hamiltoncountyherald.com/Story.aspx?id=1182&date=4/2/2010

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