For baseball fans, December is traditionally the time when news from the “hot stove league” is followed closely. Team owners convene for winter meetings, and bid for players who will bring one owner the trophy of next year’s World Series. Baseball’s offseason is also a time when memories of seasons past are recalled. My uncle, Jack Jolley, gave me the lead for a baseball article when he said, “See what you can find out about “They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree. It was a song that they played at Chattanooga Lookouts games when I was a boy.”
THEY CUT DOWN THE OLD PINE TREE
“They cut down the old pine tree
And they hauled it away to the mill
To make a coffin of pine
For that sweetheart of mine
They cut down the old pine tree.
But she’s not alone in her grave tonight,
For it’s there my heart will always be;
Though we’d drifted apart,
Still they cut down my heart,
When they cut down the old pine tree.”
My initial thought about the “Pine Tree” song was that it must be about the pine benches in baseball dugouts. However, after searching the Internet, I came across the mournful words above. The song was published in 1929, and became a popular country tune. Lum and Abner featured it frequently on their radio show, and sometimes replaced the somber lyrics with more humorous ones. The song was among the tunes played in the 1944 movie “Hot Shots” with Irene Ryan, who later starred as Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
At the same time that “Pine Tree” was becoming popular, Joe Engel was taking baseball to the next level in Chattanooga. After the 1929 season, Clark Griffith acquired the Chattanooga Lookouts and added them to the farm system of his Washington Senators. Mr. Griffith assigned Joe Engel to oversee his new team, and to direct the construction of a new stadium which would be named for Engel.
In the early 1930’s, Arch McDonald was the announcer for the Lookouts. A native of Arkansas, Mr. McDonald played football at McCallie School. He broadcast games for Chattanooga’s new radio station, WDOD. Arch McDonald’s folksy style attracted listeners. He is credited with coining the term that every little league coach has uttered at least once to a batter: “ducks on the pond” (runners on base). A double-play was described as resulting in “two dead ducks.” His response to a home run was “There she goes, Mrs. Murphy.” Like other radio announcers, McDonald re-created road games by monitoring the telegraph, and signaling hits by striking a gong.
Arch McDonald loved to play cards. That, plus his sense of humor, earned him a close friendship with Joe Engel. Mr. McDonald also loved country music, with “They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree” being a favorite. He started a tradition of playing the song at Engel Stadium, and continued the practice after he was promoted in 1934 to broadcast the games of the Washington Senators.
Arch McDonald was the voice of the Senators for 22 years, and is credited with giving Yankee great Joe DiMaggio the nickname “Yankee Clipper.” He also covered the games of the Washington Redskins football team. While returning from a 1960 Redskins-Giants game at Yankee Stadium, he suffered a fatal heart attack aboard the train. He was inducted into the broadcasters’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
The playing of the “Pine Tree” song at Engel Stadium continued through the 1940’s and 1950’s under broadcasters Tom Nobles and Gus Chamberlain. Whitwell native and local resident Hillis Layne, who played for the Lookouts between 1938 and 1946, recalls the playing of “Pine Tree.” He started humming the tune as we talked. “They’d play it in the seventh inning, and the crowd would sing along. That would really get the players going.” He noted that the song was one of many colorful events at Engel Stadium, and that an average 7,500 fans turned out each game to see what Joe Engel would dream up next.
Upon being promoted to the Washington Senators in 1941, Hillis Layne was told that he would be in the lineup for a 2:00pm game on Sunday. On Saturday evening, while the train stopped at Roanoke, VA, Mr. Layne listened to a radio program of another person who had started with the Lookouts – “Pine Tree” fan Arch McDonald. He was describing the pitching matchup for Sunday’s Indians-Senators game. Senators knuckleballer Dutch Leonard would be opposed by Bob Feller. Washington’s newest rookie, Hillis Layne, would be facing a pitcher who threw 110 miles per hour. What a welcome to “the show!”
So, that’s the history of “They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree” and its connection to the Chattanooga Lookouts. I’ve been to Orioles games at Camden Yards in Baltimore, where John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” is played during the seventh inning. The fans really get into clapping along with the song. However, with its mournful words, “Pine Tree” is still hard for me to imagine being a crowd favorite. I guess that you had to be there!
If you have memories of “They Cut Down Down the Old Pine Tree” at Lookouts games or elsewhere, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.