Being a baseball fan, I’m able to get through winter by thinking about the start of spring and a new season of baseball. No matter how many cold, gray, rainy/snowy days we have, I tell myself that spring is around the corner, and so is another season of baseball.
It had been an unusually long offseason for Chattanooga Lookouts fans as the 1976 season approached. The last Lookouts game was on September 2, 1965 when 335 paid to see Chattanooga lose to the Asheville Tourists. The UC / UTC baseball Moccasins continued to take the field at Engel Stadium, as did some high school teams. However, time, the elements, and vandalism laid waste to the house that Joe Engel had built.
In 1969, the Cleveland Indians made a pitch to the Chattanooga city commission to locate a farm team here, but nothing materialized. By 1972, News-Free Press sports editor Allan Morris was telling readers of the “great days of the past” at the “Ghost Town Building” at Third and O’Neal. Morris wrote in his May 2, 1972 column, “Paint is peeling off the walls and seats, the floors are filthy, the roof is falling down, and it looks like a tornado hit the place… And whatever became of Paul Dean?” (Morris always ended his column with a sports trivia question). There was talk of tearing down both Engel Stadium and Chamberlain Field, and building a multi-use stadium in their place.
As the United States approached its 200th birthday, the public began to renew its interest in things that had made it proud as well as fun to be an American. Minor league baseball began to expand its leagues after years of decline. Locally, a group of investors - which included Woodrow and Sarah Reid, Jim Crittenden, and Arvin Reingold - championed the return of professional baseball to Engel Stadium.
The local baseball consortium acquired an Oakland Athletics farm team which had played the 1975 season at Birmingham. The deal was announced at the December 9, 1975 Southern League winter meeting. The News-Free Press reported that after the meeting, the owners would return to Chattanooga and “go right to work with other preparations necessary for the renovation of Engel Stadium.”
It was no easy feat to peel away over ten years of neglect at Engel Stadium, though. The venue was in such bad shape that an inspection by Oakland A’s farm director Syd Thrift and Southern League president Billy Hitchcock required crawling in through a window. Thus, a “Sparkle Day” (the first of many) was held at Engel on a Saturday. The owners and new management of the Lookouts, as well as the UTC baseball team and even people off the street, pitched in to clean up the place. Every window in the facility had to be fixed, as well as many of the seats.
With opening day just around the corner, the Lookouts advertised for ushers. Valerie Jones, a local physical therapy assistant today, applied for the job and was added to the staff coordinated by Mrs. Reid. Her father had grown up in Chattanooga, and had attended many games at Engel Stadium. For her, being at the historic field was nostalgic. Though the facility was still rough in places, she overlooked its shortcomings by thinking about being in the same place where her father had enjoyed so much of his free time. “Being an usher was never something that I thought of as a job,” said Valerie.
Valerie Jones recalled that the ushers as well as the Lookouts wore the green and gold of the A’s. The Lookouts’ uniform included a Chicago Bears-style “C” on the cap and the jersey. The green and gold colors were everywhere; even the stadium seats were painted that way.
The Lookouts finished spring training at Mesa, Arizona and then opened the season with games on the road. They first faced the Charlotte Orioles where first baseman and future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray was on the roster. Next, they traveled to Savannah, where catcher Dale Murphy was a Braves prospect.
On Tuesday, April 20, 1976, a crowd of 8,305 packed into Engel Stadium to witness the start of a new Lookouts era. Lookouts manager Rene Lachemann said, “It was the biggest crowd I’ve seen in a park in a while, that’s for sure.” Fans were even camped out on the familiar LOOKOUTS sign on a slope in the outfield. The game attracted several fans and players of yesteryear, including Whitwell native Hillis Layne, who had played for the Lookouts and Washington Senators. The Looks defeated Charlotte by a score of 8 to 3, which included a grand slam by Mark Budaska.
Future big-leaguers Denny Walling and Dwayne Murphy were in the line-up for the home team. Valerie Jones recalled that her duties as an usher included escorting players’ families to their box seats, and that Dwayne Murphy’s wife and two children were frequently at the games. Murphy went on to “the show” at Oakland, where he played from 1978 to 1988, and earned several gold gloves.
The Chattanooga Lookouts were in the Western division of the Southern League, where Knoxville, Columbus, and Montgomery were also placed. The East was comprised of Charlotte, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Savannah. When the first half of the 1976 ended, the Lookouts were percentage points ahead of Knoxville, and won a spot in the playoffs at the end of the season. Montgomery won the second half, and defeated Chattanooga in a one-game playoff on Sept. 4, 1976.
Summing up the 1976 season, league president Billy Hitchcock said, “It looks as though we’ll set an all-time attendance record and go over a half million persons for the year. Much of the credit for this has to go to our two new entries in Chattanooga and Charlotte. The people in Chattanooga have really gotten behind their ball club and it looks like they’ll draw about 135,000 to lead the league.” For his part in bringing baseball back to Chattanooga, Woody Reid was awarded the Southern League Executive of the Year, as well as the Minor League Executive of the Year.
Through changes of ownership, floods, stadium renovation, and advent of the now-famous “eyes” logo, the Lookouts have entertained many since that renaissance year of 1976. The team left Engel Stadium after the 1999 season to move to a new home, BellSouth Park.
A few weeks ago, I attended a CSAS-Notre Dame High School game at Engel Stadium. Sadly, the facility is again in a state of decline. Paint is peeling, the seats are caked in dust, and today, I noticed that a portion of the block wall in left field is gone. Will there be another rebirth year like 1976 for Engel Stadium? Only time – and the elements – will tell.
If you went to a game, or were employed by the Lookouts in 1976, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com.
And whatever became of Mark Budaska?