Earl Freudenberg: Engel Stadium Memories

  • Wednesday, June 5, 2024
  • Earl Freudenberg
I was reading John Shearer’s recent article about the Walnut Street Bridge, Riverview and Engel Stadium, all important parts of Chattanooga history.

Mr. Shearer’s article rekindles the decades old question of what will happen to Engel Stadium, the famous ballpark, named to honor Joe Engel, a scout with the Washington Senators. Engel became Mr. Baseball in Chattanooga.

I’ve also read with much interest sportswriter Randy Smith’s articles about the condition of the Grand Ole Lady on E.
3rd Street that opened in 1930. Smith’s memories go from broadcasting Lookouts games to attending an Alabama concert.

Engel Stadium is full of history, with so many great baseball legends playing there through the years. They include Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, Roy Hawes and dozens more.

The history books record the 1931 exhibition game between the Yankees and Lookouts when a 17-year-old girl by the name of Jackie Mitchell struck out Gehrig and Ruth.

Youngsters will never forget Mr. Engel’s famous knothole gangs, encouraging kids to stay in school, attend church and then they’d get into a Lookouts game free.

Senior Lookouts fans remember when owner Joe Engel gave away a house that still stands on Hixson Pike north of Stuart Heights.

Engel Stadium has hosted other events besides baseball games; one being the October, 1950 Sunday afternoon rally with a fiery 31-year-old North Carolina evangelist named Billy Graham.

Businessman Jim Crittenden was good friends with Mr. Engel. While some of us were having lunch at Nikki’s, Mr. Crittenden shared the story about Mr. Engel admiring a young Rev. Graham. The story went that Mr. Engel learned Rev. Graham was going to Ponce De Leon in Atlanta for a six-week-long crusade after the Crackers finished their season. Mr. Engel contacted two Chattanooga pastors, Dr. James L. Fowle and Dr. Lee Roberson, who formed a committee inviting the aspiring evangelist to stop in Chattanooga and speak at a Sunday afternoon service. The young preacher accepted their invitation. Mr. Crittenden said the ballpark owner noted that every bill had been paid to the penny before Mr. Graham left the city and headed to Atlanta.

News Free Press writer George Burham covered the event. The Burnham family provided this writer with dozens of documents about their father’s relationship with the famous evangelist and his Engel Stadium Sunday afternoon revival.

According to Burnham’s article, over 20,000 braved heavy rain to hear Rev. Graham “warn the nation of doom unless people repent for sins and turn to God.”

Burnham wrote, “The stadium opened at 10 a.m. and every seat was filled by 1 p.m.” Burnham said, “Many brought picnics, others ate hot dogs and sandwiches prepared by Ruby Williams and her staff.” Burnham said Cliff Barrows started the singing promptly at 3 p.m., despite a steadily falling rain.

Dr. James Park McCallie was meeting chairman and presided. The Graham team was welcomed by Chattanooga Mayor Hugh Wasson.

The event was broadcast live over WDOD, WDEF and WAPO Radio; this was before television came to town in 1954.

Mr. Graham took to the platform and said he was pleased with the large turnout and “hoped in God’s good time” he would be able to conduct a series of meetings here. Mr. Graham did return to Chattanooga in 1953 for a month-long crusade at nearby Warner Park, where a field house was built in part by Mose and Garrison Siskin.

As the downpour continued, with thousands sitting under their umbrellas, Mr. Graham cut his sermon a little short, but at the invitation of the evangelist, several hundred came forward and were presented the Gospel of John. Burnham said there were about 700 decisions for Christ.

Mr. Graham told reporter Burnham he was surprised but very pleased that thousands turned out at Engel Stadium despite the weather. Rev. Graham said, “This ball park is the perfect place to hold a revival.”

I grew up listening to Gus Chamberlain broadcast Lookouts games on WAPO and he spent hundreds of hours in the wooden press box high above home plate. The Baylor School graduate loved that ballpark and said it was his second home, with so many memories. Chamberlain had files of stories and pictures of baseball players he’d met and interviewed for his radio broadcasts.

I was listening to Mr. Chamberlain when the Lookouts clinched the Southern League pennant in 1961. He could transform the radio listener to feeling they were sitting in the stands. Chamberlain knew many of the regular fans and where they sat, including the late Chattanooga Postmaster Frank Moore.

In the early 60’s, Chamberlain did voice concern about the stadium condition, saying it could use some tender loving care.

Chattanooga News Free Press columnist Allan Morris wrote in the late 70s, “The paint is peeling off the walls, the floor is filthy, the roof is falling in and it looks like a tornado hit the place.” The late Public Utilities Commissioner Jim Eberle responded that the ball park was beginning to show its age, but repairs would have to wait because money was tight.

Since the stadium was constructed it has undergone several upgrades, including the 2012 major renovation to film part of baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s life story.

The funeral service of Chattanooga broadcaster Luther Masingill was held in October, 2014 at the historic ballpark. While a teenager, Luther worked for Mr. Engel as the public address announcer. The legendary broadcaster often said he remembered watching the large six-foot bottles of Coca Cola being erected on the corners of the wall at Engel Stadium, but didn’t recall the year.

After attending Masingill’s funeral, the late Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams said it would take three to five million dollars to restore the ball park. Adams said neither the city nor county seem interested.

A good book to read is “Baseball in Chattanooga,” by David Jenkins. The writer said, “In its prime, Engel Stadium was a spic and span example of a minor league showcase stadium.”

The Late Jim Morgan, who worked for the Lookouts, said the stadium had massive drainage problems, with only band-aid repairs through the years. “We were told it just cost too much to fix properly and those repairs would have to wait,” said Morgan.

According to Smith, who recently visited Engel Stadium, “The ballpark is now in complete disarray, it’s been left to rot and decay until it eventually falls in.”

The last game played at Engel Stadium was in September, 1999 when the Lookouts moved to their new home downtown (Bell South Park, now AT&T Field). The Lookouts current home was once known as Hawk Hill, the former Kirkman Golden Hawks football field.

There were some college and high school baseball games played at Engel Stadium, but after many meetings, the city of Chattanooga, in 2008 decided to give control of the six-acre ballpark to the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. UTC was supposed to work with the Engel Foundation for restoration. In the last 16 years, not much has been done to the historic ball park where for many decades thousands gathered to enjoy America’s favorite pastime. Recent drone pictures posted on Facebook tell the story of a ballpark in shambles.

With little publicity on Dec. 14, 2009, Engel Stadium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wikipedia says, “Properties are not protected in any strict sense by the federal listing. State and local zoning bodies may or may not choose to protect listed historic places.”

Former Hamilton County Real Property Manager Becky Browder said two years ago, “My hope is it won’t be torn down, we hope in the near future there will be some kind of use established by UTC.”

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some have suggested Erlanger Medical Center should purchase the ballpark for expansion. Others have said the facility should be used for some type of sports.

This writer would hope Engel Stadium would not go the way of historic places like Cameron Hill.

Randy Smith may have the right idea; “If UTC isn’t going to take care of the ole gal, tear it down, erect some historic plaques, maybe a few walking paths and beautify what’s left.”
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