Ten years after the Lookouts made their final out in 1965, someone finally stepped up to bring baseball back to Chattanooga. Woody Reid was a local businessman, who along with his family, optician Jim Crittenden, and attorney Arvin Reingold, formed the Engel Stadium Corporation. Reid agreed to finance all the necessary renovations to Engel Stadium so long as an affiliate was found. Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley made several trips to Chattanooga during the winter of 1975 and agreed to bring his Double-A team to Engel Stadium, so long as the renovations were made.
In addition to the $150,000 Reid paid in needed renovations to the facility, he also hosted “Sparkle Days” and invited Chattanoogans to volunteer their time to replace broken windows, paint the stands, and clean up the stadium. On April 20, 1976, 8,305 fans were in attendance in the freshly painted green and gold color scheme that now dominated Engel Stadium. The ’76 Lookouts would go on to win the first half Southern League championship behind future major leaguers Steve McCatty, Matt Keough, Brian Kingman and Dwayne Murphy.
After two years as the Athletics affiliate, Reid formed a new affiliation with the Cleveland Indians. After the 1978 season, Reid sold 60% of his shares in the franchise to Jim Crittenden and cut out of the Lookouts altogether a couple years later. Chattanooga Times Free Press columnist Ray Deering would later say of the man who brought baseball back to Chattanooga, “Woody Reid was a quiet gentleman who pursued ownership of the franchise just because he loved baseball and wanted it for the fans of Chattanooga.”
Over the next decade and a half after Woody Reid sold the franchise, the Lookouts would be owned by three different owners and would be an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners throughout the early 1980’s before finally settling on the Cincinnati Reds in 1988.
Prior to the 1988 season, new owner Rick Holtzman appeared before the City Council and County Commission and threatened to bolt Chattanooga and move the Lookouts if they did not fund a renovation to Engel Stadium to the tone of $2 million.
The problems with Engel Stadium that Holtzman outlined were real. The now 58-year old stadium was beginning to show its age. The clubhouses were in disrepair and inadequate to the modern baseball team, concession stands were too few causing long lines, and sparse bathrooms could not handle a large crowd. However, on the field, the Lookouts were having one of their best years yet.
Under a new affiliate in the Cincinnati Reds and a new manager in Tom Runnells the Lookouts wasted no time in 1988, winning the first half Eastern Division and going on to play the Greenville Braves in the Southern League Championship in September. The Lookouts won decisively, 13-2, with future major league pitchers Keith Brown, Chris Hammond, and Mike Scudder; all of whom would contribute to the Reds World Series victory in 1990.
“The players didn’t retreat into the privacy of their clubhouse to celebrate. Instead, they hoisted fans who had rushed with them across the diamond, sharing bottles of champagne” wrote David Lamb in Ken Burns’ book Baseball. “The organ boomed out ‘Happy Days are Here Again.’ For thirty minutes the infield was a swirling mass of raucous celebrants.”
The 1988 Championship would be the first for the Lookouts in the Southern League and their last game in Engel Stadium prior to its $2 million dollar renovation. In July both the City and County allocated the necessary funds to renovate the stadium and keep baseball in Chattanooga.
Operating under a very short timeframe, the renovation included: gutting out the concourse and restructuring it to feature more bathrooms, concession stands, and larger clubhouses. However, mistakes were made. A restaurant was constructed with its’ view of the field obstructed by stairs, the new press box had no view of home plate when seated, and a legal battle was waged by Holtzman against the two local governments over the field’s new drainage system, which Holtzman won to the total of half a million dollars.
“When we opened the season,” said general manager Bill Lee, “half the stadium was ready but we decided we were going to really dress it up like a grand opening of a movie.”
After over five years running the Lookouts, Bill Lee quit over disagreements with Rick Holtzman following the 1990 season. Lee’s legacy would be for overseeing the 1988 championship season and renovation along with creating a family friendly atmosphere reminiscent of the days of Joe Engel.
Over the next four years, Lee’s successor Bill Davidson would oversee an increase in attendance, a new block “C” logo with two cartoon eyeballs, and the largest crowd since Joe Engel gave away a house in 1936 to see Michael Jordon play baseball; who singlehandedly drew over 35 thousand fans in a 3-game series.
However, the rising attendance coincided with rising maintenance costs and Holtzman decided to sell the Lookouts following the 1994 season to a young man from Maine, Frank Burke.
Burke, who had an MBA from Harvard Business School, came to Chattanooga and did things in a way that had not been done since the days of Joe Engel. He introduced the Lookouts’ new mascot, the Trash Monster, brought two camels from the Warner Park Zoo and put them behind the outfield fence, he had a pregnant donkey deliver game balls to the umpire, and he built a replica steam engine above the outfield wall that ran along a track every time the Lookouts hit a home run.
Burke not only made going to a Lookouts game fun, but he also made it affordable. Tickets for kids were $2 and tickets for adults were $4 (those prices have stayed the same throughout his tenure as owner). However, he began to notice that running Engel Stadium was not affordable.
“Finding Engel Stadium was a bit like falling in love,” Burke said. “Initially, you don’t see some of the downsides.”
The downsides were that every time it rained, the field flooded, canceling games and losing tickets sales, rising maintenance costs, wooden bleachers that made up the upper part of the grandstand had to be painted every year, and Engel was no longer able to draw other events, such as the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament.
“Engel Stadium is an unbelievable place to try to maintain,” Burke said. “Seventy percent of our operating expenses go to fixing things.”
Frank Burke gave Chattanoogans an ultimatum. If 1,800 season tickets and 10 luxury boxes were sold by February 4, 1999, he would personally finance the building of a new stadium on Hawk Hill. Otherwise he would sell the team and the new owner would undoubtedly move the club.
Burke met his goal a week before the deadline and began construction of his new stadium and prepping for the Lookouts 1999 season, their final at Engel Stadium.
“Many Chattanoogans believed that [Burke] was desecrating the memory of Engel and the Lookouts and told him so,” wrote Ray Deering. Burke countered by saying, “I just thought it was our way to keep his [Joe Engel] legacy alive. If I sold the team, it would have been moved [to another city], no doubt about it. This is where the Lookouts belonged.”
The 1999 season would see the Lookouts lowest attendance in 10 years. The final game at Engel Stadium took place on September 9, 1999.
After the Lookouts
Following the Lookouts departure, Engel Stadium was maintained by the city’s Parks & Recreation department, but that was discontinued after the city sought to give the stadium to UT Chattanooga.
The stadium hosted Tennessee’s Spring Fling baseball tournament in 2006, for which the outfield wall is currently painted. Also, a large investment was also made in 2004 to repairing Engel Stadium’s roof by Cornerstones Inc. and both local governments.
The Tennessee Temple Crusaders varsity baseball team has played at Engel since 2000, while the UT Chattanooga Club Baseball team has played there since its formation in 2007. Local high schools have played games at Engel throughout the first decade of the 21st century.
However, overall, there has been little presence at the stadium and a group known as The Engel Foundation is ready to write the next chapter!