Engel Foundation waiting for the keys

Chattanoogan.com
August 11, 2011
by B.B. Branton

Janna Jahn has the energy, a vision and a plan to clean up Engel Stadium and once again open its the doors to local baseball fans and those across the country.

Open the doors and let the baseball world know and feel part of its rich history from Clark Griffith, Joe Engel, Harmon Killebrew and the old Washington Senators to Satchel Paige and Willie Mays of the old Black Lookouts to the greats of the game who played exhibition games here to today’s players in the Los Angeles Dodger system.

But she needs the keys to the front gate.

“We want to not only clean up Engel Stadium and once again have baseball games there, but in the bigger picture to be able, in a variety of ways, to tell the great story of the stadium Joe Engel built in 1930,” said Jahn, the executive director of the two-year-old non-profit Engel Foundation.

“I see our mission at the Engel Foundation – a non-profit grouped formed in 2009 – is one to restore, manage and promote the stadium and its history,” said the Chattanooga native.

The city (Chattanooga) and county (Hamilton) are joint property owners of the stadium and grounds – purchased from the Clark Griffith Estate in the early 1960s for $250,000 – and have passed resolutions for the ownership deed to be transferred to the University of Tennessee system, specifically the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Upon approval of deed transfer, UTC in turn would lease Engel Stadium to the Engel Foundation so restoration plans can move forward.

Interested parties are now waiting for the state to approve and finalize the ownership transfer.

One such group is Cornerstones, Chattanooga’s only non-profit Historic Preservation Organization, which exists to preserve the architectural heritage and urban fabric of Chattanooga.

“The Engel Foundation is the piece to the puzzle that was missing for so long to get the job done, but is now in place to help lead the way for restoration and revitalization of Engel Stadium” said Ann Gray, executive director of Cornerstones.

“We at Cornerstones want to give technical assistance and knowledge where needed in the preservation of the stadium,” she stated.

“Our goal is to one day take Engel Stadium off the endangered list of historic buildings.”

Vision for Engel Stadium and Property

UTC folks have a plan for a soccer field (already in place at the west end of the property), a state-of-the art, all-weather track and space for parking.

On the east end – corner of 3rd and O’Neil – is Historic Engel Stadium, waiting to be brought back to life.

The Engel Foundation envisions youth baseball tournaments, a yearly retro game with the Chattanooga Lookouts, continuation of the “Legends of the Game” fall clinics led by Rick Honeycutt, adding inductees to the Lookouts Hall of Fame, a summer baseball movie series and more.

Knothole Gang

“I have talked with baseball fans who are excited about the possibility of Engel being back in business and some who once played here as kids as part of the Joe Engel Knothole Gang,” Jahn stated.

“The older baby boomers who played Knothole Baseball growing have a real connection to the place.”

The foundation wants Engel Stadium to be self-sustaining financially through the aforementioned activities and other marketing ideas.

“We want Engel Stadium to be a place where people can come and learn about the greats who have played here and the life of (former Lookouts general manager) Joe Engel who was such an innovator and promoter,” stated foundation board member, Finley Stadium executive director and former minor league baseball executive Merrill Eckstein.

People in Chattanooga rolled up their sleeves and saved and revitalized Walnut Street Bridge and we can do the same with Engel.’’

Engel Stadium and Major League Baseball

Jahn also sees Engel Stadium as a catalyst for Chattanooga to work with Major League Baseball and its RBI league.

RBI (Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities) held its World Series last week in Minneapolis and Jahn would like to, one day, host a region tournament at Engel.

The local RBI league for boys and girls is part of the city parks and recreation department and a team of Chattanooga teenage girls traveled to the recent MLB All-Star game in Arizona and posted a 4-1 record.

Members of the Engel Foundation are in the process of learning how baseball interested folks in other cities have saved old baseball parks.

Rickwood Field

One such success story is in the Southern League just a couple of hours down I-59 at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, America’s oldest baseball park.

Currently owned by the city of Birmingham with a good working relationship with the Rickwood Foundation, Rickwood Field was built in 1910 by A.W. Woodward, a former University of the South baseball player in the mid-1890s and player/owner of the Birmingham Barons.

It was deeded to the city in the early 1980s when then Barons owner Art Clarkson built the new Regions Park in nearby Hoover.

The Rickwood Classic is an annual game, usually in mid-summer, between the Barons and a Southern League team.

This summer, the Barons hosted the Lookouts on July 1 (Barons won 4-3 on a game-winning home run in the home half of the 11th), in recognition of the last year of the old Southern Association (1961) and the great pennant race that summer as the Lookouts of Johnny Herrnstein, John Boozer, Norm Gigon, Wayne Graham – and company rallied to overtake the Barons in the final week of the season and win its sixth pennant since 1892.

Fast forward to mid-August – and as it was 50 years ago - the Lookouts are in a battle for a pennant (2.5 game lead in the Southern League North Division through Wednesday's games) as the Barons are in town at AT&T Field for a five-game series, Aug. 10-14. The Lookouts won 16-3 on Wednesday.

The Rickwood Classic has been played for the past 16 years and fans from various parts of the country make their pilgrimage to Birmingham once a summer to be part of the great baseball past.

Much more than just a mid-week minor league game, it’s dad’s using the occasion to introduce a young son, who plays in the oldest local Little League in Alabama, to his first baseball game with a hot dog and soft drink and an afternoon full of great memories.

Or an hour after the Lookouts game in an all but empty ball park, the three-year old girl near flawlessly fielding ground balls with her aunt on the same infield grass where Killebrew and Mays once played.

The young kids pitching strikes from the same mound where future hall of famers Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Paige once hurled fastballs.

And the man in his late 50s who celebrated a birthday a day early to make the journey back to Rickwood Field in memory of his dad and grand dad who once watched and cheered the Barons of three and four generations ago.

The Atlanta businessman who has visited nearly 200 ball parks with Engel Stadium on his short "to do" list, disappointed in hearing that Engel was closed for repairs indefinitely, but glad to know that a foundation is in place to open the doors one day.

Jahn stated that, “I receive phone calls on a regular basis from folks across the country wanting to visit Engel. There have been inquiries from people wanting to hold tournaments or play leagues game there.

“We can use the Rickwood Fields of the baseball world as models to do those things and so much more, but we need access to the property so we can move forward on fund raising, and putting our plans into motion.”

All she needs is the keys to the front gate.

The keys and a dream and a drive that will lead to the restoration of one of the nation’s grand old ballparks.

The Engel Foundation: www.engelfoundation.com

Contact B.B. Branton at william.branton@comcast.net

Article courtesy of Chattanoogan.com: http://www.chattanoogan.com/articles/article_206798.asp

Engel Foundation in the News