Joe Engel, The Lookouts’ “Baron of Baloney”
August 30, 2011
by Dr. R. Smith Murray
In 1930 Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, bought the Chattanooga Lookouts and installed Joe Engel as it’s president. They bought Andrews Field and built the 12,000 seat Engel Stadium.
Lights weren’t installed until 1936. The first night games were memorable. The first was on April 21, 1936 and Engel ballyhooed it as “The Great Light Switch Throwing”. To Engel’s disappointment only 4000 fans showed up. Soon Engel wasn’t the only one to be disappointed. It got dark and over the loudspeaker the announcement came: “Only 3 minutes ’til the grand illumination.” Three minutes went by, then another three, followed by three and three more. Finally, the announcement: “Only 180 minutes.”
Engel was beside himself. A transformer had blown. All was darkness: the stadium, the parking lot, the ticket office and even the lobby were dark. Attendants tried to keep order with flashlights. Thankfully, before 180 minutes were up, power was restored. The crowd cheered, but the Lookouts lost.
The second night game wasn’t played until May 2, 1936. It was the night of Engel’s most heralded stunt. This night he raffled off a real live house in Rivermont. Your chance of winning was dependent on your ticket stub. 24,639 people showed up (a Southern League attendance record). The crowd was so large it overflowed the grandstand and fans spilled out onto the outfield. Any ball hit over the infield was bound to go into the crowd. To thwart this, prior to the game, Engel put the baseballs in the icebox and froze them. Those balls could barely reach the infielders. Amazingly, the teams were never wise to this.
One of the things that older Chattanoogans remember with great fondness is Joe Engel’s Knothole Gang. The concept of the Knothole Gang originated with the St. Louis Cardinals and was brought to Chattanooga in 1926 by Strang Nicklin who then owned the Lookouts. Joe Engel embraced it, developed it and nourished it.
Gang members were admitted free to Lookouts games (except on Sundays and holidays). The only requirement for membership was a note from the member’s school and Sunday school attesting to their good behavior and regular attendance.
Another example of Engel’s philanthropy also dealt with Sunday. Engel paid the tuition of a black student throughout the student’s stay at a Seminary college. When the preacher graduated, he came back and preached against playing baseball on Sunday. “Gosh,” Engel exclaimed, “it was Sunday baseball that paid his way through preacher’s school.”
Engel, himself, was a good athlete. He lettered in 4 sports at Mount St. Mary’s College. In one track meet he won the 100 yard dash as well as the 220, 440 and 880 yard events.
In 1911 he began his career as a pitcher for the Washington Senators. Later, he pitched for Cincinnati and Cleveland. His major league record shows 17 wins and 22 losses. His stay in Cleveland was indeed remarkable. There he never got anyone out, giving him an ERA of infinity.
His chief distinction with the Senators was the fact that he roomed with Walter Johnson. “Johnson,” Engel said, “taught me everything he knew about pitching. Unfortunately, he didn’t teach me control. The only thing I ever led the league in was wild pitches and stolen towels.”
His stunts were numerous. He put on beauty pageants, jackrabbit races, ostrich races and once he had 50 cages of singing canaries strewn about the grandstand.
In 1931 he brought in a female, the 17 year old Jackie Mitchell to pitch against the Yankees. She struck out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Whether or not it was a setup is still debated.
Engel’s favorite stunt was “The Wild Elephant Hunt.” Fans, waiting outside the stadium, could hear wild elephant noises blaring inside. The fans expected to see real elephants. Once inside, the fans witnessed men in bamboo hats chasing after men running around in elephant suits. It was a disgruntled crowd who then watched the ballgame.
In the late 1950’s Engel realized that television and other activities were crowding out baseball. Sitting in his rooftop box, Engel told reporters to look out over the left field fence and watch the cars going down 3rd Street. “In the last 10 minutes”, Engel said, “fifty cars have driven by and none of them are coming to the ballgame. Three out of every five have a boat trailing behind them. What you’re seeing is the funeral procession of baseball.”
In 1960 the Senators dropped the Lookouts and by 1962 Engel was out of baseball.
Engel was warmly remembered by most, but probably not by umpires. On one occasion the Lookouts’ radio announcer, Tom Nobles, got into a street fight with an umpire. Engel not only failed to get upset with Nobles, but rewarded him with a three day paid vacation. “If he’d won the fight,” Engel quipped, “I’d have given him a week.”
Joe Engel died at age 76 in 1969. Inside Engel Stadium is a mound in centerfield with “Lookouts” emblazoned on it. “That’s where I want to be buried”, Engel said. And, he wanted the band to play, “Don’t talk about me when I’m gone”.
Engel didn’t get his wish. Instead, he was buried with pomp in Forest Hills Cemetery with Dr. James C. Fowle presiding. The phrase most commonly heard was, “There’ll never be another like him.” True enough. He was quite irreplaceable.
Article courtesy of Dr. R. Smith Murray