By Brian T. Wright
Arts & Sciences student
As Tiger Stadium closed down its final season at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit in 1999, Tigers great Al Kaline said of the park, “While common materials may have been used to build this place — concrete, steel and bricks — the memories are the cement that has held it together for 88 wonderful seasons.”
The same could be said of Engel Stadium, celebrating its 80th birthday today. It is the memories that held “the old girl” together for the past 80 years.
For months I have been working for the preservation of Engel Stadium with the Engel Foundation. What never fails to inspire me are the stories I hear from old friends of Engel. I watch their faces light up with excitement at the mention of the stadium. The memories that have lasted a lifetime are what make the 80th birthday of Engel Stadium a sweet occasion, even among the bitter reality of the current shape of the park.
I’ve listened to how proud an older gentleman was to have played on the field in 1936 as part of Joe Engel’s Knothole Gang. It was a memory from over 70 years ago that never left him.
I have come across a legendary sports writer in Buck Johnson, and a history teacher in Chris Hendrix, who is half Johnson’s age, yet both described Engel with the same adjective: fun. While they had different experiences at the stadium, they had a common enjoyment of the park.
I’ve listened to the excitement of a good friend I have made in Ray Deering. He has relived his childhood memories for me, such as Dick Sinovic hitting an inside-the-park home run for the Lookouts and crying the next day when Sinovic was traded to Atlanta for Country Brown, or how he and his friends watched with amazement as Jim Lemon hit a home run over the light tower above the huge scoreboard in left field, and showing me the seat he sat in when he watched umpire Joe West throw out the organist at Engel Stadium for playing “Three Blind Mice.”
And countless other people have told me stories of what a great place Engel was to watch baseball and how it always had a way to bring the community together. And while the park continues to deteriorate from neglect, I know Engel Stadium is stronger and more vibrant than ever in the hearts and souls of Chattanoogans.
Tom Stanton, is his book “The Final Season,” wrote, “There are places on earth that mean more than words and pictures can explain. Writer Willie Morris called them ‘terrains of the heart.’ They are points on our personal maps where we find our treasured memories and replenish our hungering souls.”
These memories inspire me to dream big for Engel’s future.
I dream of hundreds if not thousands of ballplayers playing at the stadium every week: from little leaguers to high schoolers to college athletes to adults. It would serve as the grandest stage for amateur baseball games in the city and would be the best promoter to encourage kids to keep playing America’s Pastime.
I dream of a restored Engel Stadium that is a walk back in time. It would have the old 40-foot-long Coca-Cola advertisement; it would have the old mammoth 40-foot-high manually operated scoreboard; “Lookouts” would once again be imprinted on the hill in center field; the old press box would be restored and the old “Engel Stadium” sign put back outside the park. It would serve as the perfect backdrop to let our imaginations run wild and see any number of our most treasured memories at the stadium.
I dream of a museum at Engel Stadium. It would include the recreated office of Joe Engel and the old Hall of Fame Room. It would have memorabilia and artifacts from not only legendary moments at Engel, but from all over the South. It would be a premier destination for any tourist visiting Chattanooga and be a way to keep the memories alive of the men who made Engel their home.
I dream of a learning center at Engel Stadium, not only about its own history but about the history of Chattanooga. Students could also be brought in to learn about the geometry of the baseball field or the statistics of the game.
For 70 years Engel Stadium created memories that lasted a lifetime. For the past 10 years Engel has sat empty waiting for a second life.
In the future, Engel Stadium will be a place to play the sport, learn the game and experience the very best of baseball and Chattanooga.
So take a moment today to think about your memories at Engel and what you dream of for her future.
Happy 80th Birthday, Engel! And may the dreams keep coming true.