published Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Historic stadium in jeopardy

It was almost inevitable that Engel Stadium, the historic baseball park in the heart of the city, would one day be boarded up and locked down by Chattanooga officials. That time has arrived. The old stadium at East Third and O’Neal Streets has fallen into disrepair and it has become too dangerous for people to watch a game from its spacious grandstand. It’s hard to disagree with the decision to close the stadium to the public, but it is nevertheless a blow to those who appreciate the ballpark’s place in the history of Chattanooga and of baseball.

The iconic park regularly appears on Top 10 lists of favorite minor league ballparks. It architecture is praised and its dimensions inspire wonder. Baseball historians almost uniformly agree that the stadium had the deepest centerfield in professional baseball at 470 feet. It ended in a steep incline on which the word “Lookouts” was spelled out. Ballpark regulars will remember, too, the huge Coke bottles that rested atop the outfield wall.

Named for Joe Engel, the colorful, long-time owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, the minor league baseball team that called the place home for nearly 70 years, the ballpark made and was host to history often over the years. Babe Ruth played there. So did Lou Gehrig. Both, in fact, were struck out there in 1931 by a 17-year-old schoolgirl named Jackie Mitchell. Don’t believe it? “You can,” as that great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “look it up.”

Engel was a consummate baseball man, a major league veteran who had roomed with Hall of Famer Walter Johnson. He would do almost anything to sell a ticket. More often than not, he was successful. He staged “elephant” hunts and put camels in the outfield. He grew a rose garden along the outfield fence. And he once attracted 24,000 fans into the stadium with 12,000 seats when he gave away a house during the Great Depression.

Those days are long gone. The Lookouts played their last game there in 1999. The now play in a sleek park atop a downtown hill. For a time, Engel Stadium was host to myriad high school, college and amateur games, but no longer. When the stadium closed this week, only Tennessee Temple University regularly played there.

The fate of the stadium that is on the National Register of Historic Places is uncertain. It will take money to fix it up. Indeed, there’s been little recent public discussion about whether to save the structure or to abandon it. And if it is to be refurbished and restored, no one is sure at the moment who would provide the funding, to do so.

Hamilton County took over the stadium in 2004, but later transferred the deed to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga,. That process has not been completed. UTC, a spokesman said Tuesday, still is awaiting state approval for the transfer. The ownership issue requires swift resolution if Engel Stadium, rich in history and so long a part of community life, is to have its proper role in Chattanooga’s future.

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