Known as the “Barnum of the Bushes” for his popular promotions and outlandish stunts,
Joe Engel gave a lot to fans and baseball.
But his greatest gift to Chattanooga may have been his Knothole Gang.
The Gang actually started before Engel’s arrival as president of the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1930, but he expanded the number of participants to the extent that most boys growing up in Chattanooga in the ’40s and ’50s still cherish fond memories of playing Knothole baseball.
If, like me, you are male and grew up in Hamilton County 50 years ago, you spent many afternoons after school participating in a YMCA-sponsored activity, then devoted your lazy summer afternoons to playing or practicing Knothole baseball.
Those two programs were separate entities, but they have been inextricably linked in my mind because the “Y” teams morphed into the Knothole teams when school was out and because the leaders of both organizations stressed the old-fashioned values our parents hammered into our brains and/or our behinds. They were also fun and inexpensive.
It was character education at its best. We had to play fair and honor our opponent. We had to show respect for our coaches and officials. We couldn’t use profanity, at least within earshot of the adults, not that we knew many of those words back then anyway.
In keeping with the values of fair play and good sportsmanship, we had to qualify for membership in the Knothole Gang. We had to make decent grades, behave ourselves in school and attend Sunday school on a regular basis. Only then would we receive our membership card.
Of course, there was a financial motivation for Engel to promote the Knothole Gang. That card was good for free admission to certain Lookouts games if we were accompanied by a paying adult.
My dad and I took advantage of those free admissions whenever we could. We sat high up in the first-base stands where we could catch a breeze on those stifling summer nights. I learned a lot from my dad on those occasions; sometimes he talked baseball, sometimes about growing up the right way and sometimes about nothing at all. It was just the two of us for two hours watching a baseball game. Nothing could have been better.
Having a card also meant that we could play on our school’s Knothole Gang baseball team in the summer. It was baseball at its purest. We played without uniforms (just jeans and a team T-shirt), spikes or batting gloves. I can remember once when the game was held up while we looked for the ball.
There were few parents putting pressure on us, because the games were held in the afternoons when most adults were at work. One parent would coach us in the fundamentals of the game, but mostly he just let us get dirty and have fun.