This story was originally published in the 2012 June/July issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
April 2nd, 1931. The New York Yankees had just wrapped up their spring training schedule and were making their way back to the Big Apple, playing exhibition games against minor league teams along the way. Today’s stop: Chattanooga, for a late spring tune-up against Joe Engel’s Lookouts in the one-year-old stadium that bore his name.
Just days earlier, Engel, known around the country as the “Barnum of Baseball” for his wild, crowd-pleasing promotions and publicity stunts, was in Georgia scouting a young left-handed pitcher with a nasty sinker. That girl was Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell—a 17-year-old girl who had gained a reputation for striking out grown men.
“She uses an odd, side-armed delivery, and puts both speed and curve on the ball,” claimed a 1931 article from the Chattanooga News. “Her greatest asset, however, is control. She can place the ball where she pleases, and her knack at guessing the weakness of a batter is uncanny.”
Having seen her throw in person, Engel quickly signed Mitchell to a contract to pitch for his Lookouts envisioning the crowds a successful female pitcher would draw.
Now, it was show time. Lookouts starting pitcher, Clyde Barfoot, struggled with the powerful Yankee lineup through four innings, and with one out in the 5th, manager Bert Niehoff called on the bullpen. Out to the mound came Mitchell to face two of the greatest hitters of all time—Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Seven pitches later, the teenage girl from Memphis had struck them both out.
April 4th, 1953. Playing third base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in an exhibition game against the Milwaukee Braves, 34-year-old Jackie Robinson misplayed a throw from center field that bounced into the visitor’s dugout at Engel Stadium, allowing the winning run to score.
But, while his play here at Engel might have cost his team the game, it’s safe to say that he’ll always be remembered for what he did on the national stage.
When Jackie Robinson stepped on Ebbets field to face the Boston Braves on opening day in 1947, he broke baseball’s color barrier—becoming one of the most important and influential sports figures of all time. But Robinson isn’t just remembered because he was the first African American to play in the major leagues. He was also one of the most talented, intelligent athletes to ever put on a uniform.
Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ General Manager who signed Jackie, once said “There was never a man in the game who could put mind and muscle together quicker and with better judgment than Jackie Robinson.”
Robinson’s courage in the face of adversity, ignorance and bigotry over his 10-year career, as he led the Dodgers to six National League pennants and one World Series championship, was an inspiration both athletically and socially, when the country needed it most.
Dr. Martin Luther King once called Robinson a “legend and symbol in his own time who challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.” Said Dodgers teammate, Ralph Branca, “Jackie didn’t just win. He triumphed.”
April 2009. A charter is granted by the State of Tennessee for the Engel Foundation—a nonprofit organization founded to restore, preserve, promote and revitalize Engel Stadium.
The Lookouts played their last game at Engel 10 years ago. And, aside from a few local high school and college games, the historic stadium has been largely unused since then.
The Engel Foundation plans to change that.
At the head of the foundation is Director and Board Chair, Janna Jahn, a Chattanooga resident whose “day job” is in the Hamilton County Development Department. She first took notice of Engel after hearing about the teenage girl who struck out the great Babe Ruth here in her own hometown.
“It started with hearing the story of Jackie Mitchell,” Jahn says, “and wondering why I had never heard that before, even though I grew up here.”
“That led to learning more about Joe Engel,” she adds. “And that led to wondering what we were doing with this stadium, and why is it just sitting there? That’s not how Chattanooga does things.”
Jahn was totally hooked. Joe Hutcherson, a principal and engineer with March Adams was doing pro bono work for the Foundation at that time. He says, “I have never met anyone with more passion for any project than Janna has for Engel Stadium.” But it would take more than passion to bring the stadium back from disrepair. It would take money, and a lot of support from a community who seemed to have all but forgotten the once great stadium on 3rd street.
March 8th, 2012. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which has officially owned Engel since August of 2010, signed a lease agreement with the Engel foundation, making them responsible for revitalizing, operating and maintaining the stadium.
That same day, the Engel Foundation signed a use agreement with Warner Brothers and Legendary Films, giving them permission to use Engel as the set of the movie “42,” a film starring Harrison Ford about the life of Jackie Robinson.
The film thrust Engel Stadium back into the local—and national—spotlight. And, what’s more, as part of the agreement, Legendary Films will contribute financially to the stadium’s restoration.
“We will come out of this,” Jahn says, “with a stadium that has a roof that’s been repaired, plumbing that’s been addressed, a field that’s been redone, and wooden seats that have been painted.
“In other words, it’ll be ready to play ball.”
It’s funny how things come together. If not for Jackie Mitchell’s seven pitches, there might be no Engel Foundation. Without Jackie Robinson, there certainly wouldn’t be a Harrison Ford movie being filmed here. Nothing rallying this community in support of its stadium.
“There’s something about this stadium,” says Jahn, whose Engel Foundation is currently conducting a future use study to determine the best way forward for Engel. “And it’s not entirely about baseball. There’s more to it.
“Just watch people’s eyes light up when they talk about it and you know—this place is special and this community gets it.”
Story by Keith Rawlston
Photography courtesy of the Engel Foundation