Baseball has always been about more than balls and strikes or wins and losses. It’s colorful characters. Tall tales. Showmanship. Community spirit. For the Chattanooga Lookouts, a look back includes a history of spectacle mingled with the ups and downs of a minor-league sports franchise.
By Noble Sprayberry
Photos Courtesy of the Chattanooga History Center, Andy Broome Collection, Library of Congress and Engel Foundation
BASEBALL COMES TO
THE SCENIC CITY
Baseball appears in Chattanooga before the Lookouts do. The Roane Iron Company puts the semi-pro Roanes on a field at the corner of Douglas and Vine, playing squads such as the Mobile Pastimes. For a time, pro baseball is a stop-and-start affair in Chattanooga, with teams—and even leagues—launching and folding.
A TEAM IS BORN
Local businessman O.B. Andrews brings a South Atlantic League franchise to town—the first team with Lookouts on the jersey.
ENTERING THE LEAGUE
The Lookouts rejoin the Southern Association, the South’s second-tier minor league, after Andrews buys the league’s Little Rock, Arkansas, franchise. He pays $12,000—less than $300,000 in 2015 dollars.
THE LONGEST GAME—NO WIN
After the Lookouts play 23 innings against the Atlanta Crackers, night falls. The result? The longest game in the league’s
history ending in a 2-2 tie because of darkness. Umpire Steamboat Johnson officiated the 23-inning game
SATCHEL PAIGE’S FIRST CONTRACT
Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who would become one of the biggest heroes of the Negro Leagues, signs his first contract with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, a team that existed for only four years. The pay? He earns $50 a month. Paige famously broke through to the majors as a 42-year-old rookie in 1948.
CHATTANOOGA MEETS JOE ENGEL
The year Joe Engel takes charge of the Lookouts, the nation’s economy takes a seat on the bench. The Great Depression would last a decade. Engel’s job? Sell baseball to a city.
ENGEL STADIUM OPENS ITS DOORS
It takes one year and $180,000 to build the site that would survive long enough to earn a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. But, the 12,000-seat stadium opens in the heart of the Depression. During its first winter, it serves as a soup kitchen.
MEET THE KNOTHOLE GANG
Good grades, not missing school, and going to church earn kids a spot in Joe Engel’s “Knothole Gang,” as well as free admission to Lookouts games. Buck Johnson, former sports editor of the Chattanooga Times, described his experience in 2012: “To visit this stadium means a lot to me, because when I walk on that field, it’s like a church to me. The thing that the Knothole Gang gave to me made me who I am today.”
APRIL 15, 1930
FIRST GAME AT ENGEL STADIUM
About 16,000 fans watch the Lookouts beat the Atlanta Crackers 6-5 in the new stadium’s first official game.
APRIL 2, 1931
A DAY TO GO DOWN IN HISTORY
Jackie Mitchell, 17, steps onto the scene as the second woman signed to play pro baseball. In an exhibition game, the gal with a side-arm delivery strikes out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with seven pitches. A ball and three strikes for Ruth and three strikes to Gehrig!
REMEMBERING JOE ENGEL
Lookouts President and Promoter 1929-1965A former scout for the Washington Senators, Engel first came to Chattanooga on behalf of Senators owner Clark Griffith, who tasked him with purchasing the team and building a new ballpark. He remained with the Lookouts until they disbanded in 1965. Meanwhile, he became one of the most beloved characters in Chattanooga history. Engel was community minded and a master showman, often called the Barnum of Baseball. He helped one player, Don Grate, break the record for throwing a baseball the longest distance, more than 434 feet. And, he knew a good laugh-line. He traded shortstop Johnny Jones in 1931 to the Charlotte Hornets for a turkey. “The turkey was having a better year,” Engel said.
VICTORY – Twice!
The 1932 Lookouts end the regular season in a statistical tie with the Memphis Chickasaws, and Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Landis gives the Southern Association pennant to the Chattanooga team. The team goes on to defeat the Beaumont Exporters in the Dixie Series – a postseason series that pitted the champion of the Southern Association against the champion of the Texas League.
May 1, 1936
THE LARGEST CROWD AT ENGEL
Joe Engel decides to raffle a house and draws nearly 24,600 fans to Engel Stadium. The stadium is so packed, he orders the balls frozen and too heavy for a solid hit to bean someone in the crowd. The winner, Reuben Mills, would own the home until the mid-1960s.
New manager Hazen Shirley “Ki Ki” Cuyler leads the team to another Southern League championship. Legend has it that when it was time for the popular first-year manager to sign a new contract, Joe Engel, as a stunt, “forced” Cuyler at gunpoint to put pen to paper.
LOOKOUTS DISCOVER MASINGILL
The 1940s saw Joe Engel finding talent off the field. In 1940, he talks a young Luther Masingill into trying out for a WDEF Radio telephone receptionist job. It was the start of a broadcast career that, with the exception of a two-year military stint, continued until Masingill’s death in 2014. He was 92.
WILLIE MAYS &
For six years, the Scenic City has a minor league team in the Negro Southern League. And while the run is brief, the team includes an unforgettable player – Willie Mays. During the summers after his freshman and sophomore years of high school in Fairfield, Alabama – 1945 and 1946 – the future “Say Hey Kid” is driven to Chattanooga by his father to play ball.
Led by first-year manager Calvin Coolidge Ermer, the Lookouts whip the Atlanta Crackers for the Southern Association Championship.
As time goes by, Engel Stadium becomes a community gathering place. A month-long Billy Graham Crusade in 1953 draws more than 280,000 people.
Lookouts slugger Harmon Killebrew, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984 after a record-setting Major League career, becomes the first, and only, player at the time to hit a homerun to Engel Stadium’s sweeping center field.
It’s unclear if it is attempts to cheat that lead to thrown games, but several Lookouts face interviews by law enforcement, including the FBI. Two players are eventually suspended.
The team wins the Southern Association pennant. In portents of the near future, only 233 fans watch the clinching game.
DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES
The Southern Association disbands, and Engel finds the Lookouts a spot in the Class-A Sally League. Only 335 fans show up for a “Save the Lookout Night” in 1965. Eleven years pass before professional baseball returns to the city.
THE TEAM RISES AGAIN
Woody Reid relocates the Southern League Birmingham franchise to Chattanooga. When Reid and his son, Mark, first visit the stadium, they do not have a key for the padlocked gate. Eventually, they climb through a broken window.
Newly affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds, the Lookouts win the Southern League pennant in a three-game sweep, defeating Greenville.
The minor-league classic is rededicated and renovated, which does hit a few fouls. One restaurant window features a view of concrete steps.
THE LOOKOUTS MEET LARRY
Larry Ward takes over as the voice of the Lookouts. His loyalty is still with the team. “You become a sounding board and you have to have the manager’s confidence that what he tells you goes no further,” Ward says. “Not even to your wife.”
THE EYES HAVE IT
The team unveils the big-eyed logo: two peepers gazing out of a stylized “C.” New owner Frank Burke also introduces the now-famous “Looie the Lookout,” the red-faced puffball who continues to be a staple of Lookouts home games.
THE BURKE ERA
A new ownership group led by Frank Burke promises a new stadium if the team can sell 1,800 season tickets—a mark easily met—and 10 luxury boxes. Unlike pro teams in other cities, the Burke group finances the stadium themselves. Meanwhile, the city helps negotiate a sweet annual lease for the property: $1.
THE NEW PARK OPENS
The Lookouts play a final game at Engel Stadium on Sept. 12, 1999. The new BellSouth Park—now AT&T Field—opens in downtown the following baseball season. A vestige of old Engel Stadium makes the pilgrimage. A barber chair is installed behind the dugout down the third-base line.
FILMING OF “42”
Engel Stadium is spruced up and hung with the trappings of the past for the occasion. Check out the movie depicting Jackie Robinson’s life, “42,” for a look at how the old stadium may have appeared in her glory years.
A NEW ERA BEGINS
A new ownership group under the leadership of Jason Freier of Hardball Capital and Chattanooga native John Woods purchases the team from Frank Burke. Lookouts Capital LLC includes more than 15 members with local ties.