Joe Engel (1893 - 1969): the Barnum of Baseball
July 25, 2013 2:46 PM   Subscribe

At the age of 19, Joe Engel started pitching for the Washington Senators in 1912 (Google books preview), but he only played one game per year in 1917, '19, and '20, due to arm injuries. Unimpressed with his performance, Manager Clark Griffith shooed Engel off to swap himself for someone from the minors who could play ball. Engel sent back the catcher Edward Patrick ("Ed" or "Patsy") Gharrity. Gharrity turned out to be so good that Engel was hired to scout for Washington, and later manage the Chattanooga Lookouts, then the farm team for Washington. It was there in Chattanooga that Engel's true career in baseball took off, where he was given the title "Barnum of Baseball."

Joe Engel was a great scout for Washington, one of baseball's first prospectors, but he was something more in Tennessee. It was there that he set up the Washington Senators with a farm team by buying the Lookouts and replaced their park with a state-of-the-art facility, which was then named Engel Stadium. His nature as a showman and role as a community leader came out there, too. He used the stadium as a soup kitchen and a place to stock-pile board games to be donated to families in need.

But he was dubbed "The Barnum of the Bushes" for his efforts to bring in a crowd. He was fond of performances and stunts, including "Custer's Revenge," a "phone call" to Adolf Hitler, and he even had a house built to be given away to one lucky fan (Google books preview).

In 1931, Engel traded a shortstop for a turkey, after the local press complained of the original acquisition of the shortstop. Engel then served the bird to the Southern Baseball Writers' Association. Engel is reported to have said, "You've been giving me the bird, so now have one on me." After the event, Engel declared that Charlotte won the trade because the turkey was a little tough. That same year, the Lookouts signed Ms. Jackie Mitchell, the 17-year old girl faced off against baseball Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig and struck them both out (more or less). She is believed to be one of the first women to get a professional baseball contract (her career with the Lookouts was short, and her later years in baseball were fascinating and sad, too).

On the opening day in 1938, Engel had an "elephant hunt" in center field (Google books preview). Later, opening day would become such an event that area schools started dismissing early.

Around the time of the "wild elephant hunt," the Lookouts weren't doing so well financially. Clark Griffith, owner of the major league Washington Senators, sent his son Calvin to run the Lookouts. To save the team (and/or his job) Engel needed $125,000 to buy the team, so he stood on downtown street corners hawking shares of ownership in the team for $5 each, calling on citizens to “invest in their town and their national pastime.” 1,700 people became part owners of the team, but by the end of 1940, the Lookouts weren't making enough money (Google news), and Griffith bought the team in 1941, and kept Engel in place, but his days as the Barnum of Baseball were over.

In 1960, Joe Engel was given the King of Baseball Award, an honor bestowed by Minor League Baseball on a veteran from the world of professional baseball for their long-time dedication and service to the game of baseball. The Lookouts lost their affiliation in 1965, and Joe Engel passed away in 1969, before the Lookouts were picked up again.

In 1976, the Lookouts became a farm team for the Oakland Athletics, and there was renewed local interest in the team and the stadium, but there was a lot of work to be done.
It was no easy feat to peel away over ten years of neglect at Engel Stadium, though. The venue was in such bad shape that an inspection by Oakland A’s farm director Syd Thrift and Southern League president Billy Hitchcock required crawling in through a window. Thus, a “Sparkle Day” (the first of many) was held at Engel on a Saturday. The owners and new management of the Lookouts, as well as the UTC baseball team and even people off the street, pitched in to clean up the place. Every window in the facility had to be fixed, as well as many of the seats.
The Lookouts were sold two years after they were revived, only to be sold another three times in the coming years. In 1988, the stadium got its first major overhaul, but not before the team won the Southern League Championship. But the Lookouts moved less than 2 miles away to a new stadium following their last game in 1999, and The Engel Foundation has been working to maintain the historic stadium.
posted by filthy light thief (6 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not much of a baseball fan, but this is an amazing post. I count at least four times I've right-clicked and open-in-new-tab-ed, now to read up..
posted by mrbill at 2:57 PM on July 25, 2013

I wanted to know more about the "Barnum of Baseball" who signed Jackie Mitchell, who was the subject of a recent MetaFilter post. Instead of derailing that thread, I put this one together.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:09 PM on July 25, 2013

The first Bill Veeck then?
posted by wheelieman at 3:50 PM on July 25, 2013

Wow, you win some and you lose some, filthy light thief.

I neither know nor care about baseball, but I know about good posts, and this is one of em. Three comments, five favourites, oh well.
posted by wilful at 8:00 PM on July 25, 2013

I haven't even started to read the links, but what a spectacular post. Engel Stadium is a wonderful old ball bark. The first time I drank a beer with my dad was at a Lookouts game, which was a few years after a high school teacher bought me a beer at, of all things, a Buffet concert. I spent a lot of my twenties at Twofer Tuesdays and the Wednesday afternoon "Businessman's Special."

I hardly ever go to the new joint, though. Engel stadium faces east on low ground, and the shaded stands were a relatively cool place to hang out on a summer evening. The new park is a giant west-facing solar collector on a hill. When I'm there, I keep waiting on the local news to show up to fry an egg on the bleachers.
posted by lost_cause at 10:11 PM on July 25, 2013

I love this post. A lot of enjoyable info on a subject I am passionate about. Thank you, filthy light thief.
posted by scottymac at 12:44 AM on July 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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