CHATTANOOGA, TENN. – A mixture of weeds and large rocks populate the outfield grass in center field. Puddles from overnight rain form in the dugouts. The old ballpark looks like an abandoned lot, desolate and sad.
Engel Stadium is a ghost town these days, shuttered more than a decade ago, but its history and the legends who played in the former home of the Chattanooga Lookouts will forever remain part of its lore and charm.
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in an exhibition game at Engel. Willie Mays made his professional debut here with a Negro minor league team. Rogers Hornsby served as the Lockouts’ player-manager for one season.
One day a young slugger named Harmon Killebrew smashed a home run so far over the center field fence that it became folklore.
Scenes from the movie “42 — The Jackie Robinson Story” were filmed at Engel. Even Michael Jordan played in the venerable park during his hiatus from basketball.
The Twins organization’s ties to the Lookouts and Engel Stadium can be traced to the late 1920s when Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith purchased the minor league team.
Killebrew, Bob Allison and Jim Kaat all spent time in Chattanooga.
The team’s association continued this season when the Lookouts became the Twins’ Class AA affiliate.
“It’s great that we’ve come full-circle,” said Mickey McCamish, who sold Coca-Cola at Engel Stadium as a kid in the early 1950s. “It brings back so much of the Lookouts history. It causes us to go back and revisit.”
The stadium is named after former team president Joe Engel, a renowned promotor who earned the nickname “Barnum of the Bushes” because of his showmanship and gimmicks to attract crowds.
According to the Engel Foundation’s archives, Engel once traded a player for a 25-pound turkey. He also found a 17-year-old girl named Jackie Mitchell to pitch against Ruth and Gehrig. She struck out both.
Engel crammed more than 26,000 fans into the stadium one day by raffling off a house during the Great Depression. In 1953, he challenged a player named Don Grate to set the world record for longest throw, which he accomplished with a toss that measured 443 feet, 3 ½ inches.
“The richness of its history is in what Joe Engel accomplished and what he brought,” said Ray Deering, a former Chattanooga sportswriter who has followed the Lookouts since 1952. “He was a larger-than-life character.”
Longtime fans of the team view Killebrew in similar regard. The Hall of Famer hit 29 home runs as a 21-year-old prospect in 1957.
According to legend and historical records, Killebrew is the only player to hit a home run over the deepest part of center field, which stretched a whopping 471 feet from home plate.
Nearly 60 years later, memories are fuzzy.
“There was one I didn’t see, I don’t know how I missed it,” said Don Minnick, a Lookouts pitcher that season. “They said it was one of the most prodigious blasts.”
Russ Heman, who also pitched for the Lookouts that season, doesn’t remember that particular home run, but time hasn’t erased his memories of Killebrew’s towering homers.
“They were high and long,” Heman said. “When he hit one, you knew it was gone.”
Here’s a twist in the legend of Killebrew’s home run: Angelo LoGrande, a career minor leaguer in the Cleveland organization, said he also cleared that deepest part of center field in 1979 or ’80.
“Twice, I think,” he said.
Only Killebrew’s blast has been preserved in the legend of Engel Stadium.
“The railroad yards sit behind the stadium,” McCamish said. “He hit it over deep center, and they say the ball is still going.”