Robinson biopic brings stadium closer to foundation's goal
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | January 11, 2013 5:51 AM
When undertaking a task as monumental as restoring a dilapidated 80-year-old Minor League Baseball stadium, the following cliché certainly applies: It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.
Those have been words to live by for members of the Engel Foundation, a group established in 2009 with the express intent of restoring Chattanooga's Engel Stadium to its former glory. Legions of future Hall of Famers -- including Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew -- played there, and throughout his 34-year run as owner of the Lookouts, stadium namesake Joe Engel staged some of the most memorable promotional stunts that the game had ever seen. Perhaps most notably, Engel had a 17-year-old local girl named Jackie Mitchell pitch in an exhibition game against the Yankees in 1931. She promptly struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, among others.
Engel Stadium hosted the Lookouts -- first as a Southern Association franchise and later as a member of the Double-A Southern League -- until they moved to AT&T Field following the 1999 campaign. Afterward, the stadium slowly fell into a state of disrepair and was even condemned by the city during a challenging stretch of 2011 that saw the left-field wall toppled by a violent storm. But here in 2013, the future of Engel Stadium -- which is now owned by the nearby University of Tennessee and leased to its eponymous foundation -- is looking remarkably bright. The Engel Foundation's 17 board members, led by chairwoman Janna Jahn, have been working tirelessly on a variety of fundraising and promotional initiatives that, taken together, should go a long way toward restoring a facility with a remarkably rich history.
And later this year, Engel Stadium will gain national prominence on a level that it has perhaps never possessed before. The Jackie Robinson biopic 42, slated to open April 12, filmed many of its baseball scenes there. In this way, the facility itself became an actor of sorts. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson and Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, with Engel Stadium in a key supporting role as Ebbets Field.
I first became familiar with Engel Stadium and the Engel Foundation in 2010 while on a road trip with a primary purpose of documenting the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham. The game is an annual tradition for the Birmingham Barons, who return to their old home of Rickwood Field (now 103 years old) for a weekday matinee steeped in period detail.
That contest has been a source of inspiration for the Engel Foundation's members, who envision a similarly history-soaked event taking place at Engel Stadium each year. The Chattanooga Lookouts are receptive to the idea of revisiting their Engel roots, but of course, only within a circumstance in which the playing field meets the stringent guidelines demanded of all Minor League Baseball teams.
"We'd love to explore that possibility once the stadium is up and running," said Lookouts general manager Rich Mozingo.
If that possibility ever becomes a reality, 42 will deserve some of the credit. In its quest to achieve sparkling period detail in the film, production company Legendary Entertainment invested in a number of stadium enhancements.
"Some of [the stadium improvements] were only part of a temporary set, like the reconstruction of the dugout to make it look like Ebbets Field," said Jahn. "But we came out so much further ahead in our stadium restoration efforts than we otherwise would have. We got repairs to our roof, a laser-graded infield and lead-based paint remediated. A lot of things got done because of the presence of the film company."
The selection of Engel as Ebbets stand-in can be attributed to Eric Pastore, a stadium expert who co-owns the web site digitalballparks.com. Pastore worked as a location scout for the film and chose Engel in part because he felt that it deserved greater recognition as an American treasure.
"It's one of the most classic ballparks and one of the most underrated, beautiful stadiums in the country," Pastore told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in October. "I hate to say this, but people there needed to be reminded of what a gem it is."
Extolling the virtues of Engel Stadium is a big part of its foundation's mission, and Jahn says that throughout 2013 the local community will have plenty of opportunity to reconnect.
"Our first goal now is to get people back into the stadium, to remind everyone how much they once loved the old ballpark," she explained. "Baseball is one way to do that, but we're looking at concerts, movie nights and special events as well as just opening the ballpark as a public space when it's not being used for something else. That's really what this year is going to be all about, getting the gates open so that people can enjoy Engel again."
To this end, the Engel Foundation recently hired former Lookouts executive Bill Kuehn as the stadium's full-time overseer, and Jahn says his job is "to get the place up and running, and do all of the things that a GM typically does."
"[The Engel Foundation] is a board of volunteers, we all have day jobs," she continued. "[Kuehn] has the same passion for the place that we do, and he was willing to take a leap of faith to get involved. This is a start-up, and like any start-up, this is a risky venture."
And of course, start-ups are reliant on an infusion of capital to get things going. The Engel Foundation has made significant progress in this area as well, buoyed in part by the publicity that resulted from the 42 cast and crew rolling into town last Spring. A current initiative has been dubbed "The 1500 Club," in recognition of Joe Engel's formidable fundraising prowess.
"In 1937, Joe Engel stood on a street corner and sold shares of the Lookouts to people passing by for $5 a piece, because [then-owners] the Washington Senators were going to sell and Joe wanted to make sure that the team stayed in Chattanooga," explained Jahn. "According to one account 1,532 people bought shares -- you've got to love a story like that."
Accordingly, the first 1,500 people who make a $100 donation to the Engel Foundation will have their names put on a plaque that will be put on display at Engel Stadium. On the corporate level, the foundation is looking to recruit a "Starting Nine" who will each donate $25,000. Jahn reports, with amazement, that "the first three calls we've made have been yeses. We haven't gotten a no yet!"
The big picture
The Engel Foundation's dream of making the stadium an event center and history museum that still hosts baseball games is well underway, and should it come to fruition then it (along with the aforementioned Rickwood Field) could serve as a template for how communities can adapt early- to mid-20th-century ballparks to 21st-century specifications.
"There are a thousand details to take care of and a thousand decisions to make," said Jahn. "But it's important to step back and realize that this is one of the few remaining ballparks left in the country, and that represents something important in American culture. We've been entrusted with this stadium, but it belongs to everyone in America who cares about baseball and its history. Its future is in all of our hands."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.