Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew was the guest of honor at Wednesday's Rickwood Classic, an annual contest played at the oldest professional stadium in America.
When Killebrew played at Rickwood Field, however, it was as a member of the visiting Chattanooga Lookouts. The slugger's home base in those days was Engel Stadium, an iconic facility that turned 80 this season.
The stadium, named for flamboyant team owner Joe Engel, has not hosted a professional team since the Lookouts departed for AT&T Park following the 1999 campaign. Over the last decade, the already antiquated ballpark has fallen into a state of considerable but certainly not insurmountable disrepair.
But Engel Stadium is dripping with character and imbued with history, and it certainly has the potential to be turned into another Rickwood -- a functional ballpark that is utilized by the community while serving as a living link to a long-ago era of baseball history. In a nutshell (which, incidentally, still litter the aisles of the ballpark), Engel has the potential to be a must-see destination for fans of the national pastime.
"I've heard talk about restoring Engel and I certainly hope that they do," Killebrew said Wednesday while standing on the pristine playing surface of 100-year-old Rickwood Field. "It would really be a bad thing to tear down that old ballpark, there's just so much history there. At one time it was the biggest Minor League park in all of baseball -- 385 feet down the left-field line and 470 to dead center field!
"When I was in my first year playing in the Southern Association, I led the league with 29 home runs. I've had people tell me, 'That's not a whole lot of home runs,' and my answer to that was always, 'Well, have you ever seen Engel Stadium?'"
A return to glory?
Killebrew was right. There has been a lot of talk recently about restoring Engel Stadium and lately, that talk has been turning to action. The Engel Foundation was formed in April 2009 and the stadium was added to the National Register of Historic Places eight months later. That allayed fears that the facility would be torn down.
I toured Engel Stadium with a cross-section of supporters on Friday afternoon, a gathering organized by Engel Foundation director Janna Jahn. Brian Wright, a recent high school graduate who fell in love with the stadium after sneaking into it, represented one end of the generational spectrum. At the other end was journalist Ray Deering, who grew up attending games at Engel and still reminisces about a mammoth home run by Jim Lemon that cleared the left-field light tower.
Jahn, a municipal employee with boundless energy and a knack for networking, did not grow up with a particular connection to the stadium. But her interest was piqued considerably once she heard the story of Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old girl who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game in 1931.
"Once I heard that story, it really bothered me that I had grown up in Chattanooga and never heard about it," Jahn recalled. "And that got me thinking about Engel. What are we doing with it and why is just sitting there?"
Jahn has since assembled a community All-Star team to serve on the board of the Engel Foundation, individuals of diverse backgrounds, ages and interests who are united in their love of the stadium.
The group has largely cleared up a murky situation involving the facility's ownership and plans on assuming control in the near future. Soon, the group will launch a private sector fundraising effort, with the goal of restoring Engel to playable condition.
"We've identified about $150,000 of repairs that need to be made," said Jahn. "That will be phase one, to get this place to a point where it's clean, safe and playable."
After that, the options are nearly limitless. Speaking with a contagious level of enthusiasm, Jahn mentioned the possibilities: concerts on the playing field, audio and video storytelling projects and partnerships with local education non-profits and the Chattanooga History Center (to name just a few).
And, of course, baseball.
Jahn and her fellow Engel supporters imagine a Chattanooga version of the Rickwood Classic, a historically themed regular-season game in which the Lookouts return to their former haunt.
"Wouldn't it be great to create a Birmingham-Chattanooga rivalry, with the two teams playing one another in their old ballparks?" she asked.
Honoring a true innovator
No matter what path the Engel restoration efforts take, the stadium's namesake will be a primary focus.
"Joe Engel was the Barnum and Bailey of baseball," Killebrew said. "He did a lot of things to promote the game."
Indeed, he did. A master showman in the same mold as the legendary Bill Veeck, Engel was the sort of individual who would do just about anything to get butts in the seats. His signing of Jackie Mitchell represents just the tip of the iceberg. Equally legendary was his giveaway of a house during the Great Depression (24,000 fans jammed into the 12,000-seat stadium for that one).
Engel also was responsible for many of the stadium's most famous features and quirks, from the first-ever press box to an idyllic rose garden in right-center field (forcing outfielders to fish the ball out of the thorny bushes).
"He was a pioneer, larger than life, and he'll be our hook because not many people were like him," Jahn said.
Engel's spirit lives on in his eponymous foundation, comprised as it is of individuals who will do anything they can to preserve and promote Chattanooga's rich baseball history.
"Everything we want to accomplish is doable," Jahn said. "Now we just have to do it."