The Engel Foundation was founded in 2009 with an admirable and ambitious goal: to restore Chattanooga's Engel Stadium to its former glory.
Engel Stadium was built in 1930 and served as the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts until they moved to their current abode of AT&T Park in 1999. In the ensuing decade, the facility fell into a state of disrepair -- at one point condemned by the city -- and it seemed to be on the fast track to annihilation. The ballpark is now owned by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The Engel Foundation, led by Chattanooga municipal employee Janna Jahn, refused to accept such a fate. The ballpark, named after flamboyant Lookouts owner Joe Engel, is a living, breathing piece of baseball history. Scores of baseball immortals -- Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and Harmon Killebrew among them -- played at the stadium, and in 1931 a 17-year-old local girl by the name of Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game. The Engel Foundation's challenging (some might say "quixotic") mission has seen many ups and downs over the past half-decade, but progress is being made and the dream lives on.
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I first visited Engel Stadium in 2010, and at that time I used phrases such as "boundless energy" and "contagious enthusiasm" to describe the work being done by Jahn and her cohorts. As often occurs with long-term projects, the optimism and idealism has hardened into a wary pragmatism. The contagious enthusiasm, while still present, is often undercut with wry, self-deprecating gallows humor.
"Rule No. 1: Don't take on the restoration of a stadium with a group of volunteers. It's harder than it looks!" said Jahn, laughing (perhaps to keep from crying).
They may be volunteers, but they are the ones tasked with taking care of problems large and small.
"There are currently nine of us [in the Foundation] -- one's a general contractor and the other's the president of an engineering firm. Otherwise it wouldn't look this way."
Recent improvements to the facility, funded by the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and donors to the Engel Foundation, include a repaired roof, a handicap lift and plumbing repairs. An assist in the ongoing restoration came courtesy of Hollywood, as the ballpark played the role of Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42. While many temporary changes were made so that Engel would resemble Ebbets, a major permanent addition arrived in the form of a brand-new laser-graded infield.
The field is a strange sight these days, as the new infield runs up against the decidedly not-so-new outfield. There is a marked bump in elevation between the infield and outfield, made all the more evident due to the decidedly different coloration between the two areas (a verdant green versus a patchy off-yellow). As a result, the playing surface is clearly not up to professional standards. In 2010 Jahn talked of staging an annual throwback Lookouts game at Engel Stadium (as the Birmingham Barons do in their old home of Rickwood Field), but the Foundation is not prioritizing such an endeavor at the moment.
Engel Stadium filled the role of Ebbets Field in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)
"Maintaining the field at a professional level knocks out our ability to do other things," said Jahn.
But a professional-level batter's box, that can be done. On June 15, one day prior to the Southern League All-Star Game at the Lookouts' home of AT&T Field, Engel Stadium will host the event's home run derby.
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"Rule number two: don't try to manage a stadium as a volunteer."
Of course, this is just what Jahn is doing. With professional baseball on the back burner, the Foundation is working on ways to keep Engel Stadium relevant. Recent events have included vintage baseball exhibitions, a "Casey at the Bat" baseball opera as well as concerts. The Foundation is also working to schedule youth sports events.
"Yes, we'll have baseball, but we'll probably have other sports, and it can't be just local. Chattanooga has a thriving tourism industry and Engel has a great story to tell," said Jahn. "And we're working with [Tennessee's] state historian, who has a team of grad students trying to figure out how Engel will tell its story. We envision Engel as more living history than museum. We want docents in 1930s attire telling stories, and we want to one day recreate the world's largest scoreboard. Or at least Joe [Engel] said it was."
Fans can watch events like a baseball opera from a refurbished grandstand. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)
"We want to keep Engel accessible so that people feel that the ballpark belongs to them," she continued. "It's everybody's ballpark."
The budgetary, organizational and time challenges of achieving these lofty goals remain, of course, especially when unforeseen obstacles pop up on a near-daily basis. (One of many examples: vandals broke into the stadium just last week, spray painting walls and smashing fluorescent lights in the concourse.) But it's too late to turn back now; the Engel Foundation is in it for the long haul.
"Now we are about to really start. We've got it," said Jahn, the contagious enthusiasm back once again. "We've done the research to try to determine the ways in which Engel can be part of the community and financially sustainable as far as operations are concerned. ... We have such a great vision for the place that it's easy to forget what's been accomplished. We're reminded when people come in and go 'Wow!'"
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.