Someone asked me recently, “What’s the best baseball city you remember?” It didn’t take me long to answer, and if you want to go, you can…and see for yourself.
His route had taken him through the South, and he’d been to Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, and Atlanta, and coming home he texted to asked about Chattanooga, and a Lookouts’ game at the new ballpark built there about twenty years ago. It’s also the Double-A home for the Reds, where Pete Rose, Junior once played and is still a conversation item among the locals.
He asked,”I know you used to work in Chattanooga. What did you think of the town and the ballpark?”
It’s a simple question to answer for me, because in my eight seasons as a minor league umpire I always considered Chattanooga one of the best baseball venues of all, considering all the other ancillary things there were there to see and do.
It’s also the place where I made the worst call of my life as a minor league umpire, in May of 1978, when I lost a fly ball in the outfield, called it a catch when it wasn’t, and ended up ejecting seven players and banished the entire Chattanooga bench to the clubhouse. Afterwards, when I saw it on the 11 o’clock news, I could see that the ball bounced off the center field fence into the chest of the centerfielder, who wheeled and threw it back to the infield, doubling off a runner at first base. But…that’s baseball.
They played at old Engel Field back when I was there in the late 70s, and Chattanooga was an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians at the time. It also had the deepest center field fence in professional baseball…something like 505 feet. It was so deep that they fenced it off with chain link fencing and let goats graze between the fence and the high brick wall that surrounded the ballpark. Actually, prior to the Cleveland playing there, Oakland’s Double-A team was there and Charlie Finley had a couple camels grazing out there in the summer of 1977.
There were some of the Southern League’s best bar and burger shops on Missionary Ridge, overlooking the city, and after games we’d go there and have the absolute best cheeseburgers in the history of digestion for a $1.25. I also developed a fondness for another southern favorite, Schlitz beer, at Bragg’s Diner, named after the Confederate general who commanded troops there in 1863 – Braxton Bragg.
Of course, I’ve always been a history buff, and there is no better Civil War center in all the South than Chattanooga and nearby Chickamauga Battlefield, in north Georgia. But in Chattanooga you could drive up on the summit of Lookout Mountain and spend an entire afternoon up there…just enjoying the temperature and the view, for it was often 100 degrees down in the city along the banks of the Tennessee River. A thousand feet up on Lookout Mountain it was always 15 degrees cooler, with a breeze.
And, there was baseball. The old ballpark (Engel Stadium) on East 3rd Street had hosted games as far back as 1930. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had played there in Yankee exhibitions. The local team was named the ‘Lookouts’, for obvious reasons, and numerable major league stars had graced the confines of one of America’s most unique ball yards. In 2012 Engel Stadium was used as the movie set for ’42’, the life story of former Dodger great Jackie Robinson. They made the park look like old Ebbetts Field, in Brooklyn.
The lights were terrible, the dimensions were unusual, and the scoreboard in left field was an almost exact duplicate of the one in old Crosley Field. I still have a ‘Lookouts’ hat worn during the first era of the Reds’ minor league affiliation, long after I had moved on.
Today, they play in gleaming new AT&T Park, that while beautiful, lacks all the charm of the old park. The Reds moved back there last year after about a decade in Pensacola, Florida, replacing the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Double-A team.
And, Chattanooga itself has changed. There was a time when you didn’t dare walk around downtown after dark. That’s all changed now with an urban renewal several years ago that included one of America’s most beautiful aquariums…and the Read House is still there, built in 1872, one of the South’s finest guest hotels and restaurants.
You like a good baseball story, of course, and there is another that I like to share about old Engel Stadium. When I was a rookie umpire in the Southern League in 1977, they had an organist that played from the roof of Engel, and at the direction of A’s owner, Charlie Finley, was given great liberties to whip up the crowd and create excitement. My partner at the time had a play at the plate one night which the organist believed he had missed, and played...Three Blind Mice. It did whip up the crowd, alright, because most of them were on about their seventh or eight Schlitz of the game. My partner demanded the organist go home. That’s right…had him removed from the organ nest before the game would proceed – about a 15 minute delay.
It got some press the next day, which pleased not only Charlie Finley, but my partner, as well. Good times, and good memories, of a great baseball town!