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Chattanooga’s Historical Baseball Cathedral

By Leslie Mines III

CHATTANOOGA, TN ( — Baseball is America’s pastime. It’s a sport that’s rich in history with roots all across the world. The very same roots and richness lie here in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a legacy that many may not know of or have forgotten about. Engel Stadium was opened in 1930, and it was the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts until 1999 when the team moved to AT&T Field.

Named after Lookouts President Joe Engel, the stadium became the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Minor League Baseball team. Engel Stadium quickly became a focal point for sports enthusiasts and a symbol of the city’s pride. Over the years, Engel Stadium hosted various exhibition games, showcasing its importance on the national baseball stage.

One of the most notable events in Engel Stadium’s history was the exhibition game played by the New York Yankees on April 11, 1931, against the Southern Association All-Stars. This game featured baseball legends like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Famously in that same exhibition game, a young woman by the name of Jackie Mitchell would strike out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. According to local historians, Jackie Mitchell’s performance at Engel Stadium was an important baseball milestone and important to the history of women in professional sports. 

Teammates Lou Gehrig, left, and Babe Ruth study the form of 17-year old Chattanooga Lookouts minor league pitcher Jackie Mitchell, one of the first women to play professional baseball, as the Yankees visited Chattanooga for an exhibition game, April 2, 1931. With a sharp breaking ball, Mitchell thrilled the local fans by striking out both Ruth and Gehrig, back-to-back, in the first inning. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner, voided Mitchell’s contract shortly after the exhibition, saying baseball was “too strenuous” for women. Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Engel Stadium would also be the home for multiple Negro League Baseball teams as well as semi-pro teams. The Chattanooga Choo-Choos were the first team to allow a very young Willie Mays to play professional baseball. As a teenager, Mays would play for the Choo Choos before going onto becoming one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. I once asked a relative who attended games at Engel Stadium about the history of baseball in the city of Chattanooga and he said, “The Joe was always rocking for a ballgame”

The 1946 Chattanooga Choo-Choos with Willie Mays, kneeling fourth from the left. Negro Southern League Museum Research Center

In 2012 Engel Stadium was used as a filming location for the movie “42” starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. The movie chronicled the life and career of Jackie Robinson, who famously broke the color barrier when he became the first African-American player to play in Major League Baseball on April, 15, 1947. 

However, Jackie played at Engel Stadium during the summer of 1952 in an exhibition between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves. Chattanooga Native and former baseball player Chae Butler was astonished when finding out the history of the Negro Leagues and MLB in his hometown. “I can’t believe I never knew that Engel had such a rich history,” says Butler.

Despite the Lookouts’ departure in 1999, Engel Stadium persevered, finding new purpose beyond baseball. The stadium became a community hub, hosting concerts, festivals, and local events. Its historic significance was officially recognized in 2009 when Engel Stadium was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Efforts to preserve and restore Engel Stadium gained momentum as the community recognized its cultural and historical value. Local initiatives and fundraising campaigns sought to breathe new life into this iconic structure. The Engel Foundation, formed with the goal of preserving the stadium, played a crucial role in these restoration efforts.

Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, stands as more than just a baseball venue. Its rich history, from hosting legendary players like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Harmon Killebrew to its recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, solidifies its place as a cultural landmark. Engel Stadium remains a symbol of Chattanooga’s enduring love for baseball and its commitment to preserving its unique historical legacy.

About Leslie Mines

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