Here stands Engel Stadium on its 50th anniversary-symbol of everything that minor league baseball once was and is no more.
This home of the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern League is both a monument to its decadedead angel, Joe Engel, "The Barnum of the Bushes," and a tombstone for a marvelous era in baseball legend.
The grand ancient ballpark gone to ruin and slated for the wrecking ball just five years ago is also, however, a freshly-painted emblem of what the refurbished bushes may be again.
Both the rich history of the minors and its problematic future are captured in his huge concrete ball yard by the railroad tracks where every star from Babe Ruth to Henry Aaron has played and paid his respects.
One man has the right to tell the tale of this stadium-Jim Critendon, president of the new Class AA Lookouts, who calls himself "old Joe Engel's son in spirit."
The year Crittendon was born-1936-Engel and his carnival ballpark, with its "world's largest scoreboard" and 40-foot high out field walls, were in their heyday.
On a May night that season, a minor-league-record crowd of 24,839-twice the park's capacity-jammed the joint, covering most of the outfield with humanity.
Engle, the father of almost every baseball attendance gimmick from "Bat Day" to giving away a wheel barrow of silver dollars, drew the throng by giving away a fully furnished house with a new car in the garage.
Engle even figured out how to play a game with 12,000 people standing in the outfield. For a man bras enough to trade a troublesome shortstop for a turkey, or challenge Dizzy Dean to a $10,000 fistfight at home plate, it was a small challenge.
Engle simply froze the baseballs for a week so no one could hit them much past the infield.
This season, Crittendon, in his first year as president, will also give away a furnished house-his own.
"Maybe I'm a fool," said Crittendon, who personally chopped down trees in the Engle Stadium outfield after the park lay dormant for a decade, "but I say you've gotta do something in this life. I've been in love with this park since I was a child. And I'm going to save it."
In Crittendon's boyhood, Engle Stadium was the heart of Chattanooga community life; it had been ever since Clark Grifith, the Old Fox, built it in 1929 and handed it over to his buddy Engle to operate as the Washington Senators' top farm club.
Just as Engel the master scout had discovered and signed almost every Senator star of the '24 and '25 World Series teams, so Engel the drumbeater developed almost every decent Washington player of the '30s, '40s and '50s at his Chattenooga fiefdom.
"The Lookouts were the main attraction in town. People dressed for the occasion like it was church," recalls Crittendon. "School let out for Opening Day and there were usually 10,000 to 14,000 fans in the park."
Crittendon's Knothole Gang memories were of feuds between Engel and Bobo Newsom, who would retreat to Chattanooga during his numerous exiles from the majors.
"Bobo claims we had a gentleman's agreement on contract," Engel once stormed. "Couldn't be. No gentlemen were involved."
As Crittendon grew up, so did a generation of Senator sluggers-Jim Lemon, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison.
None made so much as a home run ripple at Chattanooga. Engel, the son of a Washington saloonkeeper and a Nat pitcher on the same staff with Walter Johnson, made sure of that. He vowed that his park would make hitters cry.
Engel Stadium's legendary left field wall is 368 feet away and 40 feet high-down the line . In center, the wall is more than 420 feet away and is 25 feet high.
Nevertheless, Chattanoogans claim Babe Ruth hit the world's longest homer here: the ball cleared the right field wall, landed in a moving coal car and was found in St. Louis.
For decades, Lookout baseball flourished, occasionally outdrawing a major league team.
As minor league baseball began to shrivel in the late '50s and '60s, so did Engel. Elephants in the outfield, treasure hunts in the stands, pigeon races starting at home plate. All seemed bush league in the most depressing sense in the sophisticated age of TV.
Engel fell so far from grace with the Griffiths (attendance down to 900 a game), that in 1959, the Nats told Engel to pay off the players and close up shop.
Instead, Engel bought the club himself. By 1965, the Lookouts had expired. Four years later, mercifully, so did Engel.
Once, the baseball world laughed when the skinflint Old Fox sent Engel to Minneapolis and told him, "You pick two players off that team who will help us, and trade them for yourself."
By the '70s, it was merely a footnote that almost all Bill Veeck's promotional genius was a direct borrowing of Engel antics that were decades old.
Peaceful Chattanooga learned, after fostering minor league baseball since 1910, that it could live without the sport. In so idyllic a setting, it was easy.
This railhead of the Confederacy, burned by U.S. Grant in retribution for Chickamauga, lies in an emerald valley surrounded by Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain.
This town of 157,000, hugging the Tennessee River with its old black iron bridges, fancies itself as rich in lore as its Indian name and as defiantly romantic as its staunchly maintained drawl.
When Chattanooga threatened to demolish the fallow Engel Stadium, a group of investors, including Crittendon, could not stand the thought and picked up the fallen banner. They resurrected the Lookouts for the 1976 season.
"About 20 of us volunteers worked on the park every weekend," said Crittendon. "The place was a total wreck. Trees as bigh around as your arm wer growing in the outfield. The wood seats had rotted.
"The place was a haven for pigeons - a flyway. The entire grandstand was under two to four inches of pigeon waste. It took high-powered fire department hoses to wash it off."
For its efforts, all the group succeeded in doing was driving itself $200,000 in debt as attendance dropped each year from 135,000 to 90,000 to 45,000 in '78.
Surely, this was the end of the line.
Instead, it was the beginning for Crittendon, who combined with vice president Don McKeel to buy controlling interest in the club.
"We're turning back the clock," said Crittendon, who owns a chain of optical stores. "We're doing everything Joe Engel did. Every night's a promotion, a giveaway or a happening."
Already, in 15 home dates, the Lookouts have given away three (used) cars and an Engel-style pot of gold.
"We had both change and dollar bills in our pot," said Crittendon. "One fan was a scooper; the other was a picker, who only picked out the bills. The scooper got twice as much ($1,500) to carry home."
Willing to try anything, Crittendon, had five sky divers bombard the stadium on opening day. "Four of 'em made it," said Larry Fleming of the Chattanooga Times. "The other 'unlanded over in those trees. Once the parachutes had settled, the county's highest political executive, Dalton Roberts, sand the national anthem. It helped that Roberts was the author of that country-and-western hit, "Don't Pay the Ransom, Honey. I've Escaped."
Crittendon also added two missing elements to Lookout life: home runs and beer.
The previous Lookout boss forbade beer because his wife opposed it on religious grounds.
"What would Engel have thought of that?" said Crittendon. "It was against his religion to lose money."
Amidst the blizzard of promotions, the Lookouts could not have foreseen one of their happenings.
A bridge stands just above and beyond the center-field fence. A spectacular car crash took place on the bridge, almost as though staged for the crowd.
"The boys in one car had been drinking," said McKeel. "Before the smoke cleared, all four doors flew open and they were throwing beer cans off the bridge-destroyin' evidence.
"Trouble was, a coupla thousand people were watchin' 'em."
So far Crittendon and his largely volunteer help have sold enough advertising and season tickets to drag the $200,000 debt down to "$33,000 current payables." They have also lured 23,700 fans in less than a fifth of the season.
"I honestly think we're going to make it," said Crittendon. "Pay off the debt this year and make a profit next season. Our goal is 200,000 attendance-old Joe did it year after year-but around 100,000 would break even.
"It's been a month since I tended to my businesses. I have employes who probably think I've gone to South America with the funds.
"We're here until 2 a.m. every night, doing a million little things. I'm out on the tractor working on the field, or painting the stands. I dream about this work. I live it and breath it." Hard labor is the easiest part of the task.
"I haven't really been able to grasp the role of club president yet. I came from a white-collar business and this is roll-up-the-sleeves back-slapping. I'm not as much a natural at this promoting as Joe Engel was," Crittendon admitted.
Crittendon and friends are just at the beginning of a long road. They may never match the tall tales of Engel Stadium's past.
Will Crittendon ever hire and fire the same player 10 times over the years as Engel did to Charlie Letchas?
What will the reborn Lookouts do to match the time that the Old Fox sent his son to manage Chattanooga? The full-of-beans young Calvin Griffith followed the umpires into their dressing room to complain-only to get punched in the nose by an ump and be carried out.
Crittendon will do his best to join the tradition this summer when he gives away his own second home, a rental property in the handsome Riverview section of town.
Joe Engel may have traded himself, but it's doubtful that he ever gave away his own house, even if it was No. 2.
The Engel Stadium press room could tell many tales: of Babe Didrikson fanning Babe Ruth as a gag, or of Satchel Paige barnstorming with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts.
The walls of the room are covered with fading mural cartoons that Engel loved. One cartoon says, "I was living the life of Reilly ... until Reilly came home."
Now it is Crittendon who is living the life of Engel. If the Barnum of the Bushes suddenly came back home, he wouldn't mind at all. CAPTION: Picture, Joe Engel, "Barnum of the Bushes," regularly packed park with help of giveaways and gimmicks.