Joe Engel

This article was written by Warren Corbett

Long before Bill Veeck sent a midget up to bat, Joe Engel sent a teenage girl out to pitch to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Engel, “the Barnum of the Bushes,” was minor league baseball’s premier showman for nearly four decades. “I don’t care what you say about me,” he said, “as long as you say something.”1 Nobody had more fun at the ballpark or gave more fun to fans.

Engel was no buffoon. A failed pitcher, he became one of the most successful scouts in history. His discoveries anchored the lineups of the Washington Senators’ three pennant winners.

He also became a civic and charitable force in his adopted home, Chattanooga, Tennessee. During the Depression he opened his ballpark to feed Christmas dinner to poor families. His Knothole Gang, a little league before Little League, taught baseball to thousands of boys aged 9 to 16. He organized Chattanooga’s annual Interstate Fair and orchestrated the largest celebration the town had ever seen for the opening of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Chickamauga Dam and Lake in 1940, despite the fact that the lake submerged his farm.

Joseph William Engel was born in Washington, DC, on March 12, 1893, the second of six children of the former Katherine Rock and William Arnold Engel, a German immigrant who never lost his thick accent. The elder Engel owned or managed several taverns and hotels in the nation’s capital. Engel’s Beer Garden on E Street Northwest was a hangout for players on the Senators and reporters from The Washington Post next door.

The beer garden was just a few blocks from the White House. Joe remembered meeting presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and riding ponies with Roosevelt’s children. His father gave him some racing pigeons, creating a lifelong passion. Papa Engel wanted his “poy Choe” to be a musician, but the youngster claimed his violin was stolen while he was playing baseball.

Joe became a batboy for the Senators and a favorite of manager Joe Cantillon. He lettered in four sports at St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Joe’s father introduced him to one of his customers, Clark Griffith, the Senators’ new manager. Griffith signed the strapping 19-year-old right-hander in 1912 and brought him straight to the majors.

The fun-loving apprentice pitcher became fast friends with the straight-arrow superstar Walter Johnson. They bonded over a mutual love of fox hounds, buying dogs together and competing in field trials. Griffith and Johnson were Engel’s idols.

Pitcher Engel showed early promise, but even in his two good years, 1913 and 1914, he was not a front-line starter. He was wild and came down with a sore arm at 22. His playing career lasted only nine seasons, with a 17-23 record in the majors. “I led the American League in walks one year and the International League another year in stolen towels,” he said.2 The truth is, he never pitched enough to lead the American League in anything.

But he impressed Griffith with his jolly personality and baseball savvy. When Griffith decided to send Engel to the minors in 1915, he told the pitcher to find out what his friend Cantillon, then managing Minneapolis, would give for him. Engel arranged to trade himself for a pitcher and Patsy Gharrity, who became Washington’s regular catcher.

Engel had one-game trials with Cincinnati and Cleveland before Griffith brought him back for his final appearance in 1920. After pitching three big league games in six years, he was done at 27.

Griffith offered him a new job as the club’s first full-time scout. Scouting was then a haphazard business. Big league owners and managers often relied on tips from friends or recommendations from self-appointed experts they didn’t know. One such unsolicited tip led Cantillon to sign Walter Johnson from an Idaho semipro team.

For the next decade Engel was a one-man scouting staff. He logged around 50,000 miles a year assessing college, semipro, and minor league players. He was remarkably productive. Among his dozens of discoveries were key men on Washington’s pennant-winning teams in 1924, 1925, and 1933: Bucky Harris, Fred Marberry, Ossie Bluege, Joe Kuhel, and Buddy Myer.

His most famous find was Joe Cronin, a 21-year-old shortstop who had already washed out in two trials with Pittsburgh. Engel bought him from Double-A Kansas City in 1928 for $7,500. As Engel told it, Griffith was furious over the price tag for the failed prospect and threatened to make Engel pay it himself. It’s a good story, but not likely. Cronin’s biographer, Mark Armour, notes that Griffith trusted Engel’s judgment on talent, and the club badly needed a shortstop.

It is true that Engel wrote a letter to Griffith’s niece and secretary, Mildred Robertson: “Am bringing home a real sweetie to you in Joe Cronin, so be dolled up Wednesday or Thursday to meet him.” Mildred became Mrs. Cronin, another Engel scouting coup.3

Engel’s success was based on his keen eye for ballplayers and his knack for making friends wherever he went. “He has all the qualifications of a first-class politician,” Washington Post writer Frank Young commented. Engel said he paid little attention to statistics: “I can tell by the way a player handles himself whether he is a good future prospect.”

“Heart” was as important as talent. He recommended Bucky Harris after he saw the little second baseman pick a fight with a much bigger player. For Engel, scouting was “like coaching at third base. If you guess right, nobody says anything and you get no credit. But if you guess wrong — Oh, boy.”4

Griffith believed a big part of Engel’s value was in saving the team from costly mistakes. In 1923 Paul Strand set a professional record with 325 hits in 194 games in the Pacific Coast League. The Salt Lake City club wanted $75,000 for the phenom, but Engel advised against it. The Athletics’ Connie Mack paid, and bought a .228 big league hitter.

Along his travels, Engel met and married a Tennessee girl, Mary Polhamus, in 1916. During some off-seasons he worked for her father, hauling grain to market on Mississippi riverboats. In the 1920s he spent several winters on the vaudeville circuit in a comedy act with the Senators’ clown pitchers, Al Schacht and Nick Altrock. It was excellent training for his future.

Scouting was getting tougher because the takeover of the minor leagues by the majors had begun. “You find a fellow who looks good to you,” Engel said, “start making inquiries, and the first thing you find out is that some big league [team] has had strings on him for two or three years and is about ready to pull on them.”5 While the St. Louis Cardinals were the first team to build a farm system — owning nine affiliates by 1929 — Engel estimated that more than half the teams in the minors had some arrangement with a major league club, giving the big club first claim on promising prospects.

Clark Griffith moved to get into the farming business. In June 1929 he agreed to buy the Atlanta Crackers of the Class A Southern Association, but the league, determined to preserve its independence, informed him that it would not approve the purchase.

Griffith turned his attention to Chattanooga, one of the Southern’s smallest cities and weakest franchises. To get around the league’s opposition, Engel was the buyer of record, though he acknowledged that Griffith had co-signed a loan to finance the deal. Other league owners didn’t exactly welcome him. At first they denied Engel a vote in league meetings because of his ties to Washington.

Engel quickly made himself a hero in his new hometown. The team was named the Lookouts after a mountain, but had spent most of its life in the valley of the shadow of last place. The new owner dumped almost the entire roster and spent $180,000 to build a state-of-the-art concrete and steel ballpark seating about 10,000. A poll of local fans chose the park’s name: Engel Stadium.6 More than 17,000 people overflowed the stands on Opening Day in 1930.

The Lookouts didn’t get much better in Engel’s first season — finishing sixth, with a 67-87 record — but he kept the fans coming out. He bought 50 canaries (or maybe it was 100) and hung their cages around the ballpark so their songs could distract the customers from the ugliness on the field.

The former vaudeville comic was just warming up. The next spring, with the Yankees coming to town for an exhibition game, Engel signed 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell, who had played for his girls’ team, the Engelettes, and spread the word that she would pitch to Ruth and Gehrig. Newsreel cameras showed up on April 2 to see the 5-foot-5 left-hander strike out both of them.

Of course, many observers, mostly men, believed the sluggers had taken a dive. Mitchell went to her grave convinced that her feat was legit: “Why, hell, they were trying, damn right.”7 But Engel later said Ruth and Gehrig went along with the gag: “She couldn’t pitch hay to a cow, but both of ’em let her strike ’em out.”8

That same year Engel traded shortstop Johnny Jones to Charlotte for a 25-pound turkey. He cooked the turkey and served it to sportswriters, then complained that he had gotten the worst of the deal because it was tough.

Engel’s nonstop promotions ranged from the cornball to the tasteless and racist. He made Opening Day an extravaganza. Local schools closed, and the turnout was the biggest in the league nearly every April. One year Engel staged a re-enactment of Custer’s last stand, but Custer won the battle of Engel Stadium.

He hired a former patent-medicine salesman, Arch McDonald, as the Lookouts’ radio announcer. The portly McDonald fit right in because he loved a good time and was game for anything. On Opening Day in 1935 Engel brought a circus to the park, and McDonald did his pregame show riding a camel. When Griffith brought McDonald to Washington to broadcast Senators games, it was reported that he sent Engel a 10-pound ham — trading one ham for another.

A favorite stunt was “Cash & Carry.” An armored car dumped piles of coins on the field, and a random fan got to keep all the money he could scoop up. The record was $930; Engel made sure most of the coins were nickels.

His crowning promotion attracted a record Southern Association crowd of 24, 639 on May 1, 1936. Engel gave away a house with a car in the garage. A blindfolded boy crawled into a box of raffle tickets and pulled out the ticket belonging to Charles Mills, a warehouse worker. Mills sold the house and used the proceeds to buy a grocery store.9

“I live every day just as if it were New Year’s Eve,” Engel said.10 And the fans ate it up. Chattanooga attendance was usually second only to Atlanta, the league’s largest city by far. Engel and Atlanta Crackers president Earl Mann were good friends, but they ginned up a mock feud to stoke the competition between the two cities.

Engel recognized that the best fan attraction was a winning team. He brought Chattanooga its first pennant in 1932. That club went all the way, winning the Dixie Series over the Texas League champion, Beaumont. Engel and his right-hand man, former infielder Zinn Beck, scoured the South for ballplayers. Their finds included Buddy Myer, Cecil Travis, and Buddy Lewis, who became mainstays of lackluster Washington teams in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Senators settled into mediocrity after winning the 1933 pennant with Joe Cronin as player-manager. Clark Griffith wanted to expand his farm system, which included only the Lookouts and two low-level teams. In 1937 he brought Engel to Washington as farm director.

Griffith appointed his nephew, Calvin Griffith, as the new president of the Lookouts. Calvin had apprenticed under Engel for two years, but he was only 25.11 Engel was the popular face of baseball in Chattanooga. His sudden departure shocked the fans, and brought home the fact that the local ball club was controlled from faraway Washington.

Calvin Griffith thought Engel’s promotions were a pointless extravagance. He couldn’t believe the cash giveaways. “How in the hell can you spend $2.01 and bring in $2.00?” he asked years later.12 The fans stayed away, the Lookouts sank to last place, and the Griffiths took the blame.

By midseason in 1937 criticism of the Yankee carpetbaggers was echoing off the mountaintops around Chattanooga. Engel went to Clark Griffith with a proposition: He would enlist fans to buy the franchise. Griffith gave him an option to purchase, if he could raise the money.

Engel stood on street corners offering stock at $5 a share and set up a boiler-room operation, staffed by volunteers, to peddle shares by phone. In the midst of the Depression, 1,200 people bought in. Several businessmen made substantial investments. Within two months Engel raised $30,000. He anted up $47,000 of his own money, and Griffith gave him a $25,000 “bonus” to put the Lookouts in local hands.

Engel celebrated by hoisting the “winter pennant” in Chattanooga. He promised that Opening Day would be the great king-daddy of all promotions: an elephant hunt in the outfield. The Humane Society went ballistic.

He settled for a stuffed elephant thundering through a makeshift jungle. Black youths dressed in loincloths flushed it out for white hunters to “kill.” More than 14,000 jammed the ballpark.

Fan ownership was a failure. After Engel rebuilt the team, the Lookouts won the 1939 pennant by sweeping a doubleheader on the final day of the season. But the next year’s attendance sagged to 63,000, an average of less than 1,000 per game. Fans were willing to buy stock, but not tickets to see a losing club. In 1941 Griffith, who held a mortgage, reclaimed the franchise and left Engel in charge.

After three decades in baseball, Engel had secured his place as the game’s Pied Piper and one of Chattanooga’s first citizens. But his private life had been marred by tragedy. His only child, Joe, was hit by a car and killed at age 7.13 He and his first wife divorced, and he married Hallie Birckhead in 1934.

His second three decades brought two more pennants, record attendance, and, finally, a long, futile struggle against the forces that killed minor league baseball as he knew it.

The Lookouts’ attendance peaked at more than 252,000 with another pennant winner in 1952. In 1955 fans contributed money to erect a bust of Engel at the ballpark on his 25th anniversary in Chattanooga. But the parent Washington club had taken up residence near the bottom of the American League in the standings and in attendance. It was no longer signing many top prospects, and the Lookouts followed the Senators’ downward slide.

In 1959 Engel’s club was at the center of a scandal that rocked the Southern Association. The Lookouts’ veteran first baseman, Jesse Levan, was banned from baseball for trying to fix games. An investigation by the minors’ governing body found that Levan had offered to pass the Chattanooga catcher’s signs to a coach on the Mobile club. Levan denied receiving any money from gamblers, but several teammates said he had approached them about throwing games.

An unidentified player said Engel Stadium was “nothing but a gambling casino.” Sportswriters found evidence of widespread gambling in the league’s parks, most of it small-dollar bets on whether a batter would hit a foul ball or a fly ball.

Grand jury investigations generated front-page headlines, but nothing came of them. The Sporting News dismissed the affair as “a blown-up gambling scandal in the minors that promised to shake the foundations of the game yet proved relatively insignificant.” Organized Baseball succeeded in containing the damage.14

It did no harm to Engel’s reputation, but he had much bigger problems. The Southern Association was barely hanging on. Its eight clubs combined drew just over 600,000 fans in 1959, the smallest attendance since the war-shortened 1918 season. The Senators sold the Lookouts to a local nonprofit group and sold the ballpark to the city and county governments.

Washington ended its thirty-year relationship with the Chattanooga franchise. Engel scored a working agreement with the Philadelphia Phillies for 1960, but he was only postponing the inevitable. Minor league baseball was dying, brought down by television, the baby boom, and demographic shifts.

The Southern Association signed its own death warrant by refusing to accept black players. The civil rights movement was gathering force, and the South was the battleground. The league folded in 1961, choosing “death over integration,” in the words of sportswriter Sam Heys.15 Chattanooga won the last pennant, but attracted only 107,000 customers. The playoffs were canceled for lack of interest.

Engel Stadium sat empty in 1962. After the major leagues agreed to subsidize the minors and reorganized, eliminating the B, C, and D classifications, the Phillies returned to Chattanooga in 1963 with an affiliate in the Double-A South Atlantic League. The Lookouts’ star was black Panamanian center fielder Adolfo Phillips, who went on to play eight years in the majors. The next year African-Canadian pitcher Ferguson Jenkins joined the team.

Engel liked to sit on the roof of his ballpark, taking in the sun and watching the traffic below on East Third Street. “See those cars?” he asked a companion one day in the 1960s. “I’ve counted about 50 now in 10 minutes. And at least three out of every five is pulling a boat headed for the lake. That is the funeral procession for baseball here — everywhere — in the minors. Too much free time, too many free attractions that are new and fresh. Baseball can’t keep the pace; too costly.”16

The Lookouts finished last in 1965, playing before 25,707 people. For the entire season. On “Save the Lookouts Night,” 355 showed up. The franchise folded, ending Engel’s career. He continued to go to his office at the ballpark most days, and sit surrounded by vanity walls of photos of his famous stunts and famous friends. Joe Engel died on June 12, 1969, after suffering a stroke. He was 76.

By then Calvin Griffith had moved the Washington Senators to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Engel was the last link to the franchise’s glory days of the 1920s and 1930s, when a sore-armed former pitcher could singlehandedly round up the core of a pennant-winning lineup. His only rival as a baseball impresario, Bill Veeck, was out of the game — temporarily, as it turned out. When they went, some of the fun went with them.

 

Photo Credit

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Jan Finkel and fact-checked by Steve Glotfelty.

 

Notes

1 “Obituaries,” The Sporting News, June 13, 1969: 44.

2 Bob Addie, “Last of the Circle,” Washington Post, June 28, 1969: D2.

3 Mark Armour, Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 31.

4 Frank H. Young, “The Ivory Hunters of Baseball,” Washington Post Sunday Magazine, June 2, 1929: 14.

5 Young, “Engel Tells of Rookie Dearth,” Washington Post, April 6, 1930: 19.

6 Long after professional baseball moved to a new ballpark in Chattanooga, Engel Stadium was used for the baseball scenes in the 2013 movie 42, the story of Jackie Robinson’s debut.

7 Tony Horwitz, “The Girl Who (Maybe) Struck Out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig,” Smithsonian, July 2013. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-woman-who-maybe-struck-out-babe-ruth-and-lou-gehrig-4759182/#cD7vHSGpCY7QQJZ5.99, accessed July 23, 2017.

8 Richard B. Leggitt, “Sportrait,” United Press International, June 20, 1968.

9 Ansley Haman, “Joe Engel’s Legacy As Big As Engel Stadium,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, April 1, 2012. http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/news/story/2012/apr/01/joe-engels-legacy-big-engel-stadium/74415/, accessed July 24, 2017.

10 Charles Pennington, “Lover of Sports,” Chattanooga Times, May 12, 1960, in Engel’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, Cooperstown, New York.

11 Although Calvin Griffith was usually identified as Clark Griffith’s adopted son, he was never legally adopted. Born Calvin Robertson, he was the oldest son of Clark’s wife’s alcoholic brother. Calvin and his sister Thelma grew up in the Griffith household and took Clark’s name. Clark supported the five other Robertson children and their mother after their father died. Calvin and Thelma inherited control of the Senators and the Lookouts upon Clark Griffith’s death in 1955. Jon Kerr, Calvin: Baseball’s Last Dinosaur (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown, 1990).

12 Ibid., 26.

13 Some accounts say his son was 9 when he was killed.

14 Warren Corbett, “Why, They’ll Bet on a Foul Ball,” The National Pastime 26 (SABR, 2006), 54-60. http://sabr.org/content/the-national-pastime-archives.

15 Corbett, “Sulphur Dell,” SABR BioProject, http://sabr.org/bioproj/park/dac74af0. One black player, Nat Peeples, appeared in two Southern Association games with Atlanta in 1954 before he was expelled.

16 Steve Martini, “Joe Engel,” The Engel Foundation, http://www.engelfoundation.com/historical-importance/joe-engel/, accessed July 20, 2017.