published Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Engel Stadium back in spotlight

Reports that a Hollywood company, Legendary Pictures, is planning to make a movie about baseball great Jackie Robinson, and may film part of it in Chattanooga's Engel Stadium, is good news for the city. It's even better news for advocates of preserving the old and well-loved stadium, where Robinson played at least three times.

The venerable stadium, on Third Street just east of Central Avenue, has clearly seen better days since the Lookouts moved to a new stadium downtown. Fresh interest in the stadium to aid the non-profit Engel Foundation's effort to keep it viable is sorely needed. If area residents, tourism officials and its current owner, UTC, ever wake up to the magnetic appeal of Engel Stadium to aficionados of the great old minor-league stadiums, maintenance of Engel Stadium might find broader support.

Engel Stadium is widely considered one of the best old-time minor-league stadiums for its gracious layout, seating arrangements, sight-lines and shady roof. It was well-known, too, as the home of Joe Engel, who for decades was famous in the baseball world for his ability to draw crowds through all manner of special events, giveaways and stunts.

It helped, of course, that back in the day, major league teams would come to town to play exhibition games in order to boost their farm clubs and to nurture broader interest in America's pastime. That's how stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and latter day sluggers like Harmon Killebrew, among many others, ended up playing in Engel Stadium.

It's especially notable, however, that Jackie Robinson played at Engel Stadium. Robinson was the African-American who in 1947 broke the major league's color barrier, becoming the first black man to play in the majors since the 1880s. He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his play in a game here against the Milwaukee Braves will be among one of the scenes in the film about the former baseball star and civil rights icon.

Engel Stadium will get a wide audience when the Jackie Robinson film debuts. One of the stars reportedly in line for the film is Harrison Ford. With filming to include various iterations of Engel Stadium, the movie work here may take several weeks.

The economic impact of the work will be good for the city, and with the portrayals of Engel Stadium and Chattanooga in the story line, there will be other benefits down the road. Preservation of Engel Stadium surely should be a priority, however. If maintained well, it could host a youth league, a revived UTC baseball team, exhibition games, and special events. The stadium is worth preserving for many reasons. The Engel Foundation needs help to achieve that goal.

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