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A brief history of the Chattanooga Lookouts

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Guess who's back?

By the curve of the Tennessee River, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, straddling the line between Tennessee and Georgia, squats a red-rimmed ballpark. Engel Stadium was established in 1929 at the behest of baseball scout Joe Engel, who was commissioned by Washington Senators' owner Clark Griffith to establish the team's first minor league affiliate somewhere close to their parent club. At the time, the park was a state-of-the-art facility worth $150,000. Engel not only named the stadium for himself, but became its most notable resident.

In order to draw attention to the fledgling Chattanooga Lookouts, the young scout marched elephants onto the field for Opening Day, let loose canaries in the stands, awarded houses and cars to loyal fans, and, most memorably, traded shortstop Johnny Jones for a 25-lb. turkey, which was later served to a posse of local sportswriters deemed too critical of his tactics. When Engel couldn't purchase the Lookouts with his own money, he sweet-talked 1,700 fans into purchasing shares of team stock. In the spirit of local ownership, 1,700 fans could -- and did -- own pieces of the team at just five bucks a share.

Three affiliations and over 50 years later, the Mariners moved into the roomy red ballpark in the little corner of Tennessee. The pizzazz and sparkle it featured in the days of Joe Engel had faded, leaving peeling paint on the walls and a dilapidated roof. The park was badly in need of repair, but a full-scale renovation wouldn't be funded until well after the Mariners had vacated the premises in 1987.

In 1983, the Mariners were granted a one-year agreement with the Lookouts after Chattanooga ousted the Cleveland Indians from their five-year agreement. One stipulation of the new contract was an exhibition game between the Mariners and their new Double-A lineup. It would mark the first time a major league team had stepped foot in Chattanooga since the 1977 Atlanta Braves.

The first installment of Seattle's Lookouts featured players that would become some of the Mariners' most iconic faces in the early 80s: Alvin Davis, Jim Presley, Dave Valle, and Mark Langston. Guiding the team was 34-year-old Allen Bowers, who managed the Mariners' Double-A squad the year before in Lynn, Massachusetts, and, unbeknownst to him, was in his last year of professional managing.

Chattanooga had not seen a winning record by its Double-A affiliate in four years, and the Mariners were loathe to break tradition in their first season. Although they placed first in the league with 62 triples and a .276 batting average, the Lookouts eventually finished in third place with a 68-75 record in the Western division.

Some players got out early and never looked back, like 21-year-old shortstop Darnell Coles. After getting a taste of the big leagues during his September call-up, the rookie told the Ottawa Citizen, "Playing up here is just awesome. I want to stay up here as long as I can."

It was hard to blame him. Several months earlier, things had reached a breaking point between the Lookouts' skipper and his superiors in the Mariners' front office. After going 20-32, Bowers was lifted from the team and replaced by Seattle's assistant director of player development, Bill Haywood. Bowers, whether in a fit of jealousy or bearing legitimate concern, told the Herald-Journal that Haywood was "out to get [him]."

From 1983 to 1984, things got considerably worse for the Lookouts. Their best players were plucked as soon as April, with Alvin Davis debuting in Seattle on April 11 and Jim Presley, Danny Tartabull, and Dave Valle following suit at various points in the year. Despite improved relations with the Mariners' head honchos, new skipper Bill Plummer fared no better than his predecessors in managing the team, who placed dead last in the division and failed to break even with a 63-81 record.

The 1984 season was not without a few standout moments, however. Following four days of rain and a soggy, unusable Engel Stadium, the Lookouts were forced to play a make-up triple-header against the Montreal Expos' Jacksonville Suns. The Lookouts won the first two contests 3-2 and 3-1, respectively, but were done in by an 8-0 finale in the Suns' favor. After six hours, 15 minutes, and 20 innings, Chattanooga third baseman Dan Hanggie summed the day up as succinctly as he could for the Lakeland Ledger: "I'm tired."

Though they turned out a considerable number of viable major leaguers over the next three years, the Lookouts were unable to retain any significant percentage of success for themselves. Outfielder and one-time pitcher Rusty McNealy batted .254 for the Lookouts in 1985, but had little in the way of power, and his 35 stolen bases were hardly enough to propel the team to the top of the Western Division (in fact, they totaled little more than half of league leader Alexis Marte's 64 bases). Edgar Martinez came and went from 1985 to 1986, drumming up 243 appearances and leaving nine home runs, 63 extra base hits, and three stolen bases in his wake.

Managers R.J. Harrison and Sal Rende, meanwhile, followed in the footsteps of every skipper before them. Each spring, they hoped to revitalize the roster and turn over a contending team. Each autumn, the record settled comfortably under 70 wins. It came as little surprise when the Lookouts found greener pastures in the Cincinnati Reds, whose Double-A rosters had turned out four consecutive winning seasons with the Vermont Reds and were prepared to make a swap. Sure enough, by 1988 the Reds had clinched the first title for Chattanooga since the Phillies took the Southern League title in 1961.

Perhaps some of that good luck rubbed off. In their one-year stint with the Vermont Mariners, the M's boosted their record to nearly 80 wins in the Eastern League and, armed with Ken Griffey, Jr. and Pat Lennon, lay claim to their third playoff berth in Double-A history.

Chattanooga trivia

  • Notable Lookouts: Darnell Coles, Alvin Davis, Mark Langston, Edgar Martinez, Jim Presley, Danny Tartabull, and Dave Valle.
  • In 1931, a year before the Lookouts picked up their first MLB affiliation with the Washington Senators, club owner Joe Engel signed 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell to the roster. That April, as the story goes (thought by some to be fact, others, fiction), the young pitcher took the mound against Babe Ruth, firing first a pair of curveballs against the Great Bambino, then striking the 37-year-old out on a pitch right down the middle. To accentuate the fantastic story, Lou Gehrig, too, went down swinging on three straight pitches. Mitchell is thought to be the second woman in history permitted to play professional baseball.
  • The Lookouts propelled the longest game in Southern Association history in the early 1900s against the Atlanta Crackers. After 23 innings in a rapidly-darkening park, the umpire was forced to call a 2-2 tie when it became too dark to play out the rest of the contest.
  • Exactly one Lookout spun a ball over the deepest part of Engel Stadium's outfield, measured at 471 feet: "Hammerin' Harmon" Killebrew.