Joe Engel and The Shortstop Who was Traded for a Turkey

Matt Blitz 1

Joe_EngelProfessional sports teams have always tried to find unique ways to get fans into the seats. Whether it was the legendary Bill Veeck batting the shortest player in baseball history (Eddie Gaedel at 3 foot 7 inches) or Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, sometimes the game plays second fiddle to the crazy promotions. Hardly anyone was better at this than Joe Engel, known as the “Barnum of Baseball”.

Engel began his career in baseball as a mediocre pitcher for the Washington Senators, but his skills as a scout began his ascent into upper management. Engel is credited for discovering such Hall of Fame talent as Joe Cronin, Goose Goslin, and Bucky Harris.  His scouting expertise caught the eye of Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, who had recently acquired the Chattanooga Lookouts as a farm team for the Senators. In 1929, Griffith decided to promote Engel to director of baseball operations for his new minor league team. Engel, delighted, immediately seized the opportunity.

Joe Engel would be in charge of the Chattanooga Lookouts for 34 years, bringing not just baseball to the citizens of Chattanooga, but wackiness as well. He would do just about anything to get people into the ballpark. He built a state-of-the-art stadium (for the time) with his own money (at the cost of $150,000, about $2 million today) and named it Engel Stadium, after himself. He had all his players ride to the game on elephants; he had a duck lay an egg on second base; and he even wept in a “crying cage” after his team lost out on a bid to host the All-Star game. In 1931,  he signed a female pitcher named Virne “Jackie” Mitchell and had her pitch against the New York Yankees in a exhibition game. She promptly struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back to back, two of the greatest hitters ever.

In 1937, Engel’s boss, Clark Griffith, wanted to sell the team. Engel, seeing this as an opportunity, persuaded 1,700 Lookout fans to buy shares of the club at five bucks a pop. Engel wanted to make the Lookouts a team with “local ownership” (otherwise known as a publicly-owned team, something the NFL’s Green Bay Packers currently have). Unfortunately, within a year, there still wasn’t enough cash, and Griffith bought back the team.

One of the most well-known Joe Engel stories, though, was the day in 1931 he decided to trade his shortstop for a turkey. Johnny Jones was a Chattanooga Lookouts player that, frankly, wasn’t any good. He was such a weak-hitting shortstop that even the press complained about him. So, in January 1931, Engel decided to trade him to the Charlotte Hornets of the Piedmont League (they were not affiliated with any major league team at the time, but in 1937, the Hornets would be bought by the Washington Senators). In return, Engel and the Lookouts received a 25 pound turkey. Said Engel, “The turkey was having a better year.” In addition, he wanted the turkey to arrive at team headquarters by February 22nd, in time for the Southern Writers’ Association Dinner.

At the dinner, Engel served the turkey to the writers, reportedly declaring “You’ve been giving me the bird, so now have one on me.” Everyone enjoyed the meal, though Engel commented that he thought Charlotte won the trade because the turkey was a little tough. As for Johnny Jones, no one is quite sure what happened to him. Since records are spotty for minor league teams in the early 20th century, it’s hard to know for sure, but most think he retired without ever playing for the Charlotte Hornets. I guess when you get traded for a turkey, your pride gets a little bit hurt.

Joe Engel remained in charge of the Lookouts, always trying to entice fans to come to the games. Several baseball greats found their baseball careers weave through Joe Engel and Chattanooga, including Harmon Killebrew and Jim Kaat. In 1960, Major League Baseball awarded Engel the crown as “The King of Baseball”, an award given each year in honor of a person’s dedication and service to the sport of baseball. Joe Engel passed away in his adopted hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1969 at the age of 76.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The Washington Senators won a championship for the nation’s capital in 1924. In 1955, Clark Griffith, the team’s original owner, passed away and his son, Calvin, took over the team. In 1961, the team agreed to relocate to Minneapolis to become the Minnesota Twins. Major League Baseball, wanting to preserve baseball in DC, awarded Washington an expansion team and they played there, once again as the Washington Senators, until 1971 when they moved to Texas and became the Texas Rangers.  Major League Baseball wouldn’t be played in DC again until 2004 when the Montreal Expos, plagued by low attendance, moved to Washington and became the Washington Nationals. Presently the Washington Nationals are one of the best teams in baseball.
  • On April 2nd, 1931, Jackie Mitchell as a 17 year old female, struck out two legendary New York Yankees, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, in a row.  Babe Ruth was not happy after the game. He claimed he was called out on strikes unfairly and thought very little of women playing baseball, saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.” A few days after Mitchell’s huge accomplishment, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis cancelled her contract. He agreed with Babe Ruth when he declared that the game of baseball was “too strenuous” for woman.  Read more about this remarkable woman here.
  • Another (and much less politically correct) stunt pulled by Joe Engel was the time he “purchased” Chief Woody Arkeketa and “staged a fake scalping to avenge (General) Custer“.
  • The Chattanooga Lookouts, named after nearby Lookout Mountain, were founded in 1885, making them one of the oldest minor league baseball teams. They’ve been the minor league affiliate for seven different teams, including the Washington Senators from 1932-1959. Today, the Lookouts are the Double-A team for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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One Comment »

  1. Bruce April 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm - Reply

    The Disco Demolition video is from Comiskey Park in Chicago. I was at an all day concert there a few days later. Journey front man lead with a loud “‘Disco Sucks!”And the top rim of stadium was almost instantly ringed with Chicago police in full riot gear. Looked a bit like storm troopers. They had anticipate a replay of the record thrashing. Still a scarey memory even though no rioting took place. Either due to the police presence or the fact that most audience members were pretty well stoned without any rocks or records thrown.

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