Thursday, September 18, 2014

Chattanooga choo-choo

Ever have the feeling you were
being watched?
The Twins went back to their distant past Wednesday when they and the Chattanooga Lookouts announced a four-year affiliation deal.

No more New Britain RockCats for the Double A franchise. The Twins will have their second-highest minor league team in the Southern League again -- and in Chattanooga for the first time in more than half a century.

Back in the day -- when the Twins were still the Washington Senators, back before Calvin Griffith inherited the club from his adopted father, Clark "The Old Fox" Griffith -- the Lookouts were not only the Senators' top farm club but owned by Griffith. Indeed, for much of three decades, the Lookouts may have been the complete extent of the Senators' farm "system."

The story of Chattanooga baseball really can't be separated from that of Joe Engle, a truly fascinating obscurity in baseball history.

Engle was a Washington native who grew up a playmate of Teddy Roosevelt's kids and was batboy for the Senators, Engle pitched for the Senators for a few years in his teens and early 20s with marginal success (rooming with Walter Johnson in the process), Then he drifted into scouting for Griffith, Engle is credited with finding three Hall-of-Famers for Griffith (Goose Goslin, Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris) and landing the core of the only three pennant winning teams Washington ever boasted.

Supposedly, when Engle brought Cronin to Washington, he introduced the young shortstop to Calvin Griffith's niece by announcing:  Look, Millie, I brought you a husband, embarrassing each of the pair. But indeed, the two did marry. (Clark Griffith then traded Cronin to Boston, where the salaries were higher.)

In 1929 Griffith sent Engle to Chattanooga to run the Lookouts, There Engle remained, pretty much, for the rest of his life, essentially being a early Bill Veeck.

One of his more legendary stunts came with an 1931 exhibition game in Chattanooga with the New York Yankees, in which he had a 17-year-old lefty from Chattanooga named Jackie Mitchell pitch to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The stunt was that Mitchell was female. She struck out both the Bambino and the Iron Horse, and nobody will ever know for sure if the whiffs were on merit or because the two all-time greats were being chivalrous and/or playing along with the gag.

Eventually Calvin Griffith succeeded Engle at the helm of the Lookouts, prepping to inherit the Washington club by running the minor league team. Chattanooga was also where a young Harmon Killebrew played his minor league ball (after stewing on the Senators bench for two years under the bonus baby rules of the time), as did Jim Kaat.

All that is part of the distant past. Now the Lookouts are part of the Twins future. Presumably the Twins cut ties to New Britain because of the messy stadium situation in central Connecticut; the team's ownership appears to have burned their bridges with New Britain. but the stadium deal with Hartford hasn't been finalized.

Jim Crikket had an interesting observation on Twitter. As part of a reshuffling of Triple A affiliations, the Oakland Athletics were displaced in Sacramento and wound up in Nashville, which is not a particularly attractive geographic fit for a California franchise. That affiliation (like the Twins renewal in Rochester) expires in two years. Crikket suggests that Nashville might be an attractive destination for the Twins' Triple A affilation after 2016; having the Triple A and Double A teams in the same state (Tennessee) could be quite handy. (UPDATE: The affiliation agreement announced Thursday between the A's and Nashville runs through 2018, so a Tennessee nexus ain't happening in two years.)

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