Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Baseball Place No. 37: Joe Engel Stadium; Alternative Place No. 37A: Vonachen Stadium, the new Shea

Unlike glorious major league stadiums we know and love, minor league parks tend to stick around after their teams move on to newer, fancier digs.

Josh Pahigian takes us to Chattanooga, Tenn., where historic Joe Engel Stadium is named spot No. 37 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The former home of the Chattanooga Lookouts was built in 1930 after Senators owner Clark Griffith sent Engel, a former pitcher and vaudeville entertainer, to construct a park for one of Griffith’s farm teams.

Engel stayed with the team, and filled the stadium with stunts learned from his years in show business. Perhaps his most famous was to place Jackie Miller, 17, on the mound against the Yankees for an exhibition game. She struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Ever-inclusive Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis then banned women from the game.
The stadium also was famous for its deep outfield, with centerfield stretching back 471 feet.

The Lookouts fled for a modern stadium in 1999, and Engel has since been used for high school games.

I’ve passed through Chattanooga just once, and didn’t stop at the stadium. But I do know of another unconventional and abandoned minor-league stadium that’s seen some great players. That would be:

Alternative Place No. 37A: Pete Vonachen Stadium – now called Shea Stadium.

There’s a charm to unusual ballparks. And Vonachen Stadium was charming.

Built in 1968 for Bradley University’s baseball team, my guess is that the stadium was little more than one short level of bleachers and a press box until the Peoria Chiefs came in 1983.

It’s more of a ballpark campus, with concessions, a store and picnic areas all in separate buildings away from the seats.

The seats seemed to hang right on top of the field, which led to another quirk. The screen behind home plate stretched all the way to the opposite side of the dugouts. So unless you were sitting beyond first and third bases, you were watching the game through mesh.

Like Engel, there were some goofy promotions. I’m not sure why, but a giant loaf of bread was running around all over the place.

Despite the giant screen, it was a fan-friendly park. We had a good time visiting in 2001 with my son and brother-in-law Jeff. My son even made it atop the dugout to dance.

Also like Engel, Vonachen Stadium saw some big stars. Raphael Palmiero played there when the team was affiliated with the Cubs, and Albert Pujols was there the year before we arrived.

Not that anyone too exciting played in our game. Looking back at my scorecard, the only player of note was Chiefs’ hurler Matt Vriesenga, and that’s only because he was from Grand Rapids.

Alas, the Chiefs moved to a new downtown stadium in 2002, abandoning Vonachen.
But Bradley University gave the yard new life with a glorious name for a not-so-glorious use.

It’s now been reconfigured as a soccer-only stadium, named after a Bradley alum and local businessman – Tim Shea.

That’s right, Shea Stadium lives, and they play in Peoria.

I just hope a giant apple rises out of a hat when the Bradley team scores a goal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's a nice picture of a rather trim, not-too-bulky and muscular, fairly normal-looking Albert Pujols before he met Mark McGwire and Tony LaRussa. Not that I'm saying anything; I'm just sayin'.

By the way, Shea Stadium is just a few blocks from Big Al's, the only strip club on the planet where the audience is co-ed ... because there just aren't that many places to drink in downtown Peoria. How do I know this? I read about it once.