November 20, 2012
Joe Engel Trades for a Turkey
Joe Engel was the colorful owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, a farm club of the Washington Senators from 1932 to 1959. Engel, who played most of his 102 major league games for the Sens in the teens, was also a scout for Washington, signing Joe Cronin for the club as he was wiling away in Kansas City. Probably most famous for allowing Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year old from the local woman's team, to pitch against the Yankees in an exhibition game—she went on to strike out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and is still considered the first woman to play in professional baseball—Engel did whatever he could to get fans to pay to watch his games.
This can be attributed to Engel's colorful personality, but it also had a practical reason: in 1937, Clark Griffith and the Senators gave up on the Lookouts as a farm club and tried to sell the club. Engel didn't want to see that happen, so he tried something different: for the next month, he stood on street corners in Chattanooga, convincing citizens to purchase a stake in the club. In the end, he found 1,750 shareholders and purchased the team as a "fan owned club". The events that he held to drum up interest for his team and its shareholders were wide-ranging: the team rode into Opening Day on elephants (and may have had "hunters" shooting at them with blanks); he wept in a "crying cage" after losing out on an All-Star game bid; he signed Jackie Mitchell; he gave away a house to one lucky fan in attendance; he installed lights in the stadium out of his own pocket (and brought in 26,000 people for the first night game); he "purchased Big Chief Woody Arkeketa" and "staged a fake scalping to avenge Custer"; he had a giant duck lay an egg on second base; and more. If it might bring extra fans to the park, Engel tried it. In the end, the stunts didn't work well enough and the team was sold back to Washington at a loss.
One last great Engel story comes from 1931: in January, Engel traded shortstop Johnny Jones, whose acquisition the year before the press reportedly complained about, to the Charlotte Hornets of the Piedmont League, for a 25-pound turkey. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Johnny Jones, Chattanooga shortstop last year, has been traded to the Charlotte club of the Piedmont League for the 25-pound turkey, and Joe Engel, Lookouts' president, today wired Charlotte he wanted that turkey in time for February 22.
The bird was served to the writers who had been complaining about Jones all year. Engel is reported to have said, "You've been giving me the bird, so now have one on me." After the event, Engel declared that Charlotte won the trade because the turkey was a little tough.
Looking at the rosters of the two clubs from those years, the only Jones on the 1930 Lookouts was Binky Jones, a shortstop whose first name was John. Binky is not on the Charlotte roster, however—indeed his professional stats end with his 1930 stint in Chattanooga—so he likely retired after he learned about the trade. (It wasn't exactly a secret.)
Engel died in 1969 at the age of 76, having spent most of his life working with the Senators or Lookouts. In 1960, Major League Baseball gave him the "King of Baseball" crown. He was also known as the "Barnum of Baseball" as early as 1939. It's easy to understand why.
The story does raise one question: is it still legal for a player to be traded for a turkey? I bet Jeffrey Loria knows the answer...