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Spring Fling's first home run was location, location, location

Douglas Fritz • May 18, 2020 at 1:00 PM

If Ronnie Carter wanted to shoot for the moon, why not blast off from a stadium with such a rich history that it was the site where a 17-year-old girl struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession?

And just like the success of Apollo 11, Carter helped the TSSAA make one giant leap for high school athletics in Tennessee.

It was over a quarter of a century ago when the TSSAA’s executive director set the Spring Fling in motion. Nobody knew whether the event would sprout wings and fly, but boy has it soared.

The 2020 event would have taken place this week in Murfreesboro, but the pandemic forced a cancellation.

One thing the pandemic couldn’t do was erase memories from the best thing the TSSAA ever created. The five-sport high school state championship chase — baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and track — was born on May 25, 1994, in the cozy confines of downtown Chattanooga. And Carter was the proud papa.

Baseball proved to be the crown jewel of the Spring Fling, and the TSSAA knocked it out of the park by playing the first tournaments at Engel Stadium. It was a thing of beauty, and the atmosphere of the old-time venue was like stepping back into the heyday of baseball. The only thing missing was James Earl Jones walking across the infield toward the dugout and saying, “Baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”

Chasing a state baseball championship — or the one that got away — was staged perfectly in a setting that was the stuff of legend.

Engel Stadium was constructed during the Great Depression and named for Joe Engel. He was a bat boy for the Washington Senators, then a mascot, later a major league pitcher and a longtime scout. He wound up in Chattanooga as president of the Senators’ farm team, the Lookouts.

He was a showman, prone to stunts like putting left-handed 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell on the mound in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. She faced three batters, striking out Ruth looking and Gehrig swinging before walking Tony Lazzeri and getting pulled from the mound.

Was it a publicity stunt? Perhaps, but this field still boasts the footprint ghosts of Ruth and Gehrig. It was also a place where a young Willie Mays ran wild on the basepaths for the Chattanooga Choo-Choos of the Southern Negro League in 1947.

Along with the molasses-rich history, Engel Stadium presented players with majestic dimensions. At 471 feet, Engel’s straightaway center field fence remains one of the longest in the history of professional baseball. The only player who ever conquered that great wall was Hall of Fame inductee Harmon Killebrew in the late 1950s while playing for the Lookouts.

The stadium’s charm was magnified in 2012 when most of the interior shots for the movie “42” were filmed there.

And by the way, Jackie Robinson actually played in Engel Stadium, including a 1952 exhibition game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves. As a side note from that game, pitcher Ernie Johnson teamed with Warren Spahn as the Braves won 1-0. Yes, it was the same Ernie Johnson who became better known as the longtime voice of the Atlanta Braves.

History piled upon history like a giant club sandwich, Engel Stadium provided the backdrop when two Northeast Tennessee baseball teams reached the championship round in the first-ever Spring Fling. Dobyns-Bennett in Class AAA and Unicoi County in Class AA each climbed out of the losers’ bracket to reach the championship round, needing two wins to claim the title. D-B lost to Bradley Central, which allowed just three runs in three state tournament games.

For Unicoi, a rain day and a victory forced the if-necessary game to push the title contest to Sunday afternoon. It was a blast working with Todd Ambrose on WEMB-AM radio. He did the play-by-play and I chimed in with a little color commentary.

Marshall County defeated Unicoi 12-5 in the title game.

The growing pains of the first Spring Fling included a deluge of rain. Yes, weather was the enemy Carter knew could wreak havoc with a group of outdoor championships all sharing the same locale. Included in the reworked schedule was a softball game that didn’t finish until 2 a.m. After a late start, a 16-inning duel between Baylor and Brentwood took 4½ hours to complete.

Chattanooga initially had a three-year contract for the Spring Fling but maintained it through 2002. In the spring of 2003, the event moved to Memphis where it — thankfully — lasted only to the end of that three-year contract.

In 2006 the TSSAA emphasized the importance of a central location, moving the Spring Fling to Murfreesboro. It has stayed there and thrived. There are more playing sites and nicer fields, but no stadium with the historic feel of Engel.

This would have been the 15th year of the Spring Fling in The ’Boro. A lot of memories would have been created, but perhaps 2021 will find a way to make up for lost time.

Contact Douglas Fritz via email at dfritz@johnsoncitypress.com.

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