Former T-Bones employee, Fitzgerald, vital to “42”

Former T-Bones grounds keeper Joey Fitzgerald works the field in Chattanooga (Tenn.). Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga Lookouts.
04/12/2013 3:15 PM -


Joey Fitzgerald had to think about the proposition in early 2012. At least for a little while.

Sure, it sounded cool, helping construct a field for some little movie. After all, as the former head grounds keeper for the T-Bones and the current grounds keeper for the Chattanooga Lookouts, getting a field in tip-top shape shouldn’t be that big of an undertaking, especially for the 2012 Southern League Grounds Keeper of the Year.

Oh, yeah, there was that one little issue — his full-time gig with the Lookouts, the double-A affiliate for the Los Angeles Dodgers. This little movie project would overlap the 2012 season.

With some apprehension, mixed with plenty of second-guessing early in the process, Fitzgerald acquiesced.

This little movie? It turned out to be “42,” which premiered in Kansas City on Thursday night and opens nationwide today.

“When my general manager (Rich Mozingo) told me that the people making the movie wanted me to do the field,” Fitzgerald remembers, “I didn’t know anything about the film. I just thought it was some little baseball movie. And then I heard that Harrison Ford was going to be in it, so I knew it’d be big.”

Indeed. “42,” as you may have heard, focuses on Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League color barrier. Chadwick Boseman stars as Robinson. Ford is Branch Rickey, the forward-thinking Dodgers executive who picked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs roster.

Fitzgerald had a rather unique — if not downright complicated — assignment: turn the run-down field at Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium into Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field of the 1940s.

“It was completely different for me because it was more construction than maintenance,” said Fitzgerald, who worked on the T-Bones grounds crew in 2005 and ’07, with Major League stops that included Boston and Kansas City, before becoming the head grounds keeper at CommunityAmerica Ballpark in 2008. He took the same job with Chattanooga before the 2011 season. “I’ve always worked on fields that were already established, such as there in Kansas City and here in Chattanooga.”

This would be different. Engel Stadium had fallen on hard times after a life as a wonderful, historical ballpark for the Lookouts for nearly 70 years, 1930-99. Before it was completed, the namesake, Joe Engel, used the stadium to feed Chattanooga residents affected by the Great Depression. Then, some of baseball’s best played there at some point, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Roger Hornsby, Willie Mays (for Chattanooga’s Negro Southern League team) and Harmon Killebrew. In the 1990s, Kansas City area native Travis Buckley, who went to Shawnee Mission South and was pitching for the Lookouts at the time, faced one Michael Jordan, who was “experimenting” with baseball for the Birmingham Barons.

After the Lookouts left Engel following the 1999 season, the stadium fell on hard times. That is, until writer/director Brian Helgeland and production designer Richard Hoover wanted to find a ballpark they could use at their discretion for “42,” most of which was being filmed down Interstate 24 in Atlanta. Enter the dilapidated Engel Stadium and one of the best young grounds keepers in professional baseball, Fitzgerald.

Using blueprints and drawings of Ebbets Field, Helgeland and Hoover detailed how they wanted the field to look. After several meetings, phone conferences and looking at old photographs of Ebbets, Fitzgerald went to work. That began in March 2012. It “really got going” in April. They finished construction by May. Overall, getting the field and stadium ready cost a little more than $500,000.

“It was fascinating because, even though they didn’t touch the outside of the stadium, they made sure details on the field were the same as Ebbets,” Fitzgerald said. “They ripped out the dugouts and moved them down, they built a new tunnel under ground that led to the dugout, and they ripped out the field so we could start from scratch and move home plate out 55 feet and turn it a little from where it had been originally. Evidently there was a lot more room behind home plate at Ebbets than at Engel.”

“The timing was most challenging,” Fitzgerald added. “I spent about a month of our Lookouts season working in both places.”

The funny thing, after constructing the new playing surface, making it appear more like old Ebbets required one thing Fitzgerald isn’t accustomed to giving a field: neglect.

“They didn’t want the field to look that good since playing surfaces weren’t very good back then,” he said. “Of course, not having someone maintain it like we normally do, it’s going to look bad.”

The end result is an uncanny replica, down to the tunnel leading to the dugout that’s been seen in most trailers for the film.

“It’s pretty cool because I can tell in the trailers which scenes were shot at Engel and which ones weren’t,” said Fitzgerald, who admits, because of scheduling, he saw only a couple of days of shooting.

Through digital imagery with a green screen around the interior of Engel Stadium, it served as Ebbets and doubled as Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park.

Considering “great” and lasting baseball movies are scarce — and Jackie Robinson movies are rarer still — time will tell if “42” will be regarded with such classics as “The Pride of the Yankees,” “The Natural,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams” and “The Sandlot,” plus very few others. Regardless, Fitzgerald will be able to say he worked on a major motion picture.

“Thinking back to getting involved in it, I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “It’ll be cool, though, to watch it years from now and know that I constructed that field.

“Even though I definitely could’ve turned them down, I’m glad I didn’t. This is exciting.”

Search Archive »

Browse by Month »

June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007