New Jersey restored Hinchliffe Stadium and built a Negro League museum

PATERSON, NJ — When Bob Kendrick visited Hinchliffe Stadium in 2014, all he could do was hope.

Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., had traveled east for a ceremony that recognized Hinchliffe as a National Historic Landmark. The stadium is one of the last black league baseball stadiums still standing, but it was almost impossible to tell at the time.

At the time, Hinchliffe was abandoned, as it had been since 1997, and the causeway covered the area where the field was. Overgrown vegetation, graffiti and shards of glass littered the stands where fans had seen future Hall of Famers perform. Idols like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Martín Dihigo have all played at Hinchliffe. So did homegrown products like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson through the first wave of American and National League integration on their own way to Cooperstown.

Doby, a star at Eastside High School in Paterson, was the AL’s first black player after his successful stint with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. The Eagles found out during a tryout at Hinchliffe Stadium. Two other teams, the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans, also call the stadium home.

“Paterson and the New Jersey-New York area has a tremendous black baseball story that deserves to be told,” Kendrick said.

Any trace of this history had been obscured by negligence. It was therefore difficult – and perhaps unrealistic – to imagine that the park was returning to its former glory. But Kendrick allowed himself to dream.

Less than a decade later, Hinchliffe Stadium is at the end of a massive redevelopment project that cost over $100 million. The initiative, which began in April 2021, includes a multi-sport sports facility, preschool, restaurant and event space, parking, affordable senior housing and a museum dedicated to the site’s glory days, which ranged from from the 1930s to the 80s.

And this weekend, professional baseball games will return to the site. Kendrick can’t wait.

“To stand on those hallowed grounds, which you know as Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and so many legendary black league stars were there, it’s special,” Kendrick said, adding, “When I stood on those grounds, the last time it was just tarmac. Now to see him in his current state and alive and active, I’m sure it’s going to be quite emotional.”

Larry Doby Jr., whose childhood featured tall tales of his father’s Hinchliffe heroism, added: “It’s been a long time coming. There have been efforts by many people to make this happen.

In 2009, Andre Sayegh traveled to Rickwood Field, another surviving black league stadium in Birmingham, Ala. A baseball-loving, Paterson-born Democrat with political aspirations, Sayegh completed the trip with the goal of one day fixing Hinchliffe if he ever became his town’s mayor.

Two electoral defeats and a victory later, Sayegh put his plan into motion.

“I wanted to try and hit a home run for Hinchliffe,” Sayegh said. “I also wanted to hit a home run for history.”

But Hinchliffe’s renovation wasn’t enough for Sayegh. He wanted to see professional baseball and other sports again. And so he began courting Al Dorso, owner of the New Jersey Jackals of the Frontier League, a league partner of Major League Baseball.

“He said, ‘If you dropped $50 million in midfield, I still wouldn’t bring the Jackals to Paterson,'” Sayegh said, recalling a conversation with Dorso that took place a year ago. before Sayegh was elected mayor in 2018. “So now we’re losing $100 million, and he’s coming.”

The Jackals are moving from Montclair State University’s Yogi Berra Stadium to Little Falls, NJ, and their home opener on Saturday against the Sussex County Miners, another Dorso asset, will officially bring the pro ball back to Hinchliffe.

“I didn’t think they would ever come up with that kind of money. It’s a historic stadium and you have to do it right,” Dorso said of his initial resistance. “André was talking about 10 million dollars. I said, ’10 million dollars!?’ It is a historical place. Negro league baseball is a big deal. You can’t just go in there and spit something out.

“They did it well. I take my hat off to them.

The return of baseball to Hinchliffe has raised some concerns locally.

Some longtime Jackals fans expressed their displeasure on social media when the team announced its move, citing concerns about crime and accessibility in Paterson. Dorso, however, dismissed them as complaints from “people who live in Montclair and pretend to be awake.”

“It’s an area of ​​Paterson that’s not full of crime,” he continued, before referring to the nearby Grand Falls of the Passaic River. “It’s a beautiful region. The falls are very beautiful.

The Paterson Board of Education also criticized the Jackals in February when the club began announcing expensive rental fees for Little League and travel teams for Hinchliffe Stadium on certain dates. reported that the Jackals were initially asking $1,500 to use the pitch for two hours. Their website now lists a charge of $1,200.

Asked about the prices, Dorso, a Paterson native, defended his right to earn money and said no one was forced to rent the land. He added that the Jackals would hold a number of community events and clinics in Hinchliffe.

The Jackals rent from the Paterson School District, which owns Hinchliffe and will use it for its own sporting events 180 days a year, according to Sayegh. Dorso said schools will have first priority when it comes to scheduling and the Jackals will play in Sussex County if they reach the playoffs so there are no conflicts with school football, football and track and field events in the fall.

Other issues were raised by the likes of Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium co-founder Brian LoPinto, who expressed concerns such as the stadium’s track not meeting New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association requirements. He also said that the new layout of the baseball field did not respect the original look of the stadium.

Still, LoPinto, who helped Hinchliffe avoid demolition in 1997, is eager to see the stadium renovated.

“That beats the wrecking ball by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

On Friday, a day before the Jackals’ home opener, Hinchliffe Stadium will hold an opening ceremony.

Sayegh had a long list of celebrities and politicians he intended to invite, but no matter who shows up, the day will focus on Hinchliffe’s storied past and the Jackals’ plan to recognize that history. throughout their season. Part of that will go through an on-site museum.

Kendrick has lent his expertise to curating the museum’s exhibits, which will focus on Hinchliffe’s heyday and local black league teams and icons, such as Doby. Doby Jr. said there was talk of dedicating the space to his father, though he is named after Charles Muth, a Montclair State-educated Paterson native, who manages the museum.

Kendrick, who will return to Hinchliffe for the opening ceremony, is considering a “Smithsonian-type affiliation” with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

“I can’t wait to come back to see the incredible work up close in person,” Kendrick said of the stadium as a whole. “I’ve seen the footage, and the footage is absolutely amazing. It was an incredible transformation.

Sayegh has various goals for the site’s future, but his ultimate prize would be to host an MLB game at Hinchliffe in an event similar to the Field of Dreams games played near the film set in Dyersville, Iowa. Sayegh said he could consider a matchup between the Yankees and his beloved Mets, and the teams could wear the uniforms of the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans.

Sayegh said the idea of ​​playing Hinchliffe was discussed with both franchises and former big league infielder Harold Reynolds, another lawyer, spoke to commissioner Rob Manfred about the concept.

“MLB appreciates all the interest that exists in hosting major league games and special events in the future,” a league spokesperson said when asked about the possibility of playing at Hinchliffe, adding that ” We continue to evaluate the many opportunities to determine our schedule of special events for the coming seasons.

As MLB reviews its options, Sayegh refines its sales pitch.

“This is the real Field of Dreams,” he said of the Dyersville site. “I thought it was an exceptional film, but it’s a film set. That’s not where the story happened, is it? This is not where the individuals, excluded because of the color of their skin, played. They played Paterson. They had a home in Hinchliffe when they weren’t allowed to play Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.

As excited as people are about the return of professional baseball to Hinchliffe, Doby Jr. said the potential to affect young athletes is the most significant aspect of the stadium’s revival. He wants to see Hinchliffe serve as a “springboard for the young people of today and tomorrow”, just as he did for his father.

“It has been so long in coming and the road has been so difficult. For this to happen is very – I mean, it’s like we can almost touch it now,” Doby Jr. said. “I know my dad would be proud to be associated with it, and he would be more proud that some kids have the same opportunities he had when he was a kid.”

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