Hinchliffe Stadium has played host to some of the most renowned names in baseball history. How did it revert to this state of neglect?
At its core, Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ should be a shrine to American resilience and ingenuity.
It was the site where the professional career of Hall of Famer Larry Doby began through a tryout in front of the Manley family, the owners of the Newark Eagles. Doby would become one of many legends whose cleats would touch what is now a concrete lot. Barnstorming and Negro League endeavors gave way to Monte Irvin (a longtime friend of Doby’s and another Newark Eagles discovery at Hinchliffe), Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell, and many others as they worked their way through games that recently gained recognition from Major League Baseball.
“I think the story of the Negro Leagues embodies the story of the American spirit unlike any story in the annals of our country’s history,” Bob Kendrick, President of Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, said about why preserving the Hinchliffe Stadium is so important. “It contains everything that we pride ourselves about being American. It is about pride and it’s about passion, it’s about perseverance, determination, courage, the refusal to accept the notion that you’re unfit to do anything…that is the American way.”
“The Negro Leagues, to me, were about as American as you can be, because it was one of the most living examples of American ingenuity,” said Larry Doby Jr., the son of the first African American to hit a home run in World Series history at a recent event hosted by the Union Public Library. “Necessity is the mother of invention…(the Wright) brothers that were in Ohio and looked at that bird and thought ‘we want to fly like that’…it’s kind of the same with Rube Foster and all those other guys that started the Negro Leagues. They knew that guys were good enough to play, but they knew they didn’t have a venue. American ingenuity being for everybody, they decided to start their own league.”
The stadium is being treated as anything but the shrine Kendrick, Doby Jr., and many others feel it should be. It is instead laden with graffiti and uncontrolled greenery that seeps through the concrete. Potholes litter the sidewalks leading to the dilapidated entry gates. There have been some slight refurbishments in the form of a bright, colorful mural in Doby’s honor, but the area remains an eyesore, especially compared to the neighboring Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park.
How did it come to this? According to those in charge, bureaucratic turmoil and promises lost led to the unfortunate deterioration.
The Paterson Public Schools has had control of the facility since 1963 and countless failings of the stadium have followed. The city’s high school athletic programs continued to be staged at the stadium through the mid-1990s, almost a decade after the New Jersey Eagles of the short-lived American Soccer League staged two seasons in Paterson. By then a supposed lack of funds and even outright indifference led to the stadium’s deterioration. The baseball field was controversially realigned in 1963 (creating a right field fence that is approximately 200 feet from home plate), Astroturf was installed over asphalt (leading to injuries), and extensions added to the stadium led to the formation of a sinkhole that caused structural damage.
In 1997, shortly after the Paterson Public Schools deemed the stadium unfit for events, Hinchliffe had a chance to either be demolished for $4 million or restored for an additional $800,000. The lack of action from the superintendent, Laval Wilson, has placed the stadium on its slovenly path.
Efforts to preserve the stadium, spurred on by the inactivity and threats of demolition, had been further hindered on the national level. After the National Register of Historic Places offered its seal in the mid-2000s, the Paterson Public Schools applied for a grant through “Save America’s Treasures,” a program set up by the U.S. National Park Service.
However, through a clerical error by the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office, the “Save America’s Treasures,” funding was denied on the grounds that Hinchliffe held only “local” value and significance…despite Hinchliffe’s role in changing the course of baseball history by introducing names like Doby and Irvin to wider audiences.
Paterson native Brian LoPinto has been at the forefront of the ongoing restoration efforts. As co-founder of the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium (FOHS), LoPinto says that such endeavors are not centered on fundraising, contrary to popular belief. Rather, FOHS focused on grant writing and spreading awareness.
LoPinto’s journey is perhaps comparable to the song “The Pretender” by the Foo Fighters, namely the lyrics “I’m the voice inside your head you refuse to hear, I’m the face that you have to face mirroring your stare, I’m what’s left; I’m what’s right, I’m the enemy.” It’s one of his particular favorites off the 2007 album Echos, Silence, Patience, & Grace.
“I think the biggest obstacle (in restoration), quite frankly, would be the Paterson Public Schools,” LoPinto said. “They have owned the stadium since 1963. From that point to the present day, they’ve made bad decisions.”
“At the end of the day, they just neglected it and neglected it,” he continued. “The old saying dictates that, if you take care of the little things, the bigger things take care of themselves. Not only did they not just take care of it, but they also didn’t want to let it go. It just didn’t make sense. They still own it today, but really the city should own it.”
Progress has been made in recent months through an allotment in tax credits to the city with a good portion expected to go toward the Hinchliffe’s renovation efforts. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made this an announcement in December, with Dwight Gooden on hand as well.
Gooden never played at Hinchliffe Stadium but made his mark across the river as a star hurler for both the Mets and Yankees. On that cold day on Hinchliffe’s asphalt, debate playfully rose over whether his time in the orange and blue, or pinstripes with an interlocking NY was more prominent. Regardless, Gooden created unity through one issue that could never be disputed: the national impact that Hinchliffe Stadium has had on America’s Pastime.
“I think it’s a great thing that can build the city back up, to see people giving their time, especially with everything that has taken place this year, it means a lot,” Gooden said.
In speaking of the ultimate goal behind the restoration, he added: “I think the message is that it’s amazing the things we can do when we all come together. At the end of the day, we’re all brothers and sisters and we’re shooting for the same goal: to help the upcoming generations in the things that they know.”
ESM’s series on Hinchliffe Stadium in celebration of Black History Month concludes next Sunday, centering on the future of the site
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags