Field of Forgotten Dreams

Hinchliffe is one of the last surviving stadiums that hosted Negro League games. Can it be saved?

 

 

Hinchliffe
Hinchliffe’s bleachers and main gate

Credit: Kevin Cooley

UPDATE: Hinchliffe may be restored. The city of Paterson and the school board entered into a shared services agreement in late October 2009, and in early November, voters passed a referendum asking for $15 million to fund the stadium's renovation. If all goes according to plan, the city will receive permission to issue a bond ordinance and then solicit proposals to renovate the site.

Monte Irvin stepped into the batter's box at Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J., took measure of the stately new ballpark, and began depositing baseball after baseball over the outfield wall, some of his prodigious blasts traveling more than 400 feet.

It was the spring of 1937, and Irvin, a 17-year-old rising star from the nearby city of Orange with a .666 high school batting average, was at Hinchliffe trying out for a professional baseball team. Because Irvin was African American, and because of the color barrier in the major leagues, the team was not the New York Yankees or the Brooklyn Dodgers but a Negro League ball club called the Newark Eagles.

The sweet sound of home run after home run—crack, crack, crack—attracted the attention of Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, two Negro League players preparing for a game at Hinchliffe later that day. Irvin was introduced to the two stars, whose grace, athleticism, and dapper uniforms and dress had inspired him. Indeed, Gibson had been called The Black Babe Ruth and Leonard The Black Lou Gehrig (though some wondered if Gehrig should have been dubbed The White Buck Leonard). And on this day, Irvin learned he would play alongside his two idols. He had made the Eagles.

Even though Irvin never imagined it possible at the time, with his paltry $125-a-month salary and the seemingly unshakeable reality of segregation in America, he would become one of the first African American players to make the major leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and would go on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career as a left fielder for the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs.

The courage that players such as Irvin and Robinson mustered in the face of hostile crowds in the majors had a profound impact on African Americans everywhere, their performance and character a rebuke to the notion that race somehow rendered them inferior. It was in the Negro Leagues —where conditions were often second-rate but the play was anything but—that their long journey began.

Today, the stadiums where Negro League stars toiled, not knowing whether they ever would get the chance to play in the majors, have nearly vanished. Only Hinchliffe and three others remain. Described by a local reporter soon after it opened in 1933 as "one of the most beautiful stadiums in New Jersey," Hinchliffe sits dilapidated and vacant, a victim of neglect and vandals and the passage of time.

To save it would keep alive a vital connection to the Negro Leagues. To lose it would mean severing another link to a long-overlooked but momentous era not just in baseball, but in American history.

•••

The stories of both Paterson, N.J., and Hinchliffe Stadium begin with the Great Falls of the Passaic River, second in volume only to Niagara Falls in the eastern United States. In 1791, inspired by the potential of the falls to power industry, Alexander Hamilton helped establish the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, a group that spurred the founding of Paterson as America's first planned industrial city. And in the early 1930s, the celebrated firm Olmsted Bros., charged with finding a site for a new ballpark, chose a bucolic glen within earshot of the rushing waters.

Designed by the architects Fanning & Shaw and built with Works Progress Administration funds, Hinchliffe rose as a poured-concrete, Art Deco testament to civic pride. It quickly became a haven for Negro League baseball, hosting games between teams such as the Eagles and New York Cubans. The New York Black Yankees played home games at Hinchliffe for more than a decade, starting in 1933, when they reached the Colored Championship of the Nation but lost to the Philadelphia Stars. The Black Yankees once featured, among other future Hall of Fame players, Satchel Paige, who organized barnstorming tours around the country for African American stars, and whose stylish and sublime pitching ranks him among baseball's all-time best. 

"There are times when I've been inside and I can faintly hear the roar of the falls, and when I close my eyes, I can just imagine the roar of the crowds here during Negro League games," says Brian LoPinto, cofounder of the nonprofit Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium. "I like to just sit here and imagine what it would have been like to attend the Colored Championship of the Nation, or to have been here the day Dizzy Dean came and pitched just 10 days after winning the World Series with the Cardinals. Or when Elmer McDuffy, a Negro League pitcher, threw a no-hitter here in 1935. It makes you wish you could hop in a DeLorean and go back in time."

It's an overcast Saturday afternoon, and LoPinto, 31 years old, a Black Yankees cap on his head, stands near home plate. At least where home plate was. LoPinto rescued the plate before vandals could swipe it, and now stores it safely with a collection of Hinchliffe memorabilia—photos, ticket stubs, programs. LoPinto grew up just a few blocks from the stadium, got his first high school varsity hit here, and for the past eight years has tirelessly advocated for its revitalization. 

Hinchliffe was once a community institution where the working man, "Joe Smith, say, who lived on Preakness Avenue, could take his kids to a ball game after a long day working in the mills," LoPinto says. It played host to midget car racing, games between pro football teams such as the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, and boxing matches attended by the likes of Babe Ruth, Frank Sinatra, and comedian Lou Costello, a Paterson native.

Today, a heap of trash—rotting wood, old tires, twisted metal—rises along one end of the track that rings the stadium. Empty bottles litter the old concession area. Graffiti covers the crumbling bleachers. The burned-out roof over one bathroom represents the work of arsonists or vagrants who simply wanted to stay warm.  

Outside, piles of terra-cotta tiles from the ticket booth and entrance roofs litter the ground, perhaps loosened as vandals stripped copper wiring from the structure. "It's demolition by neglect," LoPinto says. "I don't understand what needs to happen here to get people to wake up. If you lose a historic structure, you lose a piece of who you are. And this city would lose a big piece of what it is if this place were to disappear."

The Paterson Board of Education, which assumed ownership of the stadium nearly a half-century ago, shuttered it in 1997. Funding was the issue then and remains problematic, with a host of other projects vital to the education system competing for scant resources. In recent years, there have been numerous school superintendents, and LoPinto and other preservationists have failed to gain any real momentum in their efforts to develop a site revitalization plan—even, at the very least, to get the board to secure the stadium from vandals.

In recent months, though, hopeful signs have emerged. Mayor Jose Torres, an outspoken proponent of the stadium's revitalization, reported productive talks with the new superintendent, Donnie Evans. The city and the school district (which didn't respond to an interview request) have made real progress toward establishing a partnership, Torres says. Once an agreement is signed, he plans to hold a referendum asking Paterson taxpayers for up to $15 million to renovate the stadium; he says he is optimistic it will pass.

The site could once again host local high school sporting events. But it might also attract a minor league baseball team and host public events such as concerts and boxing matches, even become the site for the New Jersey Hall of Fame. It should become a gathering place again, Torres, says, and a significant part of Paterson's ongoing revitalization: "I think it's going to mean everything to our city. It represents a sense of pride, a sense of identity. It's a focal point where the community will come together."

Just imagine a local high school athlete playing on the same field where Monte Irvin got his start, where Satchel Paige mowed down batters, says Lawrence Hogan, author of Shades of Glory, a definitive history of the Negro Leagues. "That's pretty special. You're not going to be able to get out on the mound in Yankee Stadium. This ballpark, it's part of the community."

•••

For a glowing example of how such ambitions can be realized, consider Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., completed in 1910 and recognized by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey as the nation's oldest ballpark. When it was home to the Birmingham Barons and their Negro League counterparts, the Black Barons, its outfield was patrolled by players named Hank Aaron and Willie Mays—not to mention Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.

When Rickwood faced the threat of demolition in the early 1990s, a group called the Friends of Rickwood intervened, rallying support to save the site—the fourth surviving park that hosted Negro League games along with Hinchliffe, Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, and League Park in Cleveland (much of which was demolished decades ago). Making the case for the ballpark's historic importance was easy, says David Brewer, executive director of the Friends of Rickwood. Most visitors who gaze out at the verdant field can't help but be enchanted by the ballpark's intimate scale, which has remained largely unchanged. "I think with any preservation project, though, you ultimately have to make a compelling economic argument," Brewer says.

Indeed, Rickwood Field today draws about 20,000 annual visitors, who bring tourism revenue to the state's largest city as they come to see college games, Birmingham Barons reunion events, and next year, the celebration of the park's centennial. The site's revitalization—the friends group has embarked on a $2 million restoration project, including refurbishing the grandstand roof and upgrading the electrical systems and lighting—has also helped spark a revival of the surrounding neighborhood, Brewer says. 

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., has started another project essential to the story of African American baseball. With funding from Save America's Treasures, a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, the museum plans to restore the Paseo YMCA building, where owners of eight African American baseball teams met in 1920 and founded the Negro National League. Raymond Doswell, the museum's vice president of curatorial services, says the long-vacant building, located near his office, may be transformed into a research  and education center for Negro League history.

So much of that history, though, has already been lost. Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the place where Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, was demolished decades ago; the site is now a housing complex. The nearby Polo Grounds, home to the New York Giants, suffered a similar fate. Yankee Stadium will soon join those other New York venues in obsolescence, with demolition having started on the House that Ruth Built. All those ballparks hosted Negro League games.

In Washington, D.C., Griffith Stadium once stood on what's now the site of Howard University Hospital. The Washington Senators of the Major Leagues played at Griffith, but so did the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues. The Senators routinely finished at the bottom of the standings, the Grays at the top. At Griffith, not far from where Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, the injustice of segregation could not have been clearer.

Our attachment to these old ballparks, how they brought spectators close to the action, no JumboTrons drowning out the natural ebb and flow of crowd noise, is obvious. Just look at the stadiums we build today: so-called retro ballparks that attempt with their nuanced designs and intimate dimensions to recapture the nostalgia of a bygone era. 

Appreciation for the significance of African American baseball history, meanwhile, has flourished in recent decades, says Doswell of the Negro Leagues museum. The Negro Leagues gave African Americans the opportunity to participate in the national pastime, "to adopt the game, play it in their own style, create a community for themselves against the backdrop of segregation. It created a sense of normalcy, a sense of acceptance and empowerment, a sense of belonging to America," he says.

The Black Yankees, in finding a stadium like Hinchliffe that they could call their own, attained "a level of independence," he says. "It was a monument in some respects to overcoming being treated as second-class citizens."

Hinchliffe, therefore, represents a grand opportunity to save a stadium that not only evokes baseball's golden era, but also honors the careers of the splendid African American ballplayers who helped build the foundation for the emerging Civil Rights movement. Let's call it what it is: a national treasure.

•••

Today, Monte Irvin is 90 years old, but he still has vivid memories of his Negro League days—the long bus rides, the meager salaries, the difficulty finding restaurants that would serve African Americans. Things didn't get much easier in the major leagues. "It was tough in the beginning. You didn't really feel like you were a part of the team," he recalls. "We couldn't stay with our teammates. We stayed at the Negro hotel or with private families." He also remembers the taunts: "Name-calling and all that. Didn't use any words we hadn't already heard. We tried to take it out on the baseball."

But he also remembers the joy of the game, his enduring friendships with players like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. And he most definitely remembers where he got his start in professional baseball: at Hinchliffe Stadium.

"What you have here," says Brian LoPinto, standing near the spot where Irvin swatted home runs during his tryout nearly 75 years ago, "is not a photograph or a bat that Josh Gibson used, you actually have the living structure." With the last generation of Negro League players passing on, he asks, how many more direct connections remain to this rapidly vanishing era in baseball history?

It's time to head home, and Hinchliffe stands empty and silent once more, awaiting the day when crowds will again pile through the gates and fill the summer nights with cheering, when baseball will finally return to the stadium, and parents will get the chance to tell their children the story of a pioneering African American player named Monte Irvin who hailed from nearby Orange, N.J., and whose journey into baseball immortality started at this very ballpark.

BestAmerican2010"Field of Forgotten Dreams" was named a notable entry in The Best American Essays 2010    

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Great Falls in Paterson, N.J., is the second largest falls east of the Mississippi in volume, not in height. Preservation regrets the error.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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