Hinchliffe Stadium in New Jersey is being restored, and the Negro Leagues Museum is being built

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

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

At that time Hinchliffe was abandoned, as it had been since 1997, and the pavement covered the area where the field had been. Overgrown vegetation, graffiti, and shattered glass littered the stands as fans watched future Hall of Famers perform. Idols such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston and Martin Diego have all played at Hinchliffe. So were homegrown producers like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson in the first wave of merging the American and National Leagues on their own tracks to Cooperstown.

A standout at Eastside High School in Paterson, Doby was the first black player in the AL after his successful stint with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. The Eagles scouted him at the Hinchliffe Stadium tryout. Two other teams, the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans, have also called the stadium home.

“Patterson, the New Jersey District, and New York City have an enormous black baseball history that deserves to be told,” Kendrick said.

Any trace of that history has been obscured by neglect. So it was difficult – perhaps unrealistic – to imagine restoring the park to its former glory. But Kendrick allowed himself to dream.

Less than a decade later, Hinchliffe Stadium came to the end of a massive redevelopment project that cost over $100 million. The initiative, launched in April 2021, included a multi-sport facility, pre-school, restaurant and event space, parking, affordable senior housing, and a museum dedicated to the venue’s glory days, which ranged from the 1930s to the 1980s.

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

“To stand on those hallowed grounds, and to know the likes of Larry Doby and Monty Irvin and so many legendary stars in the Negro leagues, that’s special,” Kendrick said, adding, “When I stood on those grounds, last time, it was just a black ceiling. Now, To see her in her current state so lively and active, I’m sure that would be very emotional.”

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Larry Doby Jr., whose childhood was marked by tall tales of his father’s Hinchliffe heroics, added, “It’s been a long time. There have been efforts by a lot of people to make that happen.”

In 2009, Andre Sayegh traveled to Rickwood Field, another surviving Negro League stadium in Birmingham, Ala. A baseball-loving, Paterson-born Democrat with political aspirations, Sayegh ended his trip with the goal of one day reforming Hinchliffe if he ever became mayor of his city.

Two election losses and one victory later, Al Sayegh put his plan into motion.

“I wanted to try and achieve Hinchliffe’s goal,” Al-Sayegh said. “I wanted to make history, too.”

But Hinchliffe’s renewal wasn’t enough for Al-Saegh. He wanted to see professional baseball and other sports there again. Thus he began courting Al Dorso, who owns the New Jersey Jackals of the Frontier League, a partner league of Major League Baseball.

“He said, ‘If you drop $50 million in the middle of the field, I still won’t bring the Jackals to Paterson,’” Al-Sayegh said, recalling a conversation with D’Urso that took place a year before Al-Sayegh was elected mayor in 2018. . “So we’re now down $100 million, and it’s coming.”

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

Andre was talking about $10 million. I said, ‘$10 million!?’ This is a historic place. Negro league baseball is a big deal. You can’t just Go out there and polish something.

“They did it right. I tipped my hat 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 their move, citing concerns about crime and accessibility in Paterson. However, d’Urso dismissed these as complaints from “people who live in Montclair and pretend they’re awake”.

“This is an area of ​​Paterson that isn’t riddled with crime,” he continued, before pointing to the nearby Great Falls of the Passaic River. “It’s a beautiful area. The falls are very beautiful.”

When asked about the price, D’Urso, a native of Paterson, defended his right to earn money and said no one was forced to rent the field. He added that the Jackal will be holding a number of community events and clinics in Hinchliffe.

Al-Sayegh said the Jackals rent from the Patterson school district, which owns Hinchliffe, and will use it for their sporting events 180 days a year. D’Urso said that schools will have first priority when it comes to scheduling, and that the Jackals will play Sussex County if they reach the playoffs so that there are no conflicts with school football, soccer and track and field events in the fall.

Other issues have been brought up from people like Brian LoPinto, co-founder of Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, who has expressed concerns such as the stadium’s track not meeting New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association requirements. He also said that the new configuration of the baseball diamond does not respect the original appearance of the ballpark.

However, LoPinto, who helped Hinchliffe avoid demolition in 1997, is still keen to see the renovated stadium.

“This beats meeting a wrecking ball by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

On Friday, the day before the Jackals’ home opener, Hinchliffe Stadium will hold its Opening Ceremony.

Sayegh had a long list of celebrities and politicians he intended to invite, but no matter who attends, the day will emphasize Hinchliffe’s scripted past, and the Jackal’s plan to learn about that history throughout their season. Part of that will come through an on-site museum.

Kendrick lent his experience curating the museum’s exhibits, which will focus on Hinchliffe’s heyday and local Negro league teams and icons, such as Doby. Doby Jr. said: There has been talk of dedicating the space to his father, though it is named after Charles Muth, a Paterson native and graduate of Montclair State, who operates the museum.

Kendrick, who will return to Hinchliffe for the Opening Ceremony, envisions a “Smithsonian-like affiliation” with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

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“I look forward to returning to see the great work up close,” Kendrick said of the stadium as a whole. “I’ve seen the pictures, and the pictures are absolutely amazing. It was an amazing transformation.”

Sayegh has different goals for the future of the site, but his ultimate prize will be hosting an MLB game at Hinchliffe in an event similar to the Field of Dreams games being played near the movie set in Dyersville, Iowa. Sayegh said he could envision a game between the Yankees and his beloved Mets, and the teams could wear New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans uniforms.

The idea of ​​playing at Hinchliffe had been floated with both franchises, Sayegh said, and that former big league player Harold Reynolds, another linebacker, spoke to Commissioner Rob Manfred about the concept.

“MLB is grateful for all the interest that exists to host major league games and special events in the future,” said a league spokesperson when asked about the possibility of playing at Hinchliffe, adding, “We are continuing to evaluate many opportunities in scheduling our special events for upcoming seasons.”

While MLB reviews its options, Sayegh is working to ramp up his sales.

“This is the true field of dreams,” he said of the Dyersville site. “I thought it was a great movie, but it’s a movie set. It’s not where the history happened, is it? It’s not where people, who are excluded because of the color of their skin, play. They played in Paterson. They had a house in Hinchliffe when they weren’t allowed to play.” At Yankee Stadium or at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.”

As excited as people are about professional baseball returning to Hinchliffe, Doby Jr. said: The potential to influence younger athletes has been the most important aspect of the stadium revitalization. He wants to see Hinchliffe serve as “a springboard for the youth of today and tomorrow”, just as he did for his father.

“It’s been a long time coming, and it’s been a very difficult road. The fact that it happened is a fact — I mean, it’s like we can almost touch it now,” Doby Jr. said. They will have the same opportunities he had as a child.”

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