I was able to find it easily as the car turned onto Maple Street. For all of the cracked tiles, chipped paint, and harsh chain link fencing, it was still, unmistakably, a stadium. The car rolled down the gentle hill before coming to a stop, and I hopped out to take it all in. It did not matter that the site was under construction, that wooden beams held up the lettering at the front entrance, that lumber and other construction materials littered the site. I felt the weight of history anchoring me in place as I stared, just as the wooden beams anchored in place the wall reading “Hinchliffe Stadium.”
Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey, is one of the few remaining Negro League ballparks in the United States. Opened in July 1932, the ballpark sits snuggled into the side of a bluff that overlooks the Paterson Great Falls and the Passaic River. While the ballpark was once the home of the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans, and while the stadium hosted the likes of greats such as Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, and Larry Doby, the ballpark fell into disarray in the 1990s before being closed in 1997. Between 1997 and 2021, nature slowly claimed the ballpark as threats of demolition loomed.
In 2021, however, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium organization and Mayor André Sayegh, renovation began to revitalize the park. Recently, after intense lobbying from the mayor, MLB has even considered bringing a Field of Dreams-style game to Hinchliffe when the renovations are completed. On the heels of this news, I couldn’t help but make the short trek there this week to see the site for myself, even though I knew there wouldn’t be much to see beyond what I could view from the sidewalk.
Despite the fact that there was not much to see—no museum, no tour, no signage beyond the beautiful and imposing words “Hinchliffe Stadium” etched into the stone—I could feel the significance of the site in my bones.
The New York Black Yankees first played at Hinchliffe Stadium in 1933, though it was not yet their home field. The move to Paterson came in part because of the expense of other ballparks: while Hinchliffe Stadium cost the Negro Leagues $100 to rent for the day, Yankee Stadium cost the Negro Leagues $2,500 to rent for the day. At only 19 miles away from the Bronx, Hinchliffe was an attractive option.
The New York Black Yankees played their home games of the 1933 Colored Championship (the equivalent of the World Series) at Hinchliffe Stadium and, although they eventually lost, they made Hinchliffe their home stadium from 1934 until 1945. The New York Cubans made Hinchliffe their home stadium as well, in 1935 and 1936. Incredibly, in their 1934 season, the New York Black Yankees started off with an eight-game winning streak at the stadium. Who eventually broke up that streak? It was Josh Gibson, then of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Gibson, as we all know, eventually came to be most associated with the Homestead Grays of Washington, DC, and we have all passed his statute more times than we can count near the center field gate of Nationals Park.
There are no statues of the greats at Hinchliffe Stadium. In fact, there’s not much to see at all, and no way to enter in its current state—it is fenced off, and if you stand on your toes, you can just make out the tops of excavator machines in what used to be the outfield. The only indication that great things used to happen here is the lettering with the stadium name on the top, and the few ticket windows on either side of the street corner, with beautiful tiles of athletic feats right above. The ballpark, however, done in the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s, still exudes a certain aura, a certain gravitas.
That gravitas comes not only from the teams that played on this stage, but the all-time great players who passed through. Josh Gibson may be the most famous to Nationals fans, given his statue at Nats Park and his name inscribed in the Ring of Honor. However, other legendary players, including some associated with Washington, made their mark at Hinchliffe. James “Cool Papa” Bell played at Hinchliffe Stadium as part of the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1934—Bell would later go on to play for the Homestead Grays and is inscribed in the Nationals Ring of Honor. Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston all also at one point passed through Hinchliffe Stadium in their careers. In fact, over twenty future Hall of Famers played at Hinchliffe.
None were more connected to Hinchliffe than Hall of Famer Larry Doby, who was the second Black player to break MLB’s color line and the first Black player in the American League, in 1947. Doby grew up in Paterson, having moved there from South Carolina at the age of fourteen. After he graduated high school, Doby was offered a tryout in Hinchliffe for the Newark Eagles, a Negro League team that operated out of Newark only 15 miles south. The Eagles were in Paterson playing against the New York Black Yankees on that day in 1942. He excelled and went on to make history, including by: winning championships in the 1946 Negro League World Series and the 1948 MLB World Series; leading the AL twice in home runs; and being named as an All-Star seven times.
Despite his legendary status, however, and a career that took him from New Jersey to Cleveland to Chicago to Detroit, he never forgot the importance of Hinchliffe. Doby not only had his tryout for the Eagles there, but also played at Hinchliffe during his high school football days, as the stadium was part of the community and used as the home playing field for many local high schools during its time. According to his son, Larry Doby Jr., “I knew even thirty, forty, fifty years later what kind of impression it left on him here, to be in Hinchliffe.”
It is impossible to see the former diamond itself from the corner of Liberty and Maple Streets. So I walked down the street to the Mary Ellen Kramer Park, which sits nestled between the stadium, Great Falls, and Passaic River. The sound of the falls whooshed in my ears as I walked down the path, craning my neck to get a better angle of the stadium on the bluff. With no one around, I clambered atop a picnic table to try and look in, and that’s when I finally saw it all: walls colored with graffiti, excavators hanging around, construction materials littering the scene, but still, unmistakably, a stadium, bathed in the glow of the setting sun.
I tried to imagine watching a game here in its heyday. The New York Black Yankees versus the Pittsburgh Crawfords, maybe. Perhaps Satchel Paige had thrown an excellent game there, aided by a Josh Gibson home run that looked like it could have gone straight into the Passaic River. Perhaps kids had gathered on the rocky overlook just to the right of the stadium, keeping an eye out for the same greats that I tried to picture in my mind’s eye. I tried to feel the triumph and exuberance that must have filled this spot, and the perseverance of the players who, despite the vitriolic racism hurled their way, continued to play baseball, and play it better than anyone.
Hinchliffe fell into decline after being taken over by the Paterson school system in the 1960s. While still in use through 1997, various updates led to maintenance problems, including an instance where an enlarging of the field led to a sinkhole. Eventually, without the money available to correct all of the problems associated with the field, the stadium was closed at the end of the 1996 – 1997 school year and continued to decay. The groundbreaking ceremony in 2021 represented the culmination of decades of work by the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium and local government, among others, to save the site and ensure its future use as a ballpark.
Renovations are expected to be complete this fall, even though that timeline looked far off from my vantage point at the top of a picnic table. Nevertheless, I climbed off the table and made my way back to the car, stopping multiple times along the way to take in more of the architectural details of the site, to imagine how busy the street must have been on game day, to picture an audience roaring as Abbott and Costello performed their “Who’s on First” routine literally on first (the duo performed at Hinchliffe at least once—Costello grew up in Paterson).
More than anything, however, as I got into my car, I was struck by the importance of the site in the history of American organized baseball, and the perseverance of the men who played despite the color line blocking them from MLB. Baseball continues to have a problem with race, including in attracting Black fans and players; biases from umpires in calling strike zones for non-white players; and outright racism towards players who call out systemic racism and protest for change. The deterioration of Hinchliffe Stadium is yet another link in that chain, a glossing over of the importance of the Negro Leagues and the prejudice that prevented some of the most talented ballplayers from stepping foot in MLB during their time.
The revitalization of the stadium, however, provides the opportunity to atone for some of those wrongs and to re-emphasize the importance of the Negro Leagues. MLB in particular, through hosting a Field of Dreams-style game at Hinchliffe, has the opportunity to remind the broader baseball audience of the significance of the stadium, the time period, the players, and the Negro Leagues. The chance is there to attract a wider audience and give the stadium the fanfare and reintroduction it deserves, after so many years of decay.
I could only hope, as I drove away, that MLB takes that chance.
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