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 recognizing Hinchliffe as a National Historic Landmark. The stadium is one of the last Negro League ballparks still standing, but it was almost impossible to tell at the time.
At the time, Hinchliffe was deserted, as it had been since 1997, covering the area where the pitch had been with pavement. Overgrown vegetation, graffiti and broken glass littered the bleachers 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 all played in Hinchliffe. As are locals like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson in the first wave of integration of the American and National Leagues on their own path to Cooperstown.
A standout at Eastside High School in Paterson, Doby was the AL’s first black player after his successful stint with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. The Eagles discovered him during a tryout at Hinchliffe Stadium. Two other teams, the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans, also called the stadium home.
“Paterson and the New Jersey-New York area have a great black baseball history that deserves to be told,” said Kendrick.
Every trace of that history had been lost sight of through negligence. So it was difficult – and perhaps unrealistic – to imagine the park being restored 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 has cost more than $100 million. Launched in April 2021, the initiative includes a multi-sport athletic facility, kindergarten, 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. eighty.
And this weekend, professional baseball games return to the site. Kendrick can’t wait.
“To stand on those hallowed grounds, where you know Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and so many of the legendary stars of the Negro leagues were there, that’s special,” said Kendrick, adding, “When I stood on those grounds, last time it was just blacktop Now to see it in its current state and alive and active I’m sure that will be quite emotional.
Larry Doby Jr., whose childhood was marked by tall tales of his father’s Hinchliffe exploits, added, “It’s been a long time coming. Efforts have been made by many people to make this happen.”
Let the game begin
In 2009, André Sayegh traveled to Rickwood Field, another remaining Negro Leagues stadium in Birmingham, Ala. Sayegh, a baseball-loving Paterson-born Democrat with political ambitions, ended the trip with the goal of one day fixing Hinchliffe if he ever became his town’s mayor.
Two election losses and one victory later, Sayegh set his plan in motion.
“I wanted to try and hit a home run for Hinchliffe,” said Sayegh. “I also wanted to hit a home run for history.”
But renovating Hinchliffe wasn’t enough for Sayegh. He wanted to see professional baseball and other sports played there again. And so he began courting Al Dorso, who owns the New Jersey Jackals of the Frontier League, an affiliate league of Major League Baseball.
“He said, ‘If you dropped $50 million in the middle of the field, I still wouldn’t take the Jackals to Paterson,'” Sayegh said, recalling a conversation with Dorso that took place a year before Sayegh in 2018 was elected mayor. “So now we’re dropping $100 million, and he’s coming.”
The Jackals move from Yogi Berra Stadium at Montclair State University in Little Falls, NJ, and their Saturday home opener against the Sussex County Miners, another Dorso signing, will officially return the pro ball to Hinchliffe.
“I didn’t think they would ever come up with so much money. It’s a historic stadium and it needs to be done right,” Dorso said of his initial resistance. “André talked about 10 million dollars. I said, “$10 million!?” This is a historical place. Negro leagues baseball is a big deal. You can’t just go in and spit something.
“They have done well. My hat is off to them.”
Baseball’s return to Hinchliffe has caused some concern locally.
Some longtime fans of the Jackals expressed their displeasure on social media when the team announced its move, citing crime and accessibility concerns in Paterson. However, Dorso dismissed those as complaints from “people who live in Montclair and pretend to be awake”.
“That’s an area of Paterson that isn’t full of crime,” he continued, before referring to the nearby Great Falls of the Passaic River. “It is a beautiful area. The falls are very beautiful.”
The Paterson Board of Education also criticized the Jackals in February when the club began advertising expensive Little League and travel team rentals for Hinchliffe Stadium on select dates. NorthJersey.com reported that the Jackals were initially asking $1,500 to use the field for two hours. Their website now lists a fee of $1,200.
When asked about the pricing, Dorso, a Paterson resident, defended his right to make money, saying no one was forced to rent the field. He added that the Jackals would host 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 athletic events 180 days a year, according to Sayegh. Dorso said the schools would be given first priority when it comes to scheduling, and that the Jackals would play in Sussex County if they made the playoffs so there are no conflicts with school football, soccer and athletics events in the fall.
Other issues have been raised by the likes of Brian LoPinto, co-founder of Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, who expressed concern that the stadium’s track did not meet the requirements of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. He also said the new baseball diamond configuration did not live up to the original look of the stadium.
Still, LoPinto, who helped Hinchliffe avoid demolition in 1997, would like to see the refurbished stadium.
“This is better than meeting the wrecking ball,” he said.
Past, present and future
On Friday, one day before the Jackals’ home opener, Hinchliffe Stadium will hold an opening ceremony.
Sayegh had a long list of celebrities and politicians he planned to invite, but whoever shows up, the day will highlight Hinchliffe’s storied past, and the Jackals’ plan to acknowledge that history throughout their season . Part of it comes through a museum on the site.
Kendrick has lent his expertise to curating the museum’s exhibits, which will focus on Hinchliffe’s heyday and local Negro league teams and icons, such as Doby. Dobby Jr. said there was talk of Doby Jr. said there was talk of dedicating the space to his father, though it was named after Charles Muth, a Paterson native who graduated from Montclair State, who operates the museum.
Kendrick, who will return to Hinchliffe for the opening ceremony, envisions a “Smithsonian-esque connection” with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
“I look forward to returning to see the great work up close in person,” Kendrick said of the stadium in general. “I’ve seen the footage and the footage is absolutely amazing. It has been an amazing transformation.”
Sayegh has several goals for the site’s future, but his ultimate prize is hosting an MLB game in Hinchliffe in an event similar to the Field of Dreams games played near the movie set in Dyersville, Iowa . Sayegh said he could envision a game between the Yankees and his beloved Mets, and that the teams could wear the uniforms of the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans.
Sayegh said the idea of playing at Hinchliffe had been brought up at both franchises, and that former big league infielder Harold Reynolds, another advocate, had discussed the concept with Commissioner Rob Manfred.
“MLB is grateful for all the interest that exists in hosting special Major League games and events in the future,” a League spokesperson said when asked about the opportunity to play with Hinchliffe, adding, “We remain evaluating the many opportunities as we determine our special event schedule for the upcoming seasons.”
As MLB weighs its options, Sayegh sharpens his sales pitch.
“That’s the real field of dreams,” he said of the Dyersville site. “I thought it was an excellent movie, but it’s a movie set. It’s not where history happened, is it? It is not where individuals who were excluded because of their skin color played. They played in Paterson. They had a home 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 the return of professional baseball to Hinchliffe, Doby Jr. said the potential to influence younger athletes was the most meaningful aspect of the stadium’s rebirth. He wants to see Hinchliffe serve as a “stepping stone for the youth of today and tomorrow” as it did for his father.
“It’s been so long and it’s been such a hard road. The fact that it’s happening 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 are getting the same opportunities he was given when he was a kid.”