PATERSON, N.J. — 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 journeyed east for a ceremony that recognized Hinchliffe as a National Historic Landmark. The stadium is one of the last of the Negro leagues ballparks still standing, but it was almost impossible to tell at the time.
Back then, Hinchliffe was abandoned, as it had been since 1997, and pavement covered the area where the field had been. Overgrown vegetation, graffiti and shattered glass littered the stands where fans had watched 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. So had local products like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson in the first wave of integrating the American and National Leagues on their own paths to Cooperstown.
Doby, a standout at Eastside High School in Paterson, was the A.L.’s first Black player after his successful stint with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. The Eagles discovered him at a Hinchliffe Stadium tryout. Two other teams, the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans, called the stadium home as well.
“Paterson and the New Jersey-New York region have tremendous Black baseball history that deserves to be told,” Kendrick said.
Any trace of that history had been obscured by negligence. So it was hard — and perhaps unrealistic — to visualize 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. The initiative, which broke ground in April 2021, features a multisport athletic facility, a preschool, a restaurant and event space, parking, affordable senior housing and a museum devoted to the venue’s glory days, which ranged from the 1930s to the ’80s.
And this weekend, professional baseball games will return to the site. Kendrick can’t wait.
“To stand on those hallowed grounds, that you know the likes of Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and so many of the legendary stars of the Negro leagues were there, that’s special,” Kendrick said, adding, “When I stood on those grounds the last time, it was just blacktop. Now, to see it in its current state and alive and active, I’m sure that’s going to be pretty emotional.”
Larry Doby Jr., whose childhood featured tall tales of his father’s Hinchliffe heroics, added, “It’s been a long time coming. There were efforts by a lot of people to make this happen.”
Let the Games Begin
Back in 2009, André Sayegh traveled to Rickwood Field, another surviving Negro leagues stadium in Birmingham, Ala. A baseball-loving, Paterson-born Democrat with political aspirations, Sayegh ended the trip with the goal of one day repairing Hinchliffe if he ever became his city’s mayor.
Two election losses and one victory later, Sayegh set his plan in motion.
“I wanted to try to hit a home run for Hinchliffe,” Sayegh said. “I wanted to hit a home run for history, too.”
But renovating Hinchliffe was not 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, a partner league of Major League Baseball.
“He said, ‘If you dropped $50 million in the middle of the field, I still wouldn’t bring the Jackals to Paterson,’” Sayegh said, recalling a conversation with Dorso that took place a year before Sayegh was elected mayor in 2018. “So now we’re dropping $100 million, and he’s coming.”
The Jackals are relocating from Yogi Berra Stadium at Montclair State University in Little Falls, N.J., and their home opener on Saturday against the Sussex County Miners, another Dorso asset, will officially bring pro ball back to Hinchliffe.
“I didn’t think they’d ever come up with that kind of money. It’s a historical stadium and it has to be done right,” Dorso said of his initial resistance. “André was talking about $10 million. I said, ‘$10 million!?’ This is a historical place. Negro leagues baseball is a big deal. You can’t just go in there and spit-polish something.
“They did it right. My hat’s off to them.”
Baseball’s return to Hinchliffe has raised some concerns locally.
Some longtime fans of the Jackals expressed their displeasure on social media when the team announced its move, citing worries over crime and accessibility in Paterson. Dorso, however, dismissed those as complaints from “people who live in Montclair and pretend to be woke.”
“That’s an area in Paterson which is not full of crime,” he continued, before referencing the nearby Great Falls of the Passaic River. “It’s a nice area. The falls are very nice.”
The Paterson Board of Education also criticized the Jackals in February when the club began advertising expensive Little League and travel team rental fees for Hinchliffe Stadium on select dates. NorthJersey.com reported that the Jackals initially were asking for $1,500 to use the field for two hours. Their website now lists a charge of $1,200.
When asked about the pricing, Dorso, a Paterson native, defended his right to make money and said that no one was being forced to rent the field. He added that the Jackals would put on a number of community events and clinics at Hinchliffe.
The Jackals are leasing from the Paterson school district, which owns Hinchliffe and will use it for its own athletic events 180 days per year, according to Sayegh. Dorso said that the schools would get first priority when it comes to scheduling, and that the Jackals would play in Sussex County should 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 voiced concerns such as the stadium’s track not meeting the requirements of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. He also said the baseball diamond’s new configuration did not honor the stadium’s original look.
Still, LoPinto, who helped Hinchliffe avoid demolition in 1997, is eager to see the refurbished stadium.
“This beats meeting the wrecking ball by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
Past, Present and Future
On Friday, a day before the Jackals’ home opener, Hinchliffe Stadium will hold an opening ceremony.
Sayegh had a lengthy list of celebrities and politicians he intended to invite, but regardless of who shows up, the day will emphasize Hinchliffe’s storied past, and the Jackals’ plan to recognize that history throughout their season. Part of that will come through an on-site museum.
Kendrick has lent his expertise to the curation of the museum’s exhibits, which will focus on Hinchliffe’s heyday and local Negro leagues teams and icons, such as Doby. Doby Jr. said that there had been talk of dedicating the space to his father, though it’s been named after Charles Muth, a Paterson native who graduated from Montclair State, which 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.
“I am looking forward to getting back to see the amazing work up close in person,” Kendrick said of the stadium at large. “I’ve seen the images, and the images are absolutely amazing. It’s been an amazing transformation.”
Sayegh has various goals for the site’s future, but his ultimate prize would be hosting an M.L.B. game at 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 matchup between the Yankees and his beloved Mets, and the teams could wear the uniforms of the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans.
Sayegh said that the idea of playing at Hinchliffe had been broached with both franchises, and that former big league infielder Harold Reynolds, another advocate, had spoken to Commissioner Rob Manfred about the concept.
“M.L.B. is thankful for all the interest that exists to host special major league games and events in the future,” a league spokesman said when asked about the possibility of playing at Hinchliffe, adding that “We are continuing to evaluate the many opportunities in determining our special event schedule for upcoming seasons.”
While M.L.B. goes over its options, Sayegh is sharpening his sales pitch.
“That is the real Field of Dreams,” he said of the Dyersville site. “I thought it was an outstanding film, but it’s a movie set. It’s not where history happened, right? It’s not where individuals, who were excluded because of the color of their skin, played. They played in Paterson. They had a home in Hinchliffe when they were not allowed to play at Yankee Stadium or in Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.”
As excited as people are about the return of professional baseball to Hinchliffe, Doby Jr. said the potential to affect younger athletes was the most meaningful aspect of the stadium’s rebirth. He wants to see Hinchliffe serve as a “springboard for the youth of today and tomorrow,” just like it did for his father.
“It’s been such a long time coming, and it’s been such a difficult 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 father would be proud to be associated with it, and he’d be more proud that some kids will be getting the same opportunities that he got when he was a kid.”