Paterson’s Hinchliffe Stadium should be one of baseball’s crown jewels, but for decades it has lain vacant and crumbling, a victim of vandalism and neglect due to a lack of funds. One of the few surviving stadiums in the country associated with Negro League baseball, Hinchliffe was one strike away from falling into permanent disrepair.
Yet, like the city where it resides, with its glory days in the distant past, it appears Hinchliffe may be getting back in the game with a late-inning rally.
Paterson’s City Council approved an agreement with developers for a renovation that could save the historic landmark during an Oct. 1 meeting. The roughly $76-million project is expected to turn the stadium into a 7,800-seat athletic facility, with a 314-space parking garage, restaurant with museum exhibits dedicated to Negro League baseball, 75-unit apartment building for senior citizens and a 5,800-square-foot childcare facility.
After taking office in July 2018, Paterson’s Mayor André Sayegh made Hinchliffe a top priority. Hinchcliffe, said Sayegh, “has become a symbol of what was wrong with our city.”
A “legacy project” he calls it, one that could help revitalize the area near the Great Falls. The mayor has asked the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to earmark nearly $50 million in state tax credits for Paterson development initiatives. The next major step will be getting the EDA’s approval for the use of the tax credits for the project, which Sayegh anticipates in December-January.
Built in 1932-1933, the art deco-style outdoor arena once provided a grand stage for some of the greatest ballplayers in the United States, at a time when black players had no access to the majors due to racist discrimination in the “Jim Crow” era.
Paterson’s own Larry Doby was scouted to play for the Newark Eagles in 1942 and went on to follow Jackie Robinson as the second player to break the color barrier. Hall-of-Famers Monte Irving, Satchell Paige and “Cool Papa” Bell played here. Negro League teams for the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans played their home games here. The stadium also was the scene of legendary high-school football clashes, car races, boxing matches and concerts; Duke Ellington performed there — as did Abbott and Costello; Costello was born and raised in Paterson.
Weeds on the infield
Now, weeds have taken over the infield diamond; trees have rooted among the rusted bleachers, lights on the rusty old scoreboard are smashed or missing, and the lockers rooms under the stands are now shelters for vagrants and drug users.
But recently, Paterson city officials unveiled a new mural and welcome sign on the outside walls of Hinchliffe Stadium, honoring Doby. The mural was painted by Paterson artist David Thompson and the Halls That Inspire nonprofit group. The Doby image is based on a U.S. postage stamp featuring the baseball great.
“I was honored and humbled that the city asked me do the painting,” said Thompson. “I’m proud to do this for my city. I want to make the city better.”
Doby played at the stadium as a baseball and football standout for Paterson’s Eastside High School, and later became the first black player in the American League, breaking the color barrier in July 1947, three months after Jackie Robinson.
“I was fortunate enough to know him (Doby),” Thompson said. “I knew him and the family, I had an opportunity to meet him. And he played here. I’m honored to do the painting.”
City council originally rejected mayor’s plan
The council initially rejected Sayegh’s plan for Hinchcliffe in a 5-4 vote back in June. The mayor’s staff and the developers then made numerous changes in the project and after several presentations before the council, an agreement with RPM Development and developer Baye Adolfo-Wilson was approved. Paterson school district, which actually owns Hinchliffe, would be able to reserve use of the stadium for school events for up to 180 days a year.
“We hit a home run,” the mayor said after the vote. “A walk-off.”
One major hurdle remains; the EDA still needs to authorize the $49.9 million state tax credits for the $76.7 million project.
Councilman Michael Jackson, who once played at Hinchliffe as a star quarterback for Kennedy High School before going on to play at Bethune-Cookman, has been a vocal critic of the project. He has argued consistently that the plan fails to create much-needed jobs and that it is not an appropriate use of tax credits designed to stimulate the economy. Jackson, who voted “no” in each of the votes, was staunch in his position that the development is not an appropriate use of the tax credits, which aim to stimulate the economy.
“The importance of it is very significant,” Jackson said, acknowledging the stadium’s Negro League history. “(But) to spend money on this project is senseless. This project is stealing. And it’s being masked and sold to the community as a feel-good thing.” Jackson maintains that the job creation will be minimal; he estimates about 50. He has been one of the few council members consistent in his opposition to the project from the start.
Over the past two decades, there have been several attempts to spruce up the stadium’s facade and make cosmetic improvements to keep it from falling into even deeper disrepair. In March 2013, Hinchliffe was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in December 2014, legislation was passed to include the stadium in the Great Falls National Landmark District.
Two years for work to get done
The developers of the Hinchcliffe project have two years to complete construction to receive the tax credits. With the stadium in such deep disrepair, pressure will be on to complete the project quickly. Sayegh says that irrespective of the starting date, the project must be completed by July 1, 2022 for developers to receive tax credits.
Nearby residents, many from the large Bangladeshi community, who navigate the fencing jutting out around construction props supporting part of the stadium’s crumbling facade, are seemingly unaware of its rich history or its impending resuscitation. Kids who play cricket in the adjacent yard of Paterson School #5, unfamiliar with Hinchliffe’s legacy, say they are often afraid to go in there when a ball goes over the wall. But they are excited about the prospect of playing ball in a new stadium when completed.
“There’s a high demand for recreation facilities,” Sayegh says. “It gives an outlet to young people.”
Sayegh is hoping the developers can break ground in the middle of 2020. “You could have the Thanksgiving Day game there in 2022,” he said, referring to the once fierce rivalry game between Eastside and Kennedy high schools. “Or have a big concert there. Boxing. Wrestling. It could all happen there.”