Sunday, July 27, 2014
A PIECE OF NEGRO LEAGUE HISTORY IS DECAYING IN NEW JERSEY
Without the proper context, Hinchliffe Stadium is nothing more than cracked earth and rotting wood. The former ballpark squats out on the bluffs of the great Paterson Falls in Paterson, New Jersey, a relic you can miss unless you're looking for it. I wasn't aware of it's existence until the first time I made that trip as an adult to the Paterson Falls, and even then, I only happened upon it by accident. I remember wandering inside the fortifications of the great structure and coming across a few older men stood in the center of the field, chain-smoking and remembering their high school days, when they played there.
Another time, on a more purposeful visit, three friends and I parked outside it, crawled through a hole in the fence, and stared up at the industrial ruin, imagining history, spinning pictures of the past. There was no one else there except for the wildlife who have made the place their home since 1997, when the stadium was abandoned after years of decay.
Playing baseball doesn't make you a better person. Read more.
I climbed the creaky stairs, devoured by years of termites, as if ascending a mountain. The summit, and my grand prize, was a battered old broadcast booth that looked as if the years had taken their toll. The inside looked about how you'd expect a place that's been all but forgotten to look.
For the next hour or so my friends and I tossed around an old baseball we found and used a tree branch as a bat. We took long breaks to sit in the bleachers—when the stadium was built, in those pre-luxury box days, all the seats were bleachers—just imagining the crowds that packed the stadium.
The park was home, from 1933-37 and from 1939-45, to the New York Black Yankees, and often played host to some of the great Negro League superstars, including Larry Doby, a future Hall of Famer who played high school ball at Hinchliffe Stadium. Doby, a seven-time All-Star who got his start with the Cleveland Indians, was the first black man to play in the American League and was the second to play Major League Baseball, after Jackie Robinson. Students from Paterson's Eastside High School also used the field, taking on their rivals from the Paterson Central in an annual Thanksgiving game.
It's hard to understand why for so long a tremendous piece of history like Hinchliffe Stadium didn't get the historical attention it deserved. I grew up in neighboring Glen Rock, a mere 15-minute drive from the stadium. When we were 15, my friends and I would get someone to drive us down the road and play "hey mister" until someone bought us beer. That was about as far as my exploration of Paterson went. It was poorer than my town, mysterious, damaged, off-limits.
But I grew up in privilege. My public high school was highly ranked and I had everything I wanted. My parents gave me a car when I was 17, I had a cell phone in high school, and I was given money for new clothes. The problems in Glen Rock were things like teen drinking and how to shelter kids from reading historical fiction that was a little too "real."
Paterson had bigger problems in those days, and still does. The city has been pegged as the gateway to Northern New Jersey's white suburban heroin problem, and with that drug "epidemic" getting national attention, the cops have been cracking down on drug-related crimes—meaning the city is spending money on arresting and prosecuting minorities and not restoring Hinchcliffe.
Last year, however, the stadium got some recognition when it was designated a historic landmark by the National Park Service.
"Today marks a great day in Paterson's history," US Congressman Bill Pascrell, who played high school baseball at the stadium, said. "As one of the last remaining Negro League stadiums in our nation, this designation allows us to honor the many athletes, including Larry Doby, who proudly called this historic stadium home.
"It's had a great history, and you can't ever replace that history, ever," he continued. "We've come a long way since the days of institutionalized segregation, but we still have a long way to go. We can't forget where we came from if we want to keep moving forward. I say this to the Doby family: We are not going to forget, and we will always not only keep your dad in mind, but we keep your whole family and what you meant to our city."
Over the years, there have been attempts at putting together money to renovate the stadium, but it still sits in disrepair despite the efforts of groups like the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the stadium. It won't be demolished, at least—thanks to a bill passed this week by Congress, the ballpark is going to become part of Great Falls National Historical Park, and thus safe from anyone who would want to tear it down and build something in its place.
Hopefully, the money can be raised to restore Hinchcliffe to an approximation of its past glory, or at least get it to a point where people can play baseball again there without using tree branches and old balls.