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Chuck Kronengold, 76, his grandson Evan, 5, and son Corey, 49, take in the scene at Hinchliffe Stadium. (Dan Cichalski)

History -- and homers -- on display as Jackals debut at Hinchliffe Stadium

May 21, 2023

PATERSON, N.J. – Stealing is usually verboten in national parks. But for Nilo Rijo, it was historic.

Rijo, a 24-year-old Dominican second baseman for the New Jersey Jackals who moved to New Jersey 11 years ago and played high school ball six miles away at Passaic High, swiped second base in the first inning of the first professional baseball game at Hinchliffe Stadium in nearly 73 years. With the stadium part of the adjacent Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, it’s the only ballpark within a national park, making for a lot of firsts in Sunday’s 10-6 Jackals victory over the Sussex County Miners in an independent Frontier League game.

“You guys know how fast I am, so I’m gonna go for it right away,” Rijo said after the game when asked if he was looking to record the first stolen base. “It’s either I hit the first home run, or I steal the first bag.”

Batting eighth for New Jersey, Rijo didn’t get a chance to hit the first home run; that came off the bat of Sussex County leadoff hitter Edwin Mateo, who hit the second pitch of the game from former Major Leaguer Vin Mazzaro – who played his high school ball 10 miles away in Rutherford – over the fence in left-center.

That homer was an omen: The teams combined to hit 10 home runs, indicating that Hinchliffe could be a very favorable hitters’ park. The Jackals slugged six of those shots, with DH Alex Toral launching two of them.

A reopening 26 years in the making

The New Jersey Jackals played their first game at the renovated Hinchliffe Stadium on May 21, 2023. Opened in 1932, Hinchliffe had been home to Negro Leagues teams in the 1930s and '40s but fell into disrepair and was closed in 1997. A $103 million renovation brought it back to life. Click any image to launch gallery.

“They’re probably going to break every [Frontier League] home run record,” Miners manager Chris Widger said. “Their offense is really good. They’re veteran guys who know how to hit and on top of it you have fly balls that are going to be home runs all year, so you’re probably going to have a lot of home run records broken.”

Celebrities turn out for Hinchliffe Stadium ribbon cutting

The Jackals had played at Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University since their founding in 1998. They joined the Frontier League -- an MLB Partner League -- in 2020 and announced their move to Paterson in September. Rain on Saturday delayed their Hinchliffe debut by a day. Sunday featured partly cloudy skies, temperatures in the low 70s and a steady breeze. The stadium’s horseshoe shape and location on a bluff beside the Great Falls may make windy days here a regular feature. The open end of the horseshoe has a line of trees that fall away to the Passaic River below, not offering much of a guard against the gusts.

Fans – many of them wearing T-shirts and jerseys of Negro League teams or Paterson Eastside High school graduate and Baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby – lined up outside the gates before they opened, and once inside they spread out in the 7,500-seat stadium, open for the first time since 1997 after a $103 million renovation. The grandstand stretches from the left-field corner all the way around the plate to straightaway center, where a Negro Leagues museum is scheduled to open in the fall.

The last game at Hinchliffe involving professional ballplayers came in October 1950, when a team of barnstorming Major Leaguers including Del Ennis, Danny Murtaugh, Carl Furillo and Bobby Shantz defeated a Passaic County All-Star team made up of mostly Minor Leaguers, 8-3.

The history of Hinchliffe Stadium in 29 Hall of Famers

But the highlight of Hinchliffe’s history and the significance behind its restoration and rebirth was its use as a home field for the New York Black Yankees, New York Cubans and Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and ’40s. That’s what brought six-time All-Star second baseman Willie Randolph to the ballpark for its reopening. Wearing a Negro Leagues cap and a Jackie Robinson sweatshirt, he threw out one of the ceremonial first pitches.

“It’s really about understanding the history of that,” Randolph said before the game. “All these little kids that are walking around here didn’t know who Satchel Paige was or the great Larry Doby, the New Jersey native. They can learn about that and that’s so important. If we don’t understand our history, if we don’t educate these kids, how will they know about these inspirational people? I think that young men and women have to understand the history of that from an educational standpoint so they can also pass on that legacy to the next generation.”

Rijo has become aware of that history. He said he was familiar with Hinchliffe from driving by on his way to a training facility, but didn’t realize until recently that it had once hosted Negro Leagues baseball.

“It’s beautiful [now],” he said. “The history behind it is even better, knowing so many legends played here. … I didn’t know it was ever a stadium, because it was so old and abandoned. So it’s great how they brought this back to life.”

credits: Dan Cichalski is night copy chief for Follow him on Twitter @NJ_baseball.