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NJ Negro Leagues park gets landmark status

Home of NY Black Yankees and Cubans, Hinchliffe Stadium earns elite distinction

PATERSON, N.J. -- Bob Scott stood next to the brand new "National Historic Landmark" plaque outside of Hinchliffe Stadium, where he once tried to sneak fastballs by Buck Leonard as a confident teenage righty for the New York Black Yankees of the Negro Leagues in 1946.

"We were playing the Homestead Grays here, and I was pitching for the Black Yankees," said Scott, 82, one of the last living Negro Leaguers with stories to tell. "A batter named Buck Leonard hit two home runs off me that night at this stadium. So I have a good memory of that.

"I tried to throw my fastball by him, and I couldn't. He'd wake up in the morning at 4 o'clock, and before he'd wash his face, he'd have two home runs."

On a Wednesday morning that was tolerably frigid under the circumstances, in the city that Hall of Famer Larry Doby called home, a national historic landmark was dedicated for the first time to a venue solely for baseball. Hinchliffe is one of more than 2,500 historic U.S. sites that bears this distinction from the National Park Service. It's the ultimate designation, even one level higher than the listing of "National Historic Places" accorded to Fenway Park last year.

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, delivered a stirring keynote address during the dedication ceremony. Other speakers included U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.); Paterson Mayor Jeffery Jones; Brent Leggs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Brian LoPinto, a local crusader with Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium; Dr. Larry Hogan, author of the definitive Negro Leagues book "Shades of Glory"; Donnie Evans, superintendent of Paterson Public Schools (which oversees the venue); and Darren Boch, superintendent of Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park.

That this distinction -- the same "National Treasure" status given recently to the earthquake-damaged Washington National Cathedral -- would be granted to a dilapidated facility shut down nearly two decades ago speaks volumes about the history that happened here.

"Hinchliffe" is a word that means something important within Negro League lore, and this means it has a chance to stay longer. It is where locals dressed to the nines and games were a happening. The "Colored Championship of the Nation" was here in 1933. The Black Yankees played here from 1934-37 and 1939-45. In 1936, it was also home to the New York Cubans. It is one of a handful of places still standing where Negro League games were played, a crucible like Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., site of the oldest pro ballpark in America. When Yankee Stadium was closed in 2008, Hinchliffe became the last place in the metro New York region that hosted Negro Leaguers.

And above all, perhaps, its pride and joy was Doby, who followed just behind Jackie Robinson as the first black American League player in 1947. It seemed only fitting that this dedication ceremony immediately followed Jackie Robinson Day throughout Major League Baseball. Larry Doby Jr., who works as a union stagehand on the "Wicked" play on Broadway, represented the Doby family.

"He just would have been extremely proud that they are restoring it, because it had so many great memories for him," Doby Jr. said of his father, who lived to see his own Hall induction in 1998 before passing away five years later. "And the first memories of him here are playing football for Eastside High School against Central on Thanksgiving. That was his favorite sport in high school. They used to have overflow crowds here, it was a big deal. And then, obviously, later, trying out for the Newark Eagles, which is the beginning of everything here. It's a big day for this town, and it would be a very proud day for him."

Hinchliffe was opened in 1932 as a grand civic monument, named for a former mayor and featuring a white concrete horseshoe with Art Deco styling of the times. On Wednesday, it became white again. Hundreds of area students were on hand as paint warriors, covering years of graffiti with coats of white paint. Each paint "team" was named after a Negro League club. They learned on the job about this history.

Terry Richey, chief marketing officer of the National Trust, said his organization looked at "thousands" of places before picking out 40 for "National Treasures" status. Other examples this past year include the Malcolm X home in Boston, the Pillsbury industrial plant in Minneapolis, and the Miami Marine Stadium in Florida. They started a program two years ago called "National Treasures" to find places that are threatened but have "fantastic national importance." Hinchliffe was high on their list.

"We publish a list every year of the 11 most endangered places in the United States, and unfortunately this made our list a couple of years ago, and that's how it came to our attention," Richey said. "When we started this new program to try to help restore sites, this was one that our staff was very excited about getting involved with. We are hopeful that we can mobilize donors in the community and the Park Service and the city to get this back working as an active venue and let it be a community asset."

Kendrick had been on a whirlwind schedule the day before, conducting one interview after another about Robinson and his legacy of breaking baseball's color barrier.

"And rightfully so. We should never forget Jackie Robinson as that pioneer," Kendrick told the crowd. "But we should also never forget Larry Doby, who integrated the American League."

Turning his attention to Doby's son, Kendrick said:

"I tell people all the time, your dad went through just as much -- and some would argue even more -- because No. 1, he was a baby thrown into a powder keg of racism at 23 years old. The world was watching Jackie. No one was paying Larry any attention, and he was dealing with the same kinds of things. And keep in mind that the American League wasn't nearly as liberal as the National League. The National League had a lot of urban centers.

"Larry Doby embodied that same spirit. He had the same makeup, the same intestinal fortitude that Jackie Robinson displayed in the face of adversity, his father did the exact same thing. So the work we are doing every single day is not only there to remember Jackie Robinson, it is there to perpetuate the memory of Larry Doby."

Pascrell, a lifelong Paterson resident and eight-time re-elected Congressman, pitched in this facility as a youth and had a couple of tryouts with the Phillies.

"It's had a great history, and you can't ever replace that history, ever," he said. "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."

Scott said Doby would have "liked" this dedication, but he would have shrugged off the personal attention. Scott said the important part is what this means to the next generation.

"It means so much to me, because it's going to help young people, and that's what it's all about," he said. "Helping young people grow up to be good people, and learn to have jobs and have families and stuff like that. This building is going to do this. I'm just hoping I live long enough to see it finish.

"More people should talk about the Negro Leagues and not let it die. Because the Negro Leagues helped bring America what it is today. To let it die, that's bad. You lose education, you lose everything. So I hope they keep it alive and keep it going."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.