PATERSON, N.J. -- For what may have been the first time in a generation, an audience stood at Hinchliffe Stadium for the national anthem on Wednesday.
Under a blue spring sky, Leon Moses from Paterson soul band The Kopestetics performed an a capella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to mark the official groundbreaking of a long-awaited renovation to one of the last remaining venues that once hosted Negro Leagues baseball. The hope is that the ambitious $94 million project -- which encompasses much more than the refurbishment of a sports arena -- will be completed in August 2022, and performances of the national anthem will become a regular occurrence.
Joining the politicians, developers, city employees and National Parks Service rangers at the groundbreaking were former Major Leaguers Harold Reynolds, CC Sabathia and Willie Randolph, as well as Mets ambassador and former general manager Omar Minaya. But the name uttered most throughout the ceremony, and in conversations afterward, was that of Larry Doby, the trailblazer and Hall of Famer who grew up in Paterson.
“One of the reasons why we picked today, April 14,” Paterson mayor Andre Sayegh said, “is because the gentleman who broke the color barrier in the American League with the Cleveland Indians was from Paterson, and the number he wore was 14.”
Doby played football and baseball for Eastside High School at Hinchliffe Stadium, and he was first spotted there by the Newark Eagles in 1942, eventually signing with them before becoming the AL’s first Black player with Cleveland in July 1947.
“This is where it all began for my father, and where the dreams that he had were realized as a young man,” Larry Doby Jr. said. “I'm so happy and proud that the place where my dad had a little something to do with will live forever. The stories will be told, the park will be kept.”
Hinchliffe Stadium, built in 1932 and named for the family of Mayor John V. Hinchliffe, served as a home field to the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans. In ’33, the Black Yankees faced the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro World Series -- the “Colored Championship of the Nation.” Over the years, Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Martin Dihigo and Satchel Paige all dug their cleats into the dirt at the huge horseshoe stadium next to the Great Falls.
Ownership of Hinchliffe Stadium transferred from the city to the school district in 1963, but by the 1980s, the city’s schools were underfunded and in poor shape. Upkeep of the 10,000-seat stadium was not a priority and the venue was closed in '97. In the decades since, it fell into disrepair as vandals trashed former concession stands and locker rooms, the homeless took shelter in storage rooms, small fires damaged sections of the roof and trees took root in the bleachers where fans once stood and cheered.
Brian LoPinto, a co-founder of the non-profit Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, watched it all happen, always fearing that the school district would opt for demolition over renovation.
“My first effort [at saving Hinchliffe] was 1997,” he said. “I had written a letter to the Baseball Hall of Fame and they wrote back saying that Hinchliffe Stadium is represented in their library’s archives. That's all I needed to do my own independent research to articulate why this place is so important. [The renovation] is a long time coming, and it's very, very surreal.”
The $94 million redevelopment project includes more than the stadium, which is part of the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park -- making it the only ballpark within the National Park System. A restaurant and event space will highlight the history and trailblazers who came through Hinchliffe, and a new visitors center for the national park will occupy the corner of the stadium closest to the falls. The other side of the stadium will include a parking garage and affordable housing. But the centerpiece is the stadium, which will feature a turf field and be available for baseball and football games, among other events.
“Anytime you can build something in the neighborhood where the kids can benefit from it and enjoy it, especially the great game of baseball, it's an honor for me to be here,” said Randolph, a former Yankees second baseman and Mets manager. “I grew up in these types of neighborhoods. I grew up not always having a nice facility to play in, you know, and that's huge for baseball.”
Doby Jr., who was born at the end of his father’s Major League career and has no memories of him as a player, looked forward as much as he looked back.
“This is an investment in our youth, and when you invest in youth, you can never go wrong,” he said. "There's gonna be kids that play here that have memories for the rest of their lives. They're gonna lose games, they're gonna win games, they're gonna learn lessons that help them in life. They're gonna go on to do other things and they're never gonna forget this. Some of them are gonna come back and they're gonna give back to the city that they started these memories at.”
For Sabathia, the most recent player at the ceremony to step off a Major League field, the tie between the history of Hinchliffe and the future is important.
“There are so many different emotions,” he said. “Obviously, as a Black player, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for places like this across the country, players like Larry Doby, players like Jackie Robinson -- as we sit here a day before Jackie Robinson Day -- it’s a surreal feeling. To be able to see this come back to life, it’s so dope. … For this community, to have a safe place for people to play baseball, football, to live out their dreams, you know, it sounds like there are some great sports here. So I look forward to maybe coming back out on Thanksgiving and watching.”
While the traditional gridiron rivalry between Paterson’s Eastside and John F. Kennedy high schools may be the big draw locally, Sabathia also touched on another rivalry.
“I'm just thinking about, now, Yankees and Mets playing a game here,” he said. “Like, how sick would that be? It's two Major League teams within 30 miles of here, two of the bigger teams in the sport.”