Hinchliffe Stadium was an Art Deco showcase for black baseball legends

It’s been barely a decade since Hinchliffe Stadium hosted a sports event, but judging from the once-grand old stadium’s appearance today, you’d think it’s been much longer.

Still, the old ballpark that overlooks a birthplace of American industry in Paterson, New Jersey has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and there’s hope that it will be restored. Paterson voters recently overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum to issue more than $15 million in bonds to repair the stadium and make other public improvements. The vote essentially gives Paterson officials permission to issue the bonds, but does not require them to do it.

Hinchliffe Stadium would receive about $13.5 million for renovations, and it will need every dollar. Trees are growing in the stadium’s entrances, and long-ago fires have charred a few wooden structures inside the stadium. Piles of trash are everywhere, mostly beer cans and whiskey bottles. But there’s also discarded clothing, socks, sneakers and boots, and even a small safe that’s had the door pried open.

And then there’s the graffiti. In 1986, the New York Times reported that Hinchliffe was “well-guarded” and untouched by graffitists who were painting just about everything else in Paterson. But graffiti artists have found their way to Hinchliffe.

Still, when you look a little closer at some of the architectural details, it’s obvious that Hinchliffe Stadium was a gem of Art Deco design. There’s the Cuban tile on the roofs of the ticket offices, the ceramic tile ornamentation above the ticket windows and the rounded corners of the stadium’s concrete walls.

The most elegant reminders of Hinchliffe’s former glory, however, are small bas-relief sculptures of classical athletes on the stadium’s exterior walls. They depict Olympic athletes hurling the discus, running races, throwing the javelin.

Years ago, Hinchliffe undoubtedly was one of the best small stadiums in the Northeast to watch a sports event. Fans sitting in the upper levels of the 10,000-seat U-shaped stadium could see the New York City skyline about 15 miles away.

Hinchliffe Stadium was this year’s stop on the annual pre-New Year’s search for forgotten baseball parks. This is the fourth year that my nephew, John Morrow and my brother-in-law, Bob Morrow, and I have chased the ghosts of summers past in New York and New Jersey. That's John standing at a stadium entrance in the top photo. Links to the other posts about old ballparks are at the end of this post.

The stadium, a WPA project, was named for Paterson Mayor John V. Hinchliffe and opened in 1932. It was a focal point of local pride in a city that doesn’t get enough respect for its place in American history. In 1792, Alexander Hamilton formed the Society of Useful Manufactures, an investment group created to develop the fledgling nation’s first planned industrial city. Paterson was the result.

A strong-armed outfielder probably could throw a baseball from Hinchliffe’s right field gate to the roaring Great Falls of the Passaic River. Early industries used the falls’ energy to power factories. Paterson became famous for textile mills, Colt firearms, locomotive manufacturing and silk production. The engine that powered Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 was built in a Paterson factory.

Hinchliffe was an all-purpose stadium, hosting high school, college and professional football; boxing; professional soccer; and even midget automobile races. But what has put the stadium on a short list of historic athletic arenas is the fact that in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the home field for two teams in the old Negro League.

In the days before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, about two dozen all-black teams played in larger cities across the U.S. Hinchliffe is one of only three surviving stadiums where Negro League teams played.

The New York Black Yankees of the Negro National League started playing their home games in Hinchliffe Stadium in 1934, a banner year for the stadium. Besides the Black Yankees’ home games, Dizzy Dean pitched an exhibition game in Paterson a few days after leading his St. Louis Cardinals to the 1934 World Series title. And in December 1934, the NFL champion New York Giants played an exhibition football game in Hinchliffe against the Paterson Panthers of the American Professional Football League. The Giants took a hard-fought 10-0 win over the Panthers.

In 1936, the New York Cubans of the Negro American League played some of their home games at Hinchliffe Stadium.

Hinchliffe became a showcase for black baseball talent, including local stars and future Hall of Fame members Larry Doby and Monte Irvin. Doby, a stellar athlete at Paterson’s Eastside High School, tried out for the Negro League’s Newark Eagles at Hinchliffe Stadium and starred for the Eagles before World War II. After spending three years in the service, he became the first black player in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in July 1947, a few months after Robinson debuted with the National League Dodgers.

Irvin was a high school baseball star in nearby Orange when the Eagles gave him a tryout at Hinchliffe in 1937. He went on to star with the Eagles before being signed by the New York Giants baseball team in 1949.

The Black Yankees played their last season in Hinchliffe Stadium in 1945. The stadium was used for other events for another 50 years, however, including high school football and baseball and midget auto racing. And it was the scene of a tragedy. On Friday, September 13, 1946, driver Ray Jackson was killed when his car struck a guard rail during a race.

Hinchliffe Stadium was used for high school football games in 1997 and then closed. It has been unused and deteriorating since then. But Paterson native Brian LoPinto, a founder of the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, has been working to change that.

LoPinto would like to see the stadium restored to its appearance when it opened, and hopes that eventually, fans will return to Hinchliffe Stadium to watch the same events that drew them 70 years ago.

Despite the stadium’s current dilapidated state, LoPinto thinks it’s still salvageable.

“It’s still pretty sturdy, it’s made of pretty good material,” he said. “It’s an amazing survivor of the neglect that’s happened over the years.”

Other links: Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, http://www.hinchliffestadium.org/; Roosevelt Stadium, http://wdryegoods.blogspot.com/2009/01/site-where-color-barrier-was-broken-is.html; Polo Grounds, http://wdryegoods.blogspot.com/2008/01/once-it-was-quite-thing-to-go-to-polo.html; Ebbets Field, http://sidesalad.net/archives/003056.html.

1 comment:

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