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It’s a dilapidated, decaying stadium, overrun with weeds and graffiti, after years of neglect in Paterson, New Jersey.
Now, after lying vacant for 24 years, Hinchliffe Stadium is coming back to life.
Government officials, architects and baseball historians will gather at an emotional groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday to restore the 89-year-old stadium and a return of pride and dignity.
The stadium will resurrect memories of the old Negro Leagues where the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans played. This is the site of the 1933 Negro League World Series called the Colored Championship of the Nation. It was where Paterson Eastside and Paterson Central High Schools played in the annual Thanksgiving Day game.
And it is the home of Paterson hero Larry Doby.
This is where Doby was discovered in a Negro League tryout with the Newark Eagles. He was the first player to go directly from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues on July 5, 1947, breaking the American League color barrier with Cleveland, just 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was inducted in 1998 into the Hall of Fame.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy says the refurbished Hinchliffe Stadium will be “New Jersey’s Field of Dreams,’’ but actually it’s much greater than just baseball. It tells the story of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the constant struggle for civil rights.
“The groundbreaking is incredibly special,’’ says Baye Adolfo-Wilson, the former deputy mayor of Newark, who is overseeing the $94 million project. “It will be a culmination of a project between Covid and George Floyd, and a lot of issues with race and class. The timing is important for the historical aspect and the moment we’re living in.’’
Now, more than ever, this project will deeply resonate in the community and throughout all of baseball, bringing the Negro League history back to life at the intersection of Liberty and Maple Streets in Paterson.
“It’s a magical place,’’ Larry Doby Jr., 63, told USA TODAY Sports. “My father’s reaction would have been pride and happiness. Sports is a metaphor for life. I’m hoping the lessons that kids will have the same opportunity my father had here, and the lessons they learn will benefit them in life.’’
The project, which will include a 75-home senior center, a restaurant, pre-school, 815-space parking deck, and a 12,000-square foot event space to honor the Negro Leagues, was the brainstorm of Brian LoPinto.
LoPinto, 41, co-founder of a non-profit group called Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, grew up just two blocks from the stadium, one of only two Negro League ballparks still in existence. He feared the ballpark would be demolished after Laval Wilson, the former Paterson Public Schools superintendent, announced in 1996 it would cost $4.8 million to restore it or $4 million to tear it down.
“I was trying to get people to listen to why this place is important at city council meetings and board of education meetings,’’ LoPinto said. “It was either a labor of love or I was a glutton for punishment. So many years passed that I did lose hope for a while.
“There was opposition that Paterson had more dire needs than to fix an athletic field, once it was declared a historical landmark (in 2013), that kind of enabled things to go in faster gear.
“Now, it looks like our prayers are answered.’’
The project is expected to be completed by August, 2022, if everything goes smoothly. It will immediately become a beautiful source of pride for the community, and a destination for baseball aficionados.
This is where 20 Hall of Famers from the Negro Leagues played. It’s where Josh Gibson, by far the greatest player Doby ever saw, played. It’s where Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston and Buck Leonard played. It’s also where Doby played high school football on Thanksgiving Day.
“When I was a little kid,’’ Doby Jr. says, “I wanted to know all about my father’s baseball career. He wouldn’t talk about it. All he talked about was playing football at Hinchliffe Stadium on Thanksgiving Day for Paterson Eastside when the whole city came out to watch.
“It meant so much to him.
“He never forgot where he came from.
“And Paterson never forgot him.’’
Once completed, Hinchliffe will host high school baseball and football games. Soccer matches. Track events. There will be concerts and music festivals, too, bringing back memories of when Duke Ellington performed in one of his last concerts in 1971.
“The greatest thing of all,’’ LoPinto says, “is that Hinchliffe will have a voice again. The great voices of the Negro Leagues. You’ll hear Doby and Gibson and (Monte) Irvin. They didn’t have a voice during their playing days, but they sure do now.’’
You’ll hear them loud and clear with their days in the Negro Leagues forever celebrated.
“I don’t think the players from the Negro Leagues would ever fathom this day would come,’’ Doby Jr. said. “This legitimizes their effort knowing they played in a league just as good. It’s such a source of pride.
“The saddest thing is there’s not many of those players left, but for everyone who comes to visit now, they’re going to know just how special this place was for my father and everyone else who played here.
“Now, those memories will never go away.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Negro Leagues: Hinchliffe Stadium being restored to its former glory