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Can the Rebirth of a Negro League Stadium Revive a Distressed City?

PATERSON, N.J. — There used to be a ballpark here, at the corner of Maple and Liberty. Baseball royalty once rounded the bases, and city residents once packed the stands.

Now defaced with graffiti, Hinchliffe Stadium looks like a blighted lot about to be razed. Weeds and trees have uprooted the bleachers, and asphalt and trash cover the infield.

“This is a stadium that unfortunately has symbolized the decay and decline of the city,” André Sayegh, the city’s mayor, said. “It’s sad. And it speaks to the trajectory of Paterson. What we’re trying to do is put Paterson back on the map, and part of that is restoring the stadium to its previous glory.”

Hinchliffe, vacant since 1997, is one of the few stadiums from the Negro leagues still standing. An architectural gem and a symbol of perseverance amid racial injustice, it became a casualty of this economically distressed city’s more pressing needs. After multiple failed attempts to fund its revival, a ninth-inning save seemed unlikely.

Until now.

After much debate in the last several months, a proposal to transform Hinchliffe into a multisport facility, primarily for children and high school teams, cleared its last local hurdle recently when City Council members approved the development plan.

Construction is expected to begin next year, in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro leagues. Once home to the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans, Hinchliffe was host to such players as Monte Irvin, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Paterson’s own Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League.

Previous efforts to bring the place back to life faltered, leaving residents, even young ones, fatalistic about its future. “When this place is fixed, I’ll be 40,” 14-year-old Saleh Ahmed said.

Across the street from Hinchliffe, Ahmed and other immigrants from Bangladesh regularly gather for games of cricket. Though the Art Deco stadium looms large, the boys know nothing of its place in history. To them, it’s another abandoned lot, albeit one with a National Historic Landmark plaque nearby. The locker rooms, which once housed Hall of Famers and prep all-stars, are now spooky corridors of neglect. Ahmed once had to retrieve a ball hit into the stadium. “It was so scary,” he said.

Vaughn McKoy, the city’s business administrator, played high school football in Hinchliffe. That paved the way for a scholarship to Rutgers and a career as a lawyer and a state and federal prosecutor.

“If you were born in the 1990s, you would have no recollection of that stadium and what it means to the community,” McKoy said. That’s why he thinks an exhibition gallery to honor the Negro leagues players who called Hinchliffe home, which is a part of the restoration plan, is so important: “To tell the story of the stadium,” he said, “and what it means to the community.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, the game flourished here as segregation kept black players out of the major leagues. In 1933, the stadium’s first complete baseball season, Hinchliffe hosted the Negro leagues equivalent of the World Series. The next year, the New York Black Yankees made the stadium their home.

After Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Doby followed three months later with the Cleveland Indians, the doors finally opened for players of color, lessening the necessity of Negro leagues.

Beyond baseball, Hinchliffe lived a full life, hosting boxing, auto races and headliners such as Duke Ellington and Abbott and Costello, who actually could have been on first during their performance. (Lou Costello grew up in Paterson.) The city launched its fireworks displays from the stadium, near the Great Falls, where the Passaic River cascades over a 77-foot cliff. The stadium is included in Great Falls National Historical Park.

Hinchliffe, which is owned by the school system, became a source of civic pride. Generations of high school athletes played on its field, and the Thanksgiving Day football game between the city’s rival high schools was revered.

Even Doby, who started his Hall of Fame baseball career by trying out at Hinchliffe, treasured the memories of his high school football days there more, according to his son. “I’d ask my father to tell me stories about baseball, and all he wanted to talk about was football on Thanksgiving Day between Paterson Eastside and Central High School,” Larry Doby Jr. said. He added, “He would talk about how the whole town would show up.”

When the stadium fell into disrepair in the 1990s and closed in 1997, part of Paterson died too. Now the stadium’s rebirth is the centerpiece of a proposal to revitalize Paterson through state tax credits. The $76.7 million project, with $31.4 million allocated to Hinchliffe, includes plans to build housing, a restaurant, a parking garage and the gallery, which the mayor envisions as an East Coast version of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

Remembering the struggles the players faced is especially relevant today, said Raymond Doswell, a vice president for the Kansas City museum. “It’s a shame that there had to be a Negro league in the first place. It’s a tragedy of American history.”

Paterson, New Jersey’s third-largest city, is also one of its most diverse — with 72 ethnic groups represented, some 40 languages spoken and a vibrant food scene. Despite this tapestry, and the history lessons the stadium provides, intolerant comments marred the City Council’s handling of the proposal. Michael Jackson, the council’s vice president, who was a Bethune-Cookman quarterback after playing at Hinchliffe, opposed the restoration, saying

it would not provide the economic growth that tax credits are supposed to kindle. He preferred a plan to build a sports arena and hotel to create more jobs and boost the city’s tax base.

“How does the stadium provide economic revitalization?” Jackson said. “It doesn’t. You can’t make money off the kids.”

At a recent council meeting, he used the phrase “Jew us down” when referring to the developer’s plans and past city deals. When rebuked by the mayor, a political opponent who is Arab-American, Jackson, who is black, responded, “Like you’ve never used the N-word before.” Later the councilman posted a noose on his Facebook page, leading to interpretations that he was comparing the criticism of his anti-Semitic comment to a lynch mob.

It has been 22 years since cheers rose from Hinchliffe, and if the City Council had voted down the plan, as it did initially, the opportunity to develop it using state tax credits would have disappeared. As Sayegh said, “There’s no Plan B.”

In the end, the proposal moved forward. The state is expected to sign off on the plan this month. Once construction begins next year, the project must be completed in two years, the state has stipulated.

Before the vote on the future of Hinchliffe, the council took care of regular city business. It also recognized Nazier Mule, a top state high school player in the class of 2022. Hinchliffe won’t be ready in time for him to play there.

Still, the promise of someday watching players round the bases there drew a smile. “I imagine it will be like it was back in the day,” Mule said, “with kids on the field having fun.”

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