- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

And there used to be a ballpark, where the field was warm and green. And the people played their crazy games, with a joy I’ve never seen. — Frank Sinatra, 1973

This particular ballpark, 77-year-old Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J., survives only as a dilapidated eyesore some 17 miles from where the Chairman of the Board was born in Hoboken. But there is no warm and green field on which people can play their crazy games, joyously or otherwise.

The concrete outside walls of this former baseball palace, unused since 1997, are a dirty white festooned by bas-relief sculptures of track and field athletes.

Climbing inside through a hole in a wire fence, a visitor sees piles of rubble and shards of glass everywhere. Vandals and homeless citizens often sleep, deal drugs and consume alcohol on the premises when the Paterson police aren’t around. A weathered elementary school built in 1940 looms in the distance, standing watch over a scene that has seen much happier times.

Yet there are indications that someday soon the sights and sounds of sporting combat might enliven the still air once more. Earlier this month, 80 percent of Paterson voters supported a nonbinding referendum allowing Mayor Jose Torres and the city council to seek out ways and means of restoring Hinchliffe to its former glory. The referendum appropriates $15 million for this task, including $1.2 million each for the city armory and a smaller field.

“The voters have spoken, and I am confident this will come to fruition,” Mr. Torres says. “I hope construction can start at Hinchliffe as early as 2011, and we can realize our dream here.”

That dream extends beyond the boundaries of Paterson, a working-class town located 17 miles northwest of New York City. Hinchliffe is one of three remaining ballparks where Negro League games were played during the shameful days when blacks were born ineligible for Organized Baseball’s major and minor leagues.

Another such site, Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, has been restored and exists as a role model for Paterson. The third, Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, serves as a home for clunker cars awaiting demolition; there are no current plans to renovate it for sports use, said a spokeswoman for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Across the nation, old ballparks have disappeared like forgotten loves as communities rush to erect spiffy new facilities with luxury boxes and other high-priced amenities.

Dozens of major and minor league sites are gone with the wind, including such locally historic venues as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Polo Grounds in New York and Griffith Stadium in Washington. Much less often are campaigns mounted to preserve the grounds that existed when baseball stood unchallenged as America’s national pastime and the Negro Leagues were a vital part of horsehide culture.

During their heyday from the 1920s to the late 1940s, black teams barnstormed the country, playing for meager financial reward during a time when racial segregation was the custom, and often the law, in much of the United States. Along the way, they were supported by thousands of fans who thrilled to the legendary exploits of superstars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. At Griffith, the hugely successful Homestead Grays frequently outdrew the usually sorry Senators while winning nine consecutive Negro National League championships and three Negro League World Series from 1937 to 1945.

Like today’s football Giants and Jets, the New York Black Yankees played next door in New Jersey as tenants at Hinchliffe from 1933 to 1945, with the exception of 1938. In the Black Yankees’ first season, when the park was bright and new, it also hosted what was called the “Colored Championship of the Nation.” After the major leagues integrated in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers adding Jackie Robinson and the Cleveland Indians signing Paterson native Larry Doby, Negro League baseball withered and died. By the mid-1950s, only memories were left.

Now the ranks of those who played and watched the games also are thinning. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., estimates that only 150 former players remain alive in the U.S. and Latin America. “I look at the Negro Leagues as bittersweet,” says 31-year-old Brian LoPinto, who grew up two blocks from Hinchliffe and is co-founder of the nonprofit Friends of Hinchliffe group that has pushed hard for the stadium’s renovation. “Bitter because these great athletes were kept out of the major leagues solely because of the color of their skin. Sweet because the owners and players managed to create leagues of their own. Obviously, the owners wanted to make money, but all the players wanted was to play the game they loved.”

Chris Coke, the other founder of Friends of Hinchliffe and an engineer who submitted the first comprehensive plan for renovating the ballpark, says a renovated Hinchliffe would pay deep dividends for the city.

“This is important because it would tell a story so relative to our country’s history, Mr. Coke says. “In the old days, Hinchliffe really was a home for a lot of young people, a safe haven. Now a new ballpark would help keep our children active instead of hanging out on the streets.”

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