- 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.”

The area’s baseball history is rich, in varied ways. A statue of Doby, who starred for the Indians and Chicago White Sox around midcentury and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, stands in Paterson’s Eastside Park. Another statue downtown depicts comedian Lou Costello, also a Paterson native, holding a bat in tribute to his famous “Who’s on First?” routine with Bud Abbott.

Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who grew up in nearby Orange, tried out for the Newark Eagles at Hinchliffe as an 18-year-old in 1937, slamming ball after ball out of the park.

“It was the biggest stadium I had ever seen to that point,” Irvin recalled from his home in Houston. “Sure they should preserve and renovate it. I’d love to be there when it opens, but they better do it soon because I’m almost 91.”

Dizzy Dean came to town briefly in October 1934, toeing the rubber in an exhibition game at Hinchliffe 10 days after pitching the St. Louis Cardinals’ “Gashouse Gang” to a Game 7 World Series victory over Detroit. Briefly in the 1940s, the city was home to a Philadelphia Phillies farm club called the Paterson Blue Jays, though it played only several times at Hinchliffe. And on the football front, the Pittsburgh Steelers played a preseason game there in 1946, thrashing a team called the Paterson Panthers 55-0.

So goes the past. What about the future?

“Soon we will sign a services agreement with the city’s board of education, which owns the stadium,” says Mr. Torres. “I will ask the city finance board for the money I need for engineering and design and then solicit proposals. We will send a task force of athletes and promoters out into the community to discuss [the benefits]. We hope to bring here the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame, which is looking for a home. Also, an annual Turkey Day Classic football game between our two high schools. The city will use the stadium when the school board doesn’t, and on other days we will make it available for outside events — concerts, boxing matches, auto races and such.”

Of course, Paterson’s citizens ultimately must bear the financial burden. But, says Mr. Torres, the cost should only be “15 to 20 cents a day for each taxpayer.”

In years gone by, Paterson was noted for much more than baseball. Its Great Falls, located near the ballpark, are the second-largest falls by volume east of the Mississippi River behind Niagara. Last spring, the area was named a National Historical Park by President Obama and Congress. The Interior Department will consider listing Hinchliffe as a National Historic Landmark and consider options for maintaining the stadium’s historic integrity.

Established in 1792 and named after New Jersey’s second governor, Paterson is the state’s third-largest city with an estimated population of 145,643 in 2008. It was the nation’s first planned industrial town and became known as the “Silk City” for its dominant role in production of that fabric in the late 19th century. According to the 2000 census, its citizenry is 50 percent Hispanic, 33 percent black and 13 percent white.

For inspiration in the restoration of Hinchliffe, the city can look to the success of Birmingham in preserving its Negro League park.

“We’d love to replicate what the people in Birmingham have done with Rickwood because that’s the Holy Grail of Negro League baseball, so to speak — a living, tangible structure,” Mr. Lo-Pinto says. “I tip my New York Black Yankees hat to them. Maybe we could be sister stadiums, one in the North and one in the South. And, if they can get something going in Indianapolis, one in the Midwest.”

No wonder Paterson admires Birmingham’s endeavors. Executive director David Brewer and the other Friends of Rickwood have spent $2 million renovating the nation’s oldest surviving professional baseball park (opened in 1910), and the city recently approved an outlay of $6 million to establish a Southern Baseball Museum in one of the stadium’s parking lots.

Once home to both the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons, the park now hosts the Rickwood Classic, an annual regular-season game between Class AA teams appropriately wearing throwback uniforms, and other events.

“We’re excited about what’s happening in Paterson, and we’d like to assist them in any way we can,” Mr. Brewer says. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we feel Rickwood has evolved as a model of ballpark renovation.”

And social progress.

“The Black Barons and the Negro Leagues component of Rickwood’s story is tremendously significant,” adds Mr. Brewer. “I see Rickwood and Hinchliffe as larger than just baseball. Those parks, and others like them, played a role in our nation’s civil rights story and contributed tremendously to how people felt about their communities. It was a big deal to go out to the ballpark and support your team against one of its regional rivals.”

In Indianapolis, however, Owen J. “Donie” Bush Stadium — named for a native son who managed the Senators and three other major league teams and the longtime home of the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns — has not seen baseball since the Pan American Games in 1987. Subsequently, it served as a dirt track for midget auto races. Now the facility lies in disrepair as the city studies what to do with the property.

Meanwhile, Paterson awaits the return of baseball, as well as other sports, to Hinchliffe.

If the sporting and financial gods are willing, the smell of hot dogs and the crack of the bat will rise once more into the skies above Paterson. And throngs will gather at Liberty and Maple streets to celebrate the national pastime where it used to be celebrated best — in the heart and soul of American cities across the land.

“It took us a long time to get to this point, but there has been so much positive movement in recent months,” Brian LoPinto says. “I’m cautiously optimistic, and I’ll be that way until we have Opening Day at Hinchliffe once again.”

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