The Negro Leagues’ Forgotten Cathedral
The baseball sails back and forth. Brian LoPinto and I are enjoying a crisp fall morning on an asphalt field in Paterson, New Jersey, 15 miles west of Manhattan. We are in the middle of a ruin—a decaying stadium we entered through an open ticket window. The half-circle of concrete stands is covered in graffiti, and the grounds are piled high with compacted garbage: mattresses, clothes and plastic combined by rain and fire into a barely recognizable mass. Tall trees and bushes thrive, turning open pavilions into dense forests. It is a rotting concrete pile being taken back by nature.
Where I stand was once a pitching rubber. Brian is at home plate. In my mind, I am Satchel Paige, he is Josh Gibson, and the crowd is on its feet. We are playing for the Colored Championship of the Nation, which was held here eighty years ago, when Hinchliffe Stadium was one of the finest sites in the nation to watch Negro League baseball. My 2-2 pitch catches way too much of the plate, and Gibson—who many considered a finer home run hitter than Babe Ruth—crushes the ball to right field.
Before the legendary hitter can cross home plate, I’m back in reality. The field is decrepit; the stands are empty and overgrown. I ask Brian, “Why isn’t this worth saving?”
* * *
We know that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, that Hank Aaron had 755 and Barry Bonds 762. We can compare them, argue about them, rank them in our minds. Statistics are so ingrained in baseball that it’s sometimes easy to remember that the sport can still happen even if the record keepers aren’t paying attention. Baseball historians have found documentation of just over 100 Josh Gibson home runs, but the records for Negro League ball are fragmentary. He may have hit 800 home runs, he may have hit 1,000. We simply just don’t know.
Gibson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972, long after his death, and Major League Baseball has done its best to honor the greats of the Negro Leagues, but because the sport doesn’t trust what it can’t count, Gibson’s name is rarely mentioned alongside Ruth, Aaron and Bonds. Where record keeping fails, legend must fill in the gaps.
As Robert Peterson outlines in his seminal study of the Negro Leagues’ legacy, it’s said that Gibson was the only player, white or black, to hit a home run over the third deck in old Yankee Stadium, completely out of the park. It’s said that he hit a home run in Monessen, Pennsylvania, that traveled 575 feet. It’s said that he once hit a walk-off in Pittsburgh that sailed all the way to Washington, D.C., arriving a day later, just in time for first pitch. A Washington outfielder caught it, and the ump turned to the Pittsburgh bench and shouted, “Gibson, you’re out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!”
Because the history of the Negro Leagues can be measured mostly in stories, it’s tempting to write them off as semi-professional, an assortment of short-lived minor leagues whose history has been erased by time. But many baseball historians insist the level of play was equal to that of the white major leagues. Neil Lanctot even argues in his 2004 book, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, that “the player talent level was far superior.” The games were just as important, and the history has not entirely vanished. In Paterson, New Jersey, it’s as sturdy as concrete.
* * *
Hinchliffe Stadium sits on a bluff above the Great Falls, the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River in volume. The land was once a graveyard, making it off-limits for development until the city passed a bill in 1916 that allowed abandoned cemeteries to be repurposed into playgrounds and recreational facilities. Mayor John W. Hinchliffe appointed a Paterson Stadium Association in 1930 that, after local Republicans opposed construction on a more expensive location, picked the neglected graveyard under the high point of the city, Monument Heights.
The year was 1930. Paterson, like the rest of the nation, was struggling with the Great Depression. Hinchliffe stepped in again and pitched the stadium as a recreational facility, not limited to only one sport. The citizens of Paterson agreed and approved a $200,000 bond. When the stadium was still half-finished, 12,000 spectators came out to watch high school football rivals play on Thanksgiving. By the next year’s game, the park was complete: a 10,000-seat stadium made from poured concrete, in a mix of American Mission and Art Deco-styles. The site plan designers were the Olmstead brothers, sons of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead, and the stadium itself was planned by local architects Fanning & Shaw. Even through today’s decay, the austere beauty of the structure shines through.
In an era of barnstormers, it was rare for a Negro League team to have a home ballpark, but at Hinchliffe, the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans (the name was more of a marketing tool, they fielded both black and Hispanic players) were permanent residents. Talent flocked to the stadium, yielding games like the one on July 28, 1934, when six future Hall of Famers took the field: Gibson and Paige, Judy Johnson, James “Cool Papa” Bell, Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo, a New York Cuban who was actually born in Cuba.
Considered one of the finest all-around players in baseball history—he is the only man to be inducted into the American, Cuban, and Mexican Baseball Halls of Fame—Dihigo could pitch, hit, manage and field. John Holway, a well-regarded historian of the Negro Leagues, reported that a Dihigo line drive once nearly decapitated a paralyzed shortstop, and on another occasion he hit a blast in Pittsburgh’s Greenlee Field that sailed well over 500 feet before crashing on the roof of an adjacent hospital building.
“Each Saturday the attendance has steadily increased,” Colored Baseball & Sports Monthly reported in September of 1934, “The Hinchliffe Stadium is one of the most beautiful stadiums in the New Jersey section. The fans of Paterson are really wild over the great showing the Black Yankees have made. The Black Yankees have the most impressive record of the all the teams in the East. They recently won 24 out of 26. During this time they won 19 straight. They are the greatest drawing club in the East.”
After the Negro Leagues folded due to integration—both the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans folded by 1950— semipro football teams the Paterson Panthers and Silk City Bears played games here, and there were also local high school games, boxing matches and auto racing events.
After the boom years of WWII, Paterson began to experience a decline in population, as many residents moved to the suburbs, and the city’s crime rate rose. The Paterson School District took over the stadium in 1963. They used it until 1997 when it was closed due to deterioration. It has remained unused for nearly two decades.
* * *
In 2002, after the Paterson School District had created a plan to demolish and reuse the space that Hinchliffe occupies, LoPinto, who was raised blocks away from the stadium and played high school baseball here, inquired about the history of the stadium in a letter to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame replied, “Hinchliffe is represented in our archives.”
Unsatisfied with seeing destruction come to Hinchliffe, LoPinto dedicated himself to saving and raising money for a place with which he held a strong personal bond.
In high school, he played baseball for a local New Jersey team. Playing at the stadium one day, he hit a ball into the large gap in left-center field and ran around the bases for an inside the park home run.
“I know I touched first, even though my coach kept waving me back,” remembers LoPinto. “The other team noticed and appealed to first base. The umpire called me out. I was livid. I threw our equipment bag out onto the field. I know I touched first. I homered at Hinchliffe stadium.”
LoPinto eventually found out the stadium was slotted to be demolished around the turn of the century. The memories of the home run and the history came rushing back. He knew he had to act.
In the beginning, quick progress was made. A “National Register of Historic Places” designation was secured in 2004 and the stadium was saved from the wrecking ball. The Paterson School District applied for a “Save America’s Treasures” grant, a federal program that would secure over $1 million in funding to save the stadium. Two years of work to save a valuable asset to the history of baseball was more than worth it to LoPinto and the organization he started, Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium.
“Little did we know how much of an error that would be,” LoPinto looked out on the field, “The grant was denied because of its National Register status.”
Hinchliffe was awarded “National Register of Historic Place-local significance” and was not eligible for the “Save America’s Treasures” funding because of this technicality (only places with the designation “national significance” are eligible for the grant). It is hard not to focus on this past error. If $1 million worth of work was started almost a decade ago, Brian and I might be having a catch on a grass field surrounded by restored Art Deco concrete.
* * *
Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, the first Yankee Stadium and even battered old Shea—all are casualties of history. But that doesn’t mean New York doesn’t value its sporting past. From 1913 to 1963, a staircase served fans traveling from Edgecombe Avenue to the Polo Grounds in Harlem, where the New York baseball Giants—and later the Mets, Jets, Yankees and football Giants—played in the shadow of Coogan’s Bluff. When the stadium was torn down and replaced with public housing, the John T. Brush staircase decayed slowly until 2011, when the New York City Parks and Recreation department awarded $950,000 to renovate it. Major League Baseball, and the teams that once played there, all donated at least $50,000 (some donated up to $200,000) to support the staircase that once supported their fans. The stairway is currently under restoration and should open to the public soon.
Like the Polo Grounds, Hinchliffe is oblong, with a deep outfield and rounded corners that make it look a little like a great concrete bathtub. But while the Polo Grounds is gone, Hinchliffe survives—a physical remnant of history just like the steps named for the Giants long-forgotten, scowling owner.
Because the history of Negro League baseball is so patchy, tangible structures like Hinchliffe are even more important than they are to the history of the Major Leagues. The destruction of a stadium like Hinchliffe would be a far greater travesty than when they tore down Ebbets Field, because so few tangible relics of the Negro Leagues remain. It's easy to wear 42 on Jackie Robinson day, but that does little to commemorate the men who never got the chance to play in the majors.
“I visited The Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City but the place almost closed last year,” Lopinto recalled. “They do what they can, but it has been tough for them.” So there's a will to honor the memory of Negro League Baseball, but no money to back that up.
* * *
LoPinto and I put our gloves away and continue to walk around the stadium for almost three hours. He is not delusional in his plans. He understands the struggle of many current historic sites, how to operate at a level that is financially stable. “I want it to be a private and public partnership,” he says.
Every move made to secure protection and funding for the building seems like steps being taken backward. “I could be giving you a tour of a partial restored stadium right now,” LoPinto is bitter about the past. He doesn’t understand why this has taken so long. He doesn’t understand the difficulty of all of the red tape.
LoPinto was told the New Jersey Hall of Fame—which currently exists as a mobile museum in a trailer—would be very interested in a permanent home here. He also hopes the stadium can serve the same purpose it did almost a century ago: a place where the community could be entertained by a host of different events.
“You could have outdoor movies during the summer, high school football games, outdoor fairs,” he says. “The possibilities are endless.”
He has fought for more than ten years; he is ready to fight for more.
There has been some positive news recently. On September 24th the City Council of Paterson approved a $338,000 contract for an architectural and engineering firm to begin stabilizing the walls of the stadium in order to fight off deterioration and to renovate the two ticket booth areas.
The ultimate goal of this work is to attract investors. The city has set aside $1.5 million in total, but the stadium will need more than $15 million for a complete renovation.
So the mission is one-tenth of the way there after 10 years.
* * *
Major League Baseball’s newest stadiums—designed in a retro style, with real grass, quirky outfield wall distance, and for baseball-only use—show our attachment to these old fields constructed at the turn of the 20th century. But the most important feature of the actual old stadiums is they weren’t designed for luxury boxes or maximum advertisement space. They were built for every fan to have an intimate view of the action. LoPinto and I talked about current Major League parks and agreed on most.
“Citi, O.K. Yankee Stadium, horrible,” he said. “Fenway, incredible. Camden Yards, good.”
“Why do we spend so much on retro parks when we have the real thing right here?” he asked.
I looked to the stands. I imagined the structure living and breathing again, filled with fans again, and I couldn’t give him an answer.
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Garrett McGrath is a frequent Narratively contributor. Follow him on Twitter @garrettpmcgrath.
Emon Hassan, Narratively's Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.