July 11, 2013

A Threatened American Legacy at Hinchliffe Stadium

Hinchliffe Stadium was built in 1932 and has been closed since 1997.

Brian LoPinto loves the story of how, when a journalist asked the Great Bambino what he thought of Negro Leagues player Josh Gibson being called the “black Babe Ruth,” Ruth replied, “I’m the white Josh Gibson.”

Gibson was just one of the legendary players to take the field at Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J. as a member of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, playing Hinchliffe's home team the New York Black Yankees. Today, however, the great legacy of professional African-American athletes at Hinchliffe Stadium in America's Jim Crow era is threatened by crumbling walls, splashes of graffiti, and general disrepair.

“Paterson is a community of acceptance and baseball lovers,” says LoPinto, co-founder of the preservation group Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, of his hometown. “It didn’t matter the color of your skin, people wanted to see good baseball.”

The Paterson school district hopes to rehabilitate the stadium in the next few years.

Today the stadium is one of three remaining Negro League stadiums in the country. Built in 1932, Hinchliffe was placed on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Places list in 2010, and was named a National Historic Landmark earlier this year.

In more recent years, the 10,000-seat stadium was used by the Paterson school district as a sports facility, but has been closed since 1997 due to what LoPinto refers to as a “sinkhole in the east end zone.” The school district hopes to rehabilitate and reopen Hinchliffe, but it’s unclear where that money will come from and what the timeframe will be.

“Hinchliffe is an institution -- it’s a place with a lot of memories for a lot of people,” says Christopher Irving, president of the Paterson school board. With the help of money from the New Jersey Historic Trust and the city of Paterson, the school district will be able to stabilize a wall that’s in danger of crumbling completely. As of right now, though, it’s lacking the funds for further repairs.

The stadium was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Places list in 2010.

Perhaps the worst irony is that this crucial lack of funds didn’t have to be. When the stadium received its National Register of Historic Places designation in 2004, the Paterson Public Schools immediately applied for a federal Save America’s Treasures grant, which, if awarded, would have given the school district a million dollars for restoration and repair of the stadium.

As it turned out, due to what LoPinto calls a clerical error and unbeknownst to the Paterson school district, the stadium was only listed as being of local significance on the National Register -- despite the indisputable national significance of segregation and the Negro Leagues. Because of this designation, the stadium wasn't eligible for Save America’s Treasures, and has since fallen into even greater disrepair.

Despite these setbacks, there is no question that the people of Paterson want to see the stadium restored to its former glory.

“This is firsthand history right here,” LoPinto says. “It’s important for future generations to understand what occurred -- really, it speaks to the larger context of race relations in this country.”

Irving says that restoring the stadium is “without a doubt” a priority for the school board.

“We want to give our kids a rec facility that they deserve, and give our community signs of hope and change -- which construction can really have an impact on,” he says.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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