MLB considering NJ’s historic Negro League stadium for Field of Dreams game

The son did not understand.

Sitting on his father’s lap in their living room in Montclair, he begged his father to tell him about being the first black player in the American League in 1947, just 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier The kid wanted to know what it was like to be around Don Newcombe and play in front of packed crowds at major league ballparks across the country.

Instead, Larry Doby would tell his boys stories about Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson. Doby would tell the stories of his tryout there for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, then he would recount the concrete bowl of the memorabilia stadium filled with family, friends and neighbors as Doby’s Eastside football team High School was battling Central High School for city supremacy in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Even when legends like Willie Mays or Bill Russell appeared in the house, Doby’s memories focused on Hinchliffe, not The Show.

But it didn’t take long for the kid — now 64-year-old Larry Doby Jr. — to realize why those memories of his hometown gripped his Baseball Hall of Famer dad.

“To me,” said Doby Jr., “Hinchliffe was a mythical and magical place because my father had his fondest memories which he carried there the rest of his life.”

It might not be long before Major League Baseball helps restore some of that magic to Hinchliffe.

With a $94 million restoration project underway to revive the long-dormant stadium, Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh hopes Major League Baseball will play a Field of Dreams game there.

“It would be a nod to our nation’s history, especially in terms of the civil rights struggle when African Americans were barred from playing at the majors,” Sayegh said. “They had a house in Hinchliffe.”

And, for now, MLB is interested.

An artist’s rendering of how Hinchliffe Stadium should handle its $94 million renovation, which is slated for completion in the fall.

League officials have done their homework on Hinchliffe, a person with knowledge of the situation told NJ Advance Media. The person agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on behalf of MLB. The league is aware that it is one of two remaining baseball fields to have hosted the black leagues. Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama is the other.

“We are thrilled with the overwhelming fan response to our event in Iowa, and we hope to highlight other special places with rich baseball traditions in the future, as we have done since 2016,” said MLB in a statement.

The league hosted a game between the Marlins and Braves six years ago at Fort Bragg, the first regular-season professional sporting event to be held on an active military base, and the first MLB game played in North Carolina. .

Hinchliffe, which opened in 1932, was the home ground of the New York Black Yankees, New York Cubans and Eagles. Over 20 Hall of Famers have played there, including Cool Papa Bell and Monte Irvin. It became a popular venue for black leagues as it cost around $100 to rent for the day. In contrast, Yankee Stadium would run Negro League teams over $2,500 for a day of games.

Hinchliffe’s renovation is expected to be completed in the fall. It sat idle and dilapidated for 25 years after a sinkhole developed and city officials kicked out the $5 million in needed repairs. But last week dozens of construction workers wearing hard hats worked hard in the freezing cold to build the parking lot on the site.

Hinchcliffe Stadium post-renovations 2

An artist’s rendering of how Hinchliffe Stadium should handle its $94 million renovation, which is slated for completion in the fall. (Courtesy of Paterson)

Still, there is a lot of work to be done. Huge mounds of dirt dotted the playing surface. Years of graffiti still littered the walls of the stadium. A chain-link fence stood in front of the counter.

Last season, the Yankees and White Sox played Game 1 at Field of Dreams on August 12, with Chicago rallying in ninth to win, 9-8, on a Tim Anderson home run that erased the Yankees’ drama. rally at the top of the channel. The game was played in Dyersville, Iowa, near the original setting of the 1989 movie starring Kevin Costner.

Prior to the game, Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and other stars navigated a maze of corn stalks etched with the MLB logo before emerging into the outfield. The Cubs and Reds will face off in this year’s game there in August.

“With all due respect to the Field of Dreams in Iowa,” Sayegh said, “it was a film set. This is real life.”

There will be a museum at Hincliffe Stadium dedicated to preserving the history of the pitch’s use by the Black Leagues, according to project manager Baye Adofo Wilson. It will accommodate around 7,800 fans. The Iowa site could only accommodate 2,366 people.

“It’s one of America’s most important historic baseball stadiums, and Hinchliffe tells an important story about the black baseball experience and the struggle for civil rights,” said Brent Leggs, vice president. Principal and Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Leggs helped Hinchliffe achieve National Historic Landmark status in 2013.

Hinchliffe, which sits at one of Paterson’s highest points and overlooks the Great Falls, “instantly transports you to history and makes you realize what it meant for a Negro League baseball team to play and to perform in an architectural masterpiece like Hinchliffe Stadium. It’s so unique,” Leggs said.

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said playing an MLB game in Hinchcliffe would be as much about the future as a nod to the past.

“It wouldn’t just encapsulate the spirit of the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said, “but you’re going to see it come into play. A project like this is going to create jobs and give kids an opportunity to dream about the possibilities, whether it’s playing at the next level in the major leagues or whether it’s opportunities associated with our great game. All of these things come to life through efforts like this, while instilling a great sense of pride of self and community.

Sayegh said he would like to see the Yankees and Mets play in a Field of Dreams game in Paterson. The Mets could play like the Cubans and the Yankees could play like the Black Yankees.

“It makes so much sense,” Sayegh said.

But an MLB game at Hinchcliffe is not inevitable.

Rickwood Stadium – the former home of the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons – is arguably as historically significant as Hinchliffe and its lights could be turned on in the blink of an eye.

Additionally, MLB tends to favor allocating gem events to areas whose residents might not have as easy access to big league games. From Paterson, it’s a relatively short drive to the Yankees in the Bronx, the Mets in Queens and the Phillies in Philadelphia. Although Iowa hosts two minor league teams, it is 200 miles from the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago.

Until MLB makes its decision, Hinchcliffe will be used as a multi-purpose venue, hosting local high school sports such as football, track and field and soccer. It will also host concerts and other events.

John Briggs, a 12-year-old big player, remembers watching a Milwaukee Braves tryout at Hinchliffe before joining the Phillies. When Briggs, a Paterson native, stepped into the batting box that afternoon in 1962, he thought of the Negro League greats who came before him.

“We considered it an honor every time we played at Hinchliffe,” said Briggs, now 77.

Paterson hopes the nation will be reintroduced into Hincliffe’s story.

“In many ways, Negro League baseball has been overshadowed and overlooked in our country’s understanding of American baseball history,” Leggs said. “Once Hinchcliffe is back in the community to host sports again, it will catalyze the economic development of Paterson.

“There’s no better place for the Field of Dreams, where a new generation of baseball stars can honor the past while celebrating its vibrant and diverse future.”

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Brendan Kuty can be reached at [email protected].

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