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Mudville: July 23, 2024 1:36 am PDT

Play Ball!

History does not come alive in the literal sense, and cannot be brought back to life. But it can be preserved.

One chapter of American history being preserved is Negro Leagues baseball, a painful reminder of the way our country was but also a look at what was accomplished.

In the United States, there are five ballparks still in existence where African-Americans played baseball before the sport was integrated, and efforts to preserve them are underway. The stadiums range from one that few segments remain (but games are still held there) to one that is the nation’s oldest professional ballpark.

The five are: Hamtramck Stadium in Detroit; Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ; League Park in Cleveland; James P. Small Park in Jacksonville, FL; and Rickwood Field in Birmingham, AL. All faced the prospect of demolition, but thanks to efforts by civic groups and baseball fans, the others have survived and in some cases are thriving.

Celebrities, major media figures, TV cameras were all on hand on May 19 for the official “re-opening” of Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, NJ. Over 20 Hall of Famers played at Hinchliffe Stadium, many of whom played in the Negro Leagues, Actress/comedian and host of ABC’s The View Whoopi Goldberg, MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds and Yankees adviser Omar Minaya, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph, former major league manager Joe Maddon and MLB Network insider Tom Verducci were there for a ribbon-cutting ceremony officially open the stadium.

On May 21, the first professional baseball game in 26 years was played there when the New Jersey Jackals hosted the Somerset County Miners, both of the independent Frontier League. The Jackals won 10-6.

(Two days prior to that game, there was a high school contest featuring Paterson’s East Side High School, where Larry Doby, a Paterson native, played.)People have been working for many years to not only save the stadium but to see it restored and become an economic engine for the city.

Baye Adofo-Wilson is the CEO of BAW, a real estate development and investment firm in Montclair, NJ., that developed the project along with RPM Group of Montclair, NJ, that specializes in affordable housing in New Jersey. A native of Paterson, Adofo-Wilson said he’s been involved with the restoration for the past four years.

In a statement posted on Facebook by RPM read, “RPM Development and BAW Development are thrilled to bring the Hinchliffe Stadium project to life with important partnerships like the Jackals. Play Ball!”

In addition to the stadium, a 75-unit affordable apartment complex for people 55 and older was constructed at the site, along with a Jackals gift shop. Adofo-Wilson says a museum will likely open this fall and a restaurant is planned. A parking garage has also been built. The entire project cost more than $100 million.

New Jersey Community Capital, the state’s largest community development financial institution, provided $8 million in New Markets Tax Credits to the rehabilitation project, in partnership with additional sources including New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and the City of Paterson.

“RPM Development Group is deeply appreciative of the generous support of our public and private partners in redeveloping Hinchliffe Stadium. The entire team deserves recognition for their creativity and their ability to recognize the intrinsic value and community impact of preserving a National Historic Landmark as a hub of culture, recreation, and economic development. Together we have seized a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create lasting change in a great American city”, said Joe Portelli, senior vice president of development at RPM.

“It is one thing to learn about the significance of a place through an oral or written history, but experiencing its history live and in person is an opportunity to form an even deeper connection. This connection, a newly restored sense of civic pride, and the impact of serving residents of the City of Paterson is what makes the reopening of Hinchliffe Stadium so special.

“We are also grateful for the leadership and persistence of our partner, BAW Development. I hope that our collective effort demonstrates to other communities that the preservation of historic landmarks like Hinchliffe Stadium is a worthy endeavor”, Portelli continued.

According to a publication that reports on commercial real estate transactions, “The project received support from officials, including U.S. Senator Cory Booker and Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh. Financing came from groups such as Goldman Sachs and U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation.”

The Jackals will play 54 home games this season, and because the stadium is owned by the city’s school board, school sports teams will play there, and there will be outdoor events hosted at the facility.

According to Brian Lo Pinto, president of the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, in 1997, the school district of Paterson, which owns the stadium, deemed it as “condemned.”

At that time the district’s superintendent Laval Wilson was presented with two options: demolish at a cost of $4 million or restore at a cost of $4.8 million, and the school district was leaning toward demolition, said Lo Pinto.

“When an article was published in a local paper, as a former resident, I became concerned. I knew that the stadium was more than just a high school stadium,” he said. When the word condemned is mentioned about a building, the next word that usually follows is demolition, he said.

“I already studied baseball’s history, and reached out to the highest authority on the sport, the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame wrote back: ‘The Hall of Fame certainly recognizes the significance of Hinchliffe Stadium and it is represented in our Library’s research collections.’ This was all that I needed to execute extensive research on Hinchliffe Stadium’s overall history.

“While the stadium continued to languish, it would eventually be time to form an advocacy group, I along with two colleagues, Dr. Flavia Alaya, a member of the New Jersey Historic Sites Council, and Chris Coke, a civil engineer. Together, the three of us formed the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium in 2002.

“The Friends were committed to building a national narrative—something that would properly honor this place, which had been a welcoming home to Black baseball, and where future Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Larry Doby tried out for the Negro Leagues. Hinchliffe needed to have national recognition for its contributions to African American history,” said Lo Pinto.

In 1933, the stadium’s first complete season with baseball, Hinchliffe hosted the Colored Championship of the Nation, the Negro leagues equivalent of the World Series. That following year, the New York Black Yankees made the stadium their home, a tenure that lasted until 1945 and was interrupted only once. Hinchliffe was also home to the New York Cubans in 1935 and 1936.

Scoreboard and trees in Hinchliffe Stadium, Paterson, New Jersey, USA.

Over time, the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium were able to secure a $500,000 matching grant for Phase One of stadium’s restoration, which helped build a relationship with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “All of our advocacy will come to reality as Hinchliffe Stadium will re-open its doors and the stadium will serve as a monument to the great men of the Negro Leagues,” sai Lo Pinto.

The New York Black Yankees of the National Negro League played at Hinchcliffe from 1933-1937 and from 1939-1945.

“To think that over 20 Hall of Famers played two blocks away from where I grew up, it’s like a piece of Cooperstown is right here in Paterson. If it wasn’t for baseball, I’m not certain that I would have attempted to save Hinchliffe Stadium,” said Lo Pinto.

“Once we received the $500,000 matching grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust, and developed a strong partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I knew it was on a path toward restoration. After graduating high school in Paterson, Adofo-Wilson didn’t have many choices for his future, so he joined the U.S. Army. He later met four other recent inductees from Paterson, and Wilson asked them why they joined. They, too, entered the Army because there were no job opportunities for them.

That’s when he embarked on a career in community and economic development. He previously was Deputy Mayor/Director of Economic & Housing Development for the City of Newark, NJ.

For him, being at the stadium for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the first game meant a great deal to him on several levels.

“I think the biggest thing I felt was a sense of relief and accomplishment, I began working on this project for four years, it was an accomplishment for me personally and professionally and to be in the community where I grew up at and help put this facility into use, was a real milestone in my career,” said Adofo-Wilson, who ran track at the stadium while in school.

He’s well aware of Negro League History at the stadium: “It means a lot to me, that black players in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were part of an historic tragedy. There would have been no Negro Leagues without Jim Crow and segregation,” noted Adofo-Wilson.

He said he grew up with parents from the south, who went to segregated schools.

***

When Kyle Fleming walks onto the baseball diamond at James P. Small Park in Jacksonville, FL, he’s following in the footsteps of several prominent baseball players. And even himself.

Now the head baseball coach at Stanton College Preparatory High School in Jacksonville, Fleming played on the field when he was a student there, and now watches the players on his team perform there.

“As well as being the baseball coach, and a long lover of baseball history, I teach history at the high school. So, I am very aware of the history of the Negro Leagues, the history of baseball, and how important both are in the history of our country,” said Fleming. “It is surreal sometimes to be standing on the same field that Hank Aaron played on. I also played at the school, and I played right field, the same position as Aaron. It is humbling and exciting to get to play the same position as a player and man as great as Hank Aaron was. I am very proud of our home field.”

In addition to Stanton, the field is used by the baseball team at Edward Waters University.

Beginning in the early 1950s, Jacksonville was a minor league affiliate of the Boston Braves (later Milwaukee Braves and now Atlanta Braves). In 1953, the 19-year old Aaron batted .362 with 22 home runs and 125 RBIs. The next year he broke in with the Braves.

Durkee Field was built in 1912 and was later called Barrs Field. In the late 1960s, the name was changed to Joseph E. Durkee Athletic Field. In 1938 and from 1941 to mid-1942, Jacksonville’s only Negro league franchise, the Jacksonville Red Caps of the Negro American League, used the park as their home field.

According to The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues by James A. Riley, the Red Caps moved to Cleveland in 1939 and became the Cleveland Bears, playing their home games at Hardware Field. They returned to Jacksonville as the Red Caps in 1941 for two seasons, dropping out of the NAL in July 1942. After the war, the Red Caps apparently continued as an unaffiliated Negro league team playing at Durkee Field.

Several major league teams, such as the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Athletics, played their spring training games at the site.

According to a New York Times article, the Jersey City (NJ) Giants, an affiliate of the New York Giants in the International League, held spring training at the ballpark in 1946. The Giants were scheduled to play the Montreal Royals team, that included Jackie Robinson and John Wright, who were in the process of integrating organized baseball. The Giants-Royals game was scheduled for March 24, 1946; however, the Jacksonville Playground and Recreation Board, prohibited “white and Negro athletes” from playing together in their facilities, and George Robinson, the Board’s executive secretary, said there would be no game with Robinson and Wright at the park. The Royals, with support from the Dodgers, refused to leave Robinson and Wright at Montreal’s training camp in Daytona Beach, and they cancelled the game. (At a game in Orlando, Robinson was arrested and taken off the field in handcuffs.)

By the late 1970s the stadium was in disrepair, and it was scheduled for demolition. Local advocates pushed to save the park, and in 1980 Jacksonville City Council member Sallye B. Mathis sponsored legislation to renovate it and rename it for J. P. Small, who served as a teacher, band director, coach, and athletic director at Stanton High from 1934 to 1969. Renovations included structural repairs, a new roof, press box and dugouts, paving the parking lot, a new playscape, and lighted fields. Councilwoman Denise Lee and Mayor Jake Godbold hosted a rededication ceremony at the park.

After those efforts, several city council members and state legislators have helped the group raise more than $1 million for the ball field.

Further upgrades were made possible by $300,000 in funds obtained by city councilwoman Gwen Yates, which was followed by $500,000 obtained by State Representative Tracy Davis and Senator Audrey Gibson.

Further renovation in 2006 included a small museum. In July 2013, the park was added to the National Historic Register of Historic Places.

The City of Jacksonville owns the stadium, and a city official said there are plans for additional improvements, which will include field -upgrades, stadium repairs and an expansion of the on-site museum. Funding for the project is from the City of Jacksonville and Major League Baseball.

Recently an exhibition at the museum, “The Era of Black Baseball,” which focuses on the Negro Leagues and its players, was expanded.

When he was a boy, Lloyd Washington’s uncle – who played for a semi-pro team called the Jacksonville Colts – took him and his brother to see the Indianapolis Clowns play at the stadium.

“Why am I going to watch a bunch of clowns play ball I said, not knowing about the Indianapolis Clowns,” said Washington, president of the Durkeeville Historical Society, whose original building was across the street from the ballpark.

The Jacksonville Red Caps.

The Clowns didn’t have a home, said Washington, meaning they played every game on the road. And they were not affiliated with Indianapolis. “They won the game,” recalled Washington, but he was equally impressed with what happened afterwards.

“It was an incredible show the Indianapolis Clowns put on,” said Washington, now 70 years old. “It started with a guy who must have been 6’8”, with a top hat, he was the pitcher with a huge glove. He was dragging (it) the ground, and when he pulled up…. under the glove was a three feet tall ball player,” he said.

It was, said Washington, the last Negro League game played at the stadium, then known as Durkee Field.

About 25 years ago, Washington joined the Durkeeville Historical Society (named after a public housing complex built in 1936-37 under the Public Works Administration). He is now the society’s president.

The society gives tours of the stadium three days a week, and has raised funds for its upkeep, he said.

Washington also said Major League Baseball made a contribution in recognition of Henry Aaron playing there. A new baseball field will be built, and will be known as Henry Aaron Field at James P. Small Park. The stadium has a capacity of about 2,000.

When asked why its important for the Negro League stadiums and the league’s history be preserved, he said, “The history needs to be told, (these were) quite a group of athletes. My looking at it is they were a group of athletes who were not allowed to meet their financial potential.”

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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