A roster of baseball luminaries grabbed shovelfuls of dirt Wednesday for the first step in a ceremonial groundbreaking for the restoration of Hinchliffe Stadium, last bastion of Negro Leagues baseball in the Northeast.
Using shovels that had Hinchliffe handles and gold spades, the participants included Yankees CC Sabathia and Willie Randolph, one-time Mets general manager Omar Minaya, the son of Hall of Famer Larry Doby, and former All-Star second baseman Harold Reynolds, now an analyst for MLB Network.
The decaying North Jersey ballpark, located within the boundaries of Paterson Great Falls National Historic District, was home to nearly two-dozen Hall of Famers who started their careers in the Negro Leagues.
One of them was Larry Doby, Jr., first African-American to reach the American League and later the second to manage a major-league team. Doby’s son, Larry Jr., spoke at the groundbreaking before a small but enthusiastic group of supporters as TV cameras whirred.
Doby was actually playing at Hinchliffe when he was scouted and signed by the Newark Eagles, a Negro Leagues power. He reached the majors in 1947 just months after Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line on April 15.
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According to Paterson mayor Andre Sayegh, who presided over the hour-long outdoor event, the Hinchliffe ceremony was scheduled for April 14 not only because Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 but also because Doby wore No. 14 during a 13-year career as a slugging center-fielder, mainly with the Cleveland Indians.
Speakers included Baye Adolfo-Wilson, chief developer for the $94 million project, and assorted elected officials. State, local, and federal tax credits helped finance the project, which Sayegh said was the most ambitious enterprise undertaken by Paterson since Alexander Hamilton harnessed the hydroelectric power of the nearby Great Falls.
He pointed out that students at School 5, which overlooks the Hinchliffe seating bowl, will have their view of urban blight transformed into a sparkling sports palace in time for the Thanksgiving Day football game that was once an annual event.
Both Doby Sr. and his son played football in the horseshoe-shaped stadium, which resembled the dimensions of the old Polo Grounds in New York.
Also like his dad, Doby Jr. was an outfielder with enough ability to win a pro contract. He spent three seasons as a minor-league player for the Chicago White Sox before joining the road crew of singer Billy Joel.
Named for a former Paterson mayor, Hinchliffe will join Rickwood Field of Birmingham, AL as the last active ballparks with Negro Leagues roots. The New Jersey stadium was the home of the New York Black Yankees, the New York Cubans, the Newark Eagles, and the 1933 Negro Leagues All-Star Game.
The stadium is owned and operated by the Paterson School District, which often drew throngs of 10,000 fans for the Thanksgiving Day game between Paterson Eastside, Doby’s school, and Paterson Central.
After the renovation is complete, capacity will come down to 7,800. The project includes clubhouses, dugouts, lights for night games, concessions stands, senior housing, and a parking garage, plus improvements to the press box and seating bowl, which is now overgrown from 24 years of neglect.
Trees, vines, and shrubs are literally sprouting between the backless metal seats. In addition, a lawyer of asphalt must be removed so that artificial turf can be installed as a playing surface. The original diamond from Negro Leagues days also has to be relocated.
According to the developer, the project is expected to take 18 months.