The Secret Lives of Parks

A Diamond in the Rough

Episode Summary

The only ballpark in the National Park System also has deep ties to African American history. One of the last few remaining Negro League ballparks, Hinchliffe Stadium was nearly lost — but the storied playing field at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is getting a new lease on life.

Episode Notes

Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is the only ballpark in the National Park System — and one of the very few surviving ballparks once used by Negro League baseball teams. But this field of dreams and its rich history were nearly lost to the ages before getting a chance at extra innings. Dr. Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and Dr. Larry Hogan, author of two books on Negro League history and executive producer of the documentary “Before You Can Say Jackie Robinson,” join host Todd Christopher to discuss the significance of Hinchliffe’s past and the promise its restoration holds for the future.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer

Paterson Great Falls audio clip courtesy of the National Park Service

The Secret Lives of Parks is brought to you by: 

Todd Christopher – Producer & Host
Jennifer Errick – Producer & Host
Bev Stanton – Online Producer

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at npca.org

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 7
A Diamond in the Rough

Todd Christopher: Hinchliffe Stadium is the only ballpark in the National Park System and one of the very few surviving ballparks once used by Negro League baseball teams. But this field of dreams and its rich history were nearly lost to the ages before getting a chance at extra innings. 

I'm Todd Christopher, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks. 

The Passaic River stretches 80 miles across the highlands and wetlands of northern New Jersey, through territory that was first inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape before the arrival of Dutch settlers in the late 1600s. For most of its course, the Passaic is relatively unremarkable. But as the river makes its way to the City of Paterson, it rushes and falls between basaltic cliffs more than 70 feet high and stretching 300 feet across. 

The force of the flow is incredible, averaging anywhere between half a million and one million gallons of water per minute. All told, the Great Falls of the Passaic are second only Niagara Falls among waterfalls east of the Mississippi. It's a pretty incredible sight. But don't just take my word for it. Some of the Founding Fathers thought so too. 

When Alexander Hamilton joined George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette for a picnic lunch overlooking the falls on a summer day in 1778 he was captivated by their beauty and their power. Hamilton, who would become the first Secretary of the Treasury a little more than a decade later -- and, of course, a Broadway sensation well over two centuries after that -- believed manufacturing and industry would be the keys to the new nation's economic stability. And what better place to build and power mills than that? 

His vision became a reality when Paterson, just 15 miles from Manhattan, was established as the nation's first planned industrial city in 1792. Parts of the city first achieved national historic landmark status in the 1970s and just a decade ago, in November 2011, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was officially designated, making it the 397th national park site. 

On higher ground, some 300 feet north of the falls -- or if you prefer, just a long fly ball away -- sits another very different part of Patterson Great Falls. The historic Hinchliffe Stadium, currently undergoing extensive renovations, was added to the park in 2014 and has the distinction of being the only ballpark in the National Park System. 

America's been around for more than 245 years now and it's been playing baseball in one form or another for most of them. So it's only natural that traces of the national pastime can be found throughout the park system, from Babe Ruth's spring training exploits in Hot Springs to the amateur baseball game, captured in an iconic Ansel Adams photo, played by prisoners at Manzanar during World War II. 

But Hinchliffe Stadium's significance runs much deeper. It is one of the very few surviving ballparks that major Negro League baseball teams once called home. Preserved there is not just an important bit of baseball's past but an important piece of African American history as well. And before taking a closer look at Hinchliffe's story I wanted to learn more from someone steeped in both of these worlds. 

Dr. Ray Doswell: Well, it's rewarding work, I'll say that. 

Todd Christopher:    That's Dr. Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro League's Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, where he helps to keep Negro League history alive and introduces it to new audiences as well. 

Dr. Ray Doswell: My training is in education primarily, in history and education. I'm just a little social studies teacher at heart. 

Todd Christopher:   His modesty aside, it's been a heady time for Doswell and his colleagues. Though the pandemic put a damper on the celebration, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues and late last year Major League Baseball corrected the official historical record by finally or formally recognizing Negro League players from the era between 1920 and 1948 as major leaguers. 

Dr. Ray Doswell: The museum as an institution has grown exponentially and our notoriety has grown and we continue to try to just connect people with the history. 

Todd Christopher: Now more than ever, especially in the wake of last summer's widespread protests against racial injustice, that means more than just baseball history. 

Dr. Ray Doswell:   Like I said, I don't consider myself a baseball historian in the same way as maybe some others who write on the Negro Leagues and who publish and research on the Negro Leagues or baseball in general. But being a step away from it allows me to see how to connect the dots to other things in American history and African American history, which is important for us because our audience is extremely broad. 

It's not just a bunch of guys coming in and wanting to know Negro League stats and names of baseball cards and the value of baseballs. For the most part these are folk who have no clue about this history and this is really an entrée for them to African American history in general. 

Todd Christopher: Doswell also sees it as a touchstone we all have in common, even in times when we might feel divided. 

Dr. Ray Doswell:  We may have different political interests or understanding of history, but we tend to rally around sports, and we tend to want to know at least about our regional and local sports teams, if nothing else, just to prove in the bar that we're the trivia champion. But here's a way to entrée into some interesting topics that are compelling but also ultimately are steeped in a difficult time period. 

Then we can lead people on these discussions about race and in many respects show one example of how we got to where we are today and especially in our current moment, which there's a lot of troubling things that are happening. But it all leads back to history and hopefully that opens eyes for people. 

Todd Christopher: It's long been said that baseball is a mirror held up to American society and when you begin to untangle its history you find major threads of the American story, themes like race, community and industry running throughout. So with Hinchliffe Stadium now in the National Park System and reconstruction there currently underway I wondered what opportunities for interpretation this history might present. 

 Here's Dr. Ray Doswell again, joining me this time by telephone. 

Dr. Ray Doswell:  I think a lot of people are awakening to the fact that is a national story, that it is a story that is connected in many ways to an important period in our history. I tell most teachers that this is a story steeped in understanding the Great Migration where people were moving en masse out of rural areas into urban areas because of industrialization.

And for African Americans, in particular, moving from the Southeast in particular and sharecropping life into major urban centers of the South like moving from rural Alabama into Birmingham to work in the iron factories, or moving completely out of the South to places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Chicago and New York and Memphis and Philadelphia and Baltimore and Detroit….

Todd Christopher: All of which were fixtures of the Negro Leagues, home to iconic ball clubs such as the Homestead Grays, Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Stars. Doswell continues. 

Dr. Ray Doswell:    …following the industry, looking for jobs, hoping to get some relief from the oppression that they were receiving in the South, although in many respects still being marginalized and redlined and shoved in the ghettos but still creating those cultural enclaves that in some ways segregation forced them to create their own enterprises, including their own banks, their own schools, their own churches and among those businesses were baseball teams. You get to a point in 1920 where there's enough people in, enough of, for lack of a better word, the middle class, that can support the leisure activities of going to jazz clubs and supporting their churches and going to ball games. So the Park Service can better tell that story through baseball and more specifically in Patterson. 

Todd Christopher: When it opened in Patterson, New Jersey on July 8, 1932 Hinchliffe Stadium was a gleaming white Art Deco coliseum shaped like a horseshoe. With a seating capacity of 10,000 the concrete structure partially enclosed the playing field, rimmed by an oval track. Designed by architect John Shaw, Hinchliffe was laid out by the Olmsted Brothers, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who has been heralded as the father of American landscape architecture. 

From the stadium's conception there was the tiniest seed of a national park connection. Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr was an early trustee of the organization known today as the National Parks Conservation Association, which makes this podcast possible. 

For students of history and baseball you might say that Hinchliffe is a field of dreams. 

Dr. Larry Hogan:  Once I get talking about this it's hard to stop me. So at some point you got to put your hands up and say, "Time out."

Todd Christopher: That's Dr. Larry Hogan, professor emeritus of history at Union County College in New Jersey. Hogan's the author of two books on the history of the Negro Leagues and executive producer of the 1986 documentary, Before You Can Say Jackie Robinson. The video, shot on location at Hinchliffe Stadium, features interviews with five stars of the Negro Leagues, Max Manning, Bill Cash, Leon Day, Gene Benson and Clarence "Pint" Isreal. Hogan's love for the history, the players and the setting is infectious. 

Dr. Larry Hogan: For me, the feel came across, the feel, F-E-E-L came across most movingly when these veteran Negro Leaguers walked into it. They walk along the outside of the stadium, they walked through what was a wonderful gate. There was a plaque on the stadium at that time indicating the rich history of it. And they walked down these steps very gradually and what comes into view, the camera pans out to the stadium itself and you see this beautiful green field and then in the background, the beautiful green of trees and the mountains in the background. The stadium was a very good stadium to play baseball in. The number of people, great players who played in that stadium indicates how valuable it was. 

Todd Christopher: It was also incredibly versatile. As a municipal stadium, Hinchliffe hosted an almost dizzying array of events. 

Dr. Larry Hogan: Boxing, motorcycle racing, midget car racing, professional football, national track and field, and local baseball, football and track and field, and a variety of other sporting and entertainment events. There was a time, a day, an evening where they actually constructed, I'm going to call it a swimming pool, but it wasn't a pool. It was a vast, tub is the wrong word, too, set out in the field where they had synchronized swimming going on. The old Esther Williams kind of thing, out there in the middle of the field. Boy, when I saw that I said, "Oh, my goodness." So it was a very widely used and played in stadium besides the extensive Black baseball history. 

Todd Christopher: The big names who performed at Hinchliffe ranged from Abbott and Costello, who's famous “Who's on First?” routine has itself become part of baseball lore, to Duke Ellington, who, with his orchestra, played one of his last major concerts there in 1971. But the stadium's more recent history has been regrettable. Stadium ownership transferred from the city to the school district in the 1960s and amid changing priorities and dwindling resources in the decades that followed, Hinchliffe fell deep into disrepair, eventually closing in the late 1990s. 

Dr. Larry Hogan: Because the field was untended to it deteriorated considerably. It didn't matter that there were so many wonderful events played in this wide spectrum of sports. The field would have been torn down and disappear. If you're into this history it's heartbreaking to see what happened to that stadium. That's what propelled Brian forward in trying to rescue the stadium and return it to the historical site that the history that was there demanded that it be restored. 

Todd Christopher: He's referring to Brian LoPinto, a Patterson native who was so disheartened by the stadium's plight that he founded the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium in 2002 to rally support and resources for its restoration. Part of that campaign included advocating for the inclusion of the stadium in Patterson Great Falls National Historical Park, and that finally became a reality in December 2014 with the passage of legislation that authorized the largest expansion of the National Park System in decades, an effort the National Parks Conservation Association had been working on for years. 

Hinchliffe was in good company. The legislation also expanded existing sites such as San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and established new park units including Harriet Tubman and Manhattan Project National Historical Parks. 

Still, so much of Hinchliffe's significance is rooted in its early days when it was a bustling hub for major Negro League baseball in the Northeast. Many clubs, including some of the greatest luminaries in the history of the sport, from Josh Gibson to Cool Papa Bell, played there. But three teams from the metropolitan area are forever connected to the stadium, the New York Black Yankees, the New York Cubans and the Newark Eagles. 

Here's Larry Hogan again. 

Dr. Larry Hogan:  Yeah, one of the rich things about it is that it was a variety of teams that came in, but a few teams occupied that space on a very large scale. The Cubans certainly were a team that played there extensively, the Black Yankees. The Eagles came in and played often there. It wasn't their home field. We could argue that the first two teams it was their home field. The Eagles, the Eagles had seven members -- is it seven, or maybe eight members? -- in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a couple who probably should be in who aren't there. So this is a great team that's playing on those field of green at Hinchliffe in Patterson, New Jersey. 

Todd Christopher: For the record, Hogan's right by either count. The Newark Eagles roster included seven future Hall of Famers: Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Biz Mackey, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby. And Effa Manley, who co-owned the club with her husband, is enshrined in the hall as a pioneering executive in what was a male dominated arena. If those names aren't familiar to you, Hogan gets right to the point. 

Dr. Larry Hogan: Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, two of the all-time greats in Major League Baseball. 

Todd Christopher: But among all that talent, all those great players, none shone brighter than Larry Doby, who had a particularly special connection to Hinchliffe. A native of Paterson, Doby excelled in both football and baseball, playing both sports for Eastside High School right in Hinchliffe Stadium. His talent landed him on the roster of the Newark Eagles where he spent several years before signing with Cleveland, becoming the first Black player in Major League Baseball's American League, right on the heels of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier by playing for the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers. 

Dr. Larry Hogan:  He's the first Black to play in the American League. Close to Jackie, oh absolutely close to Jackie, three months afterwards, July of 1947. April of '47, Jackie comes in. Larry faces many of the same negatives, the prejudice that Jackie had to deal with as well and he does it in the American League and it doesn't end for either of them in '47 or even '48 or '49. It goes on in lots of ways. Because of their stellar play and the greatness of their play they go forward and others follow in their wake. 

The whole business of integration of the major leagues, it really wasn't integrated. It takes time. Ten years in one way at least, the Red Sox, the last team to integrate, Pumpsie Green in 1958, '59. Well, what happened between '47 and '59? Gradual, too slow a pace integration, with lots of great players being left behind.

Todd Christopher: And for Hogan it's a history that remains instructive today. 

Dr. Larry Hogan: I think it means a great deal to the youth of America to be able to go to a place where they will learn that this quality of baseball was played there and they will learn about the men who played it, I hope. And they won't just learn about the baseball that was there but they'll learn about the wonderful character of the players who played there, what they had to do to deal with a world that was saying negative things to them. 

Todd Christopher: The renovation of Hinchliffe Stadium broke ground in April of this year with the refurbishment slated for completion by the end of next summer. It's part of an ambitious construction project, including an apartment building and parking garage aiming to redevelop the nearby neighborhood and once more make the stadium a vital and thriving center of the community. 

There's plenty to celebrate yet Hinchliffe, like so many other historic places, came alarmingly close to slipping away forever. It's not just the loss of such a significant physical space that's troubling. It's the thought of what we all stand to lose if we don't remember and preserve the rich human stories that animated, stories that have the power to help connect us all. 

Here's Larry Hogan. 

Dr. Larry Hogan:  Well, so much of what we've talked about we would have lost. We would have lost ... well, here, maybe this is a good way to get at it. Let me just read you a little section of the report that I did for the Office of the Department of Historical Preservation here in New Jersey. "Why do it at Hinchliffe? Do it because Hinchliffe is the last of Negro League ballparks in New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area, arguably the most important still in existence. 

"Do it because two of New Jersey's and American's greatest athletic native sons and role models for our young people, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, played there and our youth of today need to play there too. This stadium is a monument to the sports enthusiasm of struggling, working class Americans and an early symbol of the claim that sports and athletics have increasingly made on our national psyche as an access route to the American Dream."

Todd Christopher: And once again, here's Ray Doswell. 

Dr. Ray Doswell: Well, it's important now when there are different assaults on truth out there that we need to make sure that we have the true stories of history, a true understanding of what happened, true understanding of facts. And people are going to interpret things the way they feel they need to interpret them, but as long as the information is available then generations after generations can always come back to the information and make sure they understand where they came from and how things fit within the community and how things got to where they are in their communities. 

And in this case, the community is trying to reclaim what I think was a galvanizing time, an important time in the history, and it's meant to help move the community forward. This is something that they had in the past that brought us all together around sport and entertainment and it's something that we can have again. So that's a noble calling. But having the truth of that history is important, and what I hope is that this community can really galvanize to make this a place that is welcome to all but tells as many stories as possible. 

Todd Christopher: You can't help but feel that before too long, at Hinchliffe Stadium, those stories will be safe at home. 

Todd Christopher: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. 

Episode 7, A Diamond in the Rough, was produced by Todd Christopher, with moral and technical support from Jennifer Errick and Bev Stanton. More at thesecretlivesofparks.org. Original theme music by Chad Fisher. Audio of Patterson Great Falls courtesy of the National Park Service. For links to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and to Dr. Larry Hogan's documentary, Before You Can Say Jackie Robinson, please check out the show notes for this episode. 

For more than a century the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, non-partisan advocacy organization, dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more and join us at NPCA.org.