Hinchliffe Stadium at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park very nearly met the wrecking ball before passionate advocates saved it and the rich history it preserves. Now restored to its original glory, this true field of dreams reopened this spring with the return of professional baseball—and we were there to take it all in.
The only baseball stadium in the National Park System and one of the last surviving stadiums with a rich Negro League history, Hinchliffe Stadium at Paterson Great Falls was nearly lost for good. This spring, a fully restored Hinchliffe reopened to much fanfare—and we take you out to the ballgame.
Host Todd Christopher captures the sounds of opening day and speaks with Brian LoPinto, founder of The Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, Andre Sayegh, mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, and Darren Boch, superintendent of Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer
The Secret Lives of Parks is brought to you by:
Todd Christopher – Producer & Host
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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
Todd Christopher: Hinchliffe Stadium at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park very nearly met the wrecking ball before passionate advocates saved it and the rich history it preserves. Now restored to its original glory, this true field of dreams reopened this spring with the return of professional baseball—and we were there to take it all in.
I’m Todd Christopher, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
In Episode 7 of this podcast, “A Diamond in the Rough,” we explored the colorful past of Paterson, New Jersey’s Hinchliffe Stadium, the only baseball stadium in the national park system and one of the last surviving venues with deep connections to Negro League history. Its most notable figure, the Hall of Famer Larry Doby, was a Paterson native who integrated baseball’s American League less than 12 weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the sport’s so-called “color barrier” in 1947.
A quarter-century ago, Hinchliffe was shuttered after years of neglect. The stadium and its stories might have been lost, if not for the advocates who built the community support and political will to save them.
A decade ago, the tide really started to turn. Hinchliffe was designated a national historic landmark in 2013 and was added to Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park the following year. An ambitious renovation project was approved in 2019 and broke ground two years later, at what would ultimately be a cost of $103 million.
And, about 8 weeks ago, over a weekend in May, it all came to fruition.
City officials christened the newly restored stadium at a Friday-morning ribbon-cutting ceremony that included such notable guests as Senator Cory Booker and six-time All-Star Willie Randolph. Then, after a Saturday washout, came a splendid Sunday afternoon and the moment that so many had waited for, for so long: Opening Day.
The New Jersey Jackals, the Frontier League ball club that now calls Hinchliffe home, were set to square off against the Sussex County Miners to kick off their season, bringing professional baseball back to this storied venue for the first time in more than 70 years – and for the first time ever in a national park site.
And I wasn’t about to miss it.
I headed to the corner of Paterson and Birch to meet Brian LoPinto, a Paterson native who co-founded the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium. There’s a mini-market there, a sort of bodega with a Bangladeshi flair, but as we talked, LoPinto’s eyes turn to the residence located above the shop.
Brian LoPinto: Yeah, this is, uh, this is my old house. This is about two blocks away from Hinchliffe Stadium, and one block away from the Great Falls National Historical Park. It wasn't a national park when I grew up here, but, in many ways, this is home.
Todd Christopher: And we've got something to see...
Brian LoPinto: Yeah, let's go. Let's get to Hinchliffe. We’re gonna walk down Birch Street now
Todd Christopher: So we're just a couple of blocks away from the park. Did you visit it a lot when you were a kid?
Brian LoPinto: Oh, absolutely. It was only a block away, you know, so, um, if you're referring to the National Park or to the Great Falls, of course mm-hmm.
Todd Christopher: So what are your recollections of the stadium back then? Because you got to witness it when it was active and when it started to fall into disrepair.
Brian LoPinto: My recollections at that time, just definitely like this, this very thin AstroTurf -- basically on asphalt. It was, you know, poorly done, actually. But, when you're a kid you just, you just want to play ball and you don’t, you know, make an issue of it. You just kind of just work around it. So, it was, it was in fairly good shape. But, there was definitely a sink hole because unfortunately the owners -- Paterson Public Schools -- just didn't take care of it.
Todd Christopher: And I'm guessing, like most things, that’s a function of resources?
Brian LoPinto: So they claim. But then, in 1997 when the stadium, uh, was deemed -- I guess, condemned -- there were two options on the table: demolish it at a cost of $4 million or rehabilitate at a cost of $4.8 million. And the superintendent at that time, his name is Laval Wilson, was leaning toward demolition. And it just, if $4 million is out the door, you'd think just spend the extra eight hundred thousand dollars. But thankfully they did not demolish it. Maybe they didn't have the money to demolish it. We're grateful for that, but that would've been a real problem. And I think, it would've met a lot of resistance.
Todd Christopher: I've seen photos and video of the stadium when it was kind of in the depths of disrepair. I've even seen photos of, like, trees taking root inside the stadium.
Brian LoPinto: Yep.
Todd Christopher: I mean, is that... is that what you saw?
Brian LoPinto: Absolutely. As, as time would go by, uh, you would start seeing just trees growing in the stands. Nobody took care of it. I mean, a little weed-be-gone would've done the trick, you know? So, you know, there's that old saying, you take care of the little things, and the bigger things take care of themselves. And nobody took care of the little things. And that's why it became such a big problem. And, now such a costly price tag. Here--let's cross over here... cause I want to show you this side of the falls.
Todd Christopher: What was the spark what tipped it, so that this thing that could have been lost got saved? And that started with some folks like you...
Brian LoPinto: Yeah. So, you know, really kind of trying to make that argument. First you had to do the research and I decided to do some research. The first thing I had done was, when I heard it was going to be condemned, I wrote to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And thankfully they'd written back and they said that Hinchliffe Stadium was represented in their library's archives.
So then I did my own independent research, finding out that the New York Cubans played here and the Newark Eagles..... and lo and behold, over 20 Hall of Famers played at Hinchliffe Stadium, many of whom played in the Negro Leagues. So, uh, in essence, there is a piece of Cooperstown right here in Paterson.
Todd Christopher: That's a great way to put it. Folks like Larry Doby, Monty Irvin, and on and on...
Brian LoPinto: Correct. Absolutely. And, and I'm glad you mentioned both of those players, because both Monte Irvin and Larry Doby tried out for the Negro Leagues here at Hinchliffe Stadium. So I don't know of any other venue in America that can boast two Hall of Famers trying out for the Negro Leagues -- and then they would eventually become teammates. They would become friends and they would actually be opponents in the 1954 World Series.
Todd Christopher: So remind me, please, when you founded the Friends of Hinchliffe -- it's been more than 20 years, hasn't it?
Brian LoPinto: Yeah, so we, you know, officially formed in 2002, but, you know, we actually kind of started the process in 1997 with that letter to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But yeah, it's, it's been a while. And that letter to the Baseball Hall of Fame happened when I was a freshman in college. And, as a reporter, Mark Carig of the Athletic put to me, I've spent my entire adult life trying to save this place, which is kind of...... uh, it's either a labor of love or I'm a glutton for punishment.
Todd Christopher: They’re not mutually exclusive
And so, from--it sounds like almost a decade would've passed before national Historic Landmark status was achieved. Maybe you could tell me about that.
Brian LoPinto: Yeah, so National Historic Landmark is a great designation for sure. What's great is that Hinchliffe Stadium is the first national historic landmark that honors baseball. Do you know what the second one is?
Todd Christopher:I couldn't guess.
Brian LoPinto: Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Todd Christopher: Oh!
Brian LoPinto: Isn't that something?
Todd Christopher: That's great.
Brian LoPinto: But, really, plaudits of course to Congressman Pascrell, because I think he's the elected official that has done the most for the Stadium. I could tell you that if it wasn't for Bill Pascrell, I don't know if this would be a part of the National Park or if we would even have a national park to begin with, because he did a lot of work just to get this place to be a national park.
Let's go talk to this guy here so we can come in.
Hello. How are you guys? Beautiful day for baseball, right,
Hinchliffe Staff Member: Hey, hey, hey, hey! How are you doing?
Brian LoPinto: This guy right here,
Hinchliffe Staff Member: No, I'm not doing it...
Brian LoPinto: You gotta do it one of these days, right?
Hinchliffe Staff Member: One of these days. I got you, man. Hey, Willy just came in.
Brian LoPinto: Oh, Willy Randolph’s coming down? Oh, cool. Awesome. Yeah, so I'm gonna go grab my credential now.
Well, there's – yeah! -- there's Willie Randolph. Maybe you want to interview him?
Todd Christopher: As a long-suffering Mets fan, you know I do!
Todd Christopher:So this unfolds over time and there have been victories along the way, and milestones, but this is a big one today. So what does it feel like for you to be here on this day?
Brian LoPinto: I mean, it, it's really a moment in history because it's not often that a 91 year old makes history... and today will be the first ever sporting event in a national park. And that that says a lot. And I think to be able to be here -- you know, obviously I wasn't around for all the, um, the historic moments here, like Elmer McDuffy’s no-hitter or the Colored Championship of the Nation or even Larry Doby or Monte Evan's tryout.But I get to be here today and I'm gonna be here for as many games as possible.
I mean, listen, you hear, you hear the crack of the bat -- I mean, isn't that a nice sound? There's something so soothing about a wood bat hitting a ball, you know? And, you know, we've gotta be careful of course because we might get a ball out to usI If we do, hey, you know, maybe that's our good luck.
Of course, you know, the field is not configured correctly. It should have been configured, uh, to the Negro League specifications. If you see the line right there, this, you see this diagonal line right here Sure do. That is actually where, like the first baseline that kind of represents that.
Todd Christopher: And it's worth noting that because this was a municipal stadium that served a lot of purposes, it's, it's got an unconventional shape for baseball. It's essentially a coliseum shape.
Brian LoPinto: Sure. Well, that's why my feeling is that the original, you know, footprint, the original home plate area would've been perfect for baseball because it would've replicated The Polo Grounds. You know, the Polo grounds is the major league baseball stadium that most resembles Hinchliffe in its true form. There's no other stadium in major League baseball that has these kind of weird configurations
Todd Christopher: And to, uh, to deal with those odd dimensions, this is sort of a temporary fence that's brought in?
Brian LoPinto: Exactly. That's a temporary fence. I wish they would've done like vintage advertising. Actually, it would've been cool to see something like 1933 style---
[loud, sudden thump]
Brian LoPinto: Ooh! Oh, we just missed it!
Todd Christopher: And, just as LoPinto predicted, a stray fly ball whizzes just past our heads.
Todd Christopher: Um, that came close.
Brian LoPinto: Well, that's why like, you know, this is not the right configuration. If it was configured over there, I don't think we would've, uh, had that happen, you know? Want to keep walking?
Todd Christopher: Sure, yeah. And as we walk around the bowl here from, you know, down the first base line over toward home plate... in the distance beyond that is part of the new redevelopment as well, right?
Brian LoPinto: Yeah. So, as part of this project, there are three brand new buildings -- a senior housing, a parking garage, and a museum and restaurant space.
Todd Christopher:The museum space, which isn't open yet, I believe is essentially going to be commemorating Negro League history in large part?
Brian LoPinto: Yeah. It, I think it'll--uou know, Montclair State's going to do a wonderful job with that. They're the ones who have charge of the museum. Oh, and I believe it's going to be a three pronged process. So, for example, you know, a permanent exhibit to Larry Doby and with of course a mention to Monte Irvin, and on top of that the Negro Leagues history here at Hinchliffe Stadium.
And then on top of that, a rotating kind of exhibit where -- remember auto racing took place here, which had national significance.... boxing took place here, you know, musical events, and the Thanksgiving Day classic, which is really big here in Paterson between East Side and Central and then later East Side and Kennedy. So, I think there's going to be a lot of different opportunities to, to tell the different, uh, facets of the Hinchliffe Stadium story.
Todd Christopher: I’m just wondering, what do you see as the potential challenges? Because Great Falls National Historical Park is fairly small and only has so many resources, and I know they're not responsible for certain aspects of this, but now this is an enormous thing to be added to the park.
Brian LoPinto: Oh, yeah... no, it's definitely a big thing. I think it really does add, you know -- keep in mind there's 300,000 visitors a year who come to the Great Falls National Historical Park... So why not capture some of that income? I mean, prior to the stadium opening, people would come by, maybe take a picture of the falls, stay for a little while and just move on to the next thing. Now you now have an opportunity to make a full day of it, you know, come to the National Park, visit the falls, go to the Paterson Museum, come to the Charles J. Muth Museum at Hinchliffe Stadium, see a Jackals game. So you really can make a whole day out of coming to the National Park, which I think is really the goal here.
Todd Christopher: At this point, I just want to ask you what I should have asked you?
Brian LoPinto: I guess one thing I'll add is that, you know, people often say to me, Brian, you saved Hinchliffe Stadium. And I say, no, I didn't save Hinchliffe Stadium. The great players of the Negro League saved Hinchliffe Stadium. It's their contributions to the ballpark that gives us the reason why we're able to say we should save Hinchliffe Stadium. And, and of all those Hall of Famers, there's one that stands out the most, and that's Larry Doby. And without his legacy here, I'm not sure that we saved the place. So I'm hopeful that with Hinchliffe Stadium, uh, being back up and running again, that as a society we can go forward and say, Jackie Robinson *and* Larry Dolby integrated baseball, broke the color barrier, whatever phraseology you want to use.
But I think for far too long, Larry Dolby is a forgotten ball player. And, and he deserves a heck of a lot more than that. And, and there's a reason why he's in baseball's Hall of Fame, and there's a reason why this ballpark is able to be what it is today.
Todd Christopher:I can tell you that what Hinchliffe is today is pretty amazing.
Looking up and around from my perch behind home plate, the grandstand of this gleaming white Art Deco coliseum is decked out for the occasion in red, white and blue bunting. Friezes sculpted into the stadium walls recall the original bronze reliefs created by Gaetano Federici, the artist known as “The Master of Paterson.” Above the left-center field fence, Garrett Mountain looms in the distance, past the Falls. And far beyond the left-field foul pole, nearly 15 miles in the distance, the skyline of Manhattan hovers on the horizon.
Looking down, a thick carpet of green and brown turf is ready for action. I head down to the field – making friends with the Jackals mascot on the way – and have a quick word with Andre Sayegh, the mayor of Paterson. Sayegh was elected on his third try in 2018, promising to restore the stadium, and played a role in the Jackals’ residency that is bringing professional baseball back to Hinchliffe.
Andre Sayegh: Several years ago I met with Jack Dorso, the owner of the New Jersey Jackals, and I said look, I’m going to run for mayor again and this time I believe I’m gonna win... because I ran two times before and lost — a swing and a miss, a swing and a miss -- so I was down to my last strike. And I said when I restore Hinchliffe stadium, which is a priority for me, I want you to relocate the New Jersey Jackals to Paterson... and he laughed.
Well, this is the field of dreams and as you know the famous quote in “Field of Dreams” is “if you build it he will come.” Well, we built and he’s coming. He’s come – here... and I am so encouraged to have a professional baseball team here in the city of Paterson, where legends played. 20 Hall of Famers on that field. We’re talking about Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Cool Papa Bell, Leroy “Satchel” Paige...
Todd Christopher: Josh Gibson...
Andre Sayegh: ...that’s right, that’s right, thank you — so they all played here and we’re bringing it back for the legends and we’re bringing it back for future stars aswell.
Todd Christopher: Long time coming. Isn’t it amazing?
Andre Sayegh: It certainly is. I can’t contain my elation. I’m so encouraged to see the fans, and I am so encouraged to see the players here.
Todd Christopher: Like you said, “a true field of dreams.”
Andre Sayegh: It is the real Field of Dreams. With all due respect to Iowa that was a movie set, a cornfield, and Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta don’t compare to Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Larry Doby as far as baseball is concerned.
Todd Christopher: It feels like we’ve gone extra innings in a way, doesn’t it?
Andre Sayegh: Yes, yes (laughs) that’s true!
Todd Christopher:And with that, His Honor—and Willie Randolph, who I just miss—are summoned to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch to get things underway.
[Sounds of first pitch and national anthem]
Todd Christopher:Whether you love baseball, or the national parks, or even the sound of a jazzy saxophone, that was a special moment. And if you love all three, as I do, it was particularly moving.
It was also many long years in the making. And to better understand how all of this came about and what lies ahead, I spoke with someone who could share a little, well... inside baseball.
Darren Boch: You know most national parks follow a very long and winding road to actually become a national park because that's a political decision...
Todd Christopher:That’s Darren Boch, Superintendent of Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park
Darren Boch: There was talk even in the seventies to have the Paterson Great Falls become a national park, but you know, there, the stars were not politically yet aligned, and there was other reasons it didn't happen back then. But there was a lot of folks -- the Congressman Bill Pascrell, former Mayor, current Congressman, foremost among them along with many other advocates--over a long period of time who fought really hard to get the designation that they and I think America's first planned industrial city -- which is what Paterson is -- ought to be a part of the National Park system.
Todd Christopher:It would be three more years before Hinchliffe’s fate was decided. The effort to add the stadium to Paterson Great Falls culminated in congressional debates over the National Defense Authorization Act, which included provisions for expanding certain parks. On the Senate floor, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez made an impassioned plea to save Hinchliffe:
Robert Menendez: It has a special place in the hearts of many New Jerseyans, and it has played a vital role in the story of America’s fight against institutionalized segregation.
Critics of this legislation are using a picture of the stadium showing overgrown shrubs and graffiti on the walls, asking “What does a stadium such as this have to do with this and should it be in with our national park system?"
Unfortunately, the picture being circulated only shows a side of the story at a different time. What it fails to show is the dedication of the surrounding community to clean up Hinchliffe Stadium. So I brought three photographs that I think illustrate the work being done in Paterson and to put to rest this notion that the stadium is an abandoned place that the community doesn’t care about.
The first is a picture of dozens of local residents working together to clean up the stands, paint the wall, and begin the process of restoring this vital community center. The second is a closeup picture of just a handful of these volunteers. These are young people taking the time to improve their community and honor the history that was behind the stadium. The third shows the final products—much different than what my colleague showed—of their hard work. These pictures were taken earlier this year at an event where 700 volunteers worked to clean up Hinchliffe Stadium,
The argument that we are dumping this land on the National Park Service is simply false.
Todd Christopher:And as Darren Boch explains, the result was a partnership between the City of Paterson and the National Park Service.
Darren Boch: So the legislation that did add Hinchliffe to the boundaries of the National Park in 2014 had a provision saying the Park service shall not own or operate in the stadium, and given the size of my staff and resources, operating a 7,500 seat stadium certainly is... uh, It's not top of my list of something to undertake. So I I'm happy. It's in the park boundary. I'm also equally happy that the city of Paterson will remain as the owner and operator of the stadium. But our role -- you know, I mean, we are, it wouldn't be exaggeration to say -- we're I mean, we are America's storytellers, you know. So as far as the stadium, it gives it gives the National Park an opportunity to really cover themes and topics that otherwise the industrial history and the natural history of the Paterson Great Falls doesn't really give us. So Hinchliffe opens up a whole other area of projects and programming and interpretive and educational programming that wasn't there. And now it is, formally, because it's in the National Park boundary. So we're obviously going to partner very closely with the city and others on telling that story.
Todd Christopher:And seemingly everyone here has been touched by that story or has some kind of personal connection to this place. Boch fondly remembers how his Uncle Al, as a boy, would ride his bike to Hinchliffe and earn a quarter by serving as a bat boy for Negro League games. And that’s the thing about the places we stand up to protect: They have a way of connecting past, present and future.
Darren Boch: If you had to have me bet a decade ago. What? What would be the bottom of the list on possibilities happening? And you know, I'd have a lot of a lot of things on there, but foremost among them, I never thought I would see the stadium reopen -- at least not in my tenure. So, the fact that it's opening and operating for the first time since 1997 is ...it's remarkable.
And it's a great opportunity. Again, the National Park -- it'll bring a lot of different audiences to the National Park. They may not even know they're in the National Park when they're taking in a Jackals game or a concert, or a high school football game, but they’re certainly going to be...
you know, there, and the Great Falls. It looms large from the stadium, from the footprint. It's in the viewshed. So it's going to have some operational challenges as well, having a stadium of that size operating in the park boundary. But the opportunities far outweigh any of the any of the challenges that that will remain.
[Sounds of the ballgame]
Todd Christopher:Back at Hinchliffe, Opening Day does not disappoint. The crowd settles in, and on the second pitch of the stadium’s new chapter, the Miners’ leadoff hitter sends a long fly ball over the left-center field fence, almost halfway to the Falls.
But as the song goes, “it’s root, root, root for the home team,” and in the bottom of the first, the Jackals come roaring back, scoring 4 runs of their own to take the lead. Around the grandstand, the crowd loses themselves in the rhythms and simple pleasures of the game: its languid pace punctuated by the crack of the bat and bursts of action; the bright expanse of green under a blue sky dotted by clouds; hot dogs and ice cream shared in a moment in the sun. By the end of the game, the teams would combine for 10 home runs and the Jackals would win the day. Because, as the song also goes, “if they don’t win it’s a shame.”
I climb the wide steps and leave Hinchliffe with the sounds of the game and the crowd still echoing in my ears, and I am happy, relieved and grateful that the real shame – losing this magnificent place – never did come to pass.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 21, “Opening Day” was produced by Todd Christopher with invaluable assistance from Timothy Leonard and Kristen Brengel, and our small-but-mighty team includes Jennifer Errick, Bev Stanton and Vanessa Pius. More at thesecretlivesofparks.org
Original theme music by Chad Fischer
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