For baseball fans in Paterson, a near three-decade-long offseason finally came to an end earlier this year.
On Sunday, May 21, the New Jersey Jackals defeated the Sussex County Miners 10-6 in their home opener. For Jackals’ fans, you couldn’t have asked for a better opening day: beautiful weather (sunny skies and mid 70s), an entertaining game featuring plenty of offensive fireworks— including 10 home runs—and, most importantly, a win in their new home. Yet holding greater significance than the result of a Frontier League (independent professional league) contest is the reopening of Silk City’s historic Hinchliffe Stadium.
A multi-purpose stadium with a rich history of hosting sporting events and other forms of entertainment, Hinchcliffe is perhaps most often recognized for its ties to Negro Leagues Baseball. Utilized as a home field for the New York Black Yankees, New York Cubans and Newark Eagles in the 1930s and ’40s, Hinchcliffe hosted countless legends of the game including Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Paterson’s own, the late Larry Doby.
An elite player for the Newark Eagles during his time in the Negro leagues, Doby earned baseball immortality when he broke the American League color barrier just three months after Jackie Robinson famously performed the same feat in the National League. Doby would go on to play for three different teams across 13 seasons in Major League Baseball, was named an All-Star seven times, had his number (14) retired by the Cleveland Guardians (formerly the Indians), became MLB’s second ever black manager in 1978 and was ultimately inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. Simply put: few people have had a greater impact on the game than Doby, and few ballparks can boast a legacy that’s on par with Hinchcliffe Stadium.
Having been shuttered since 1997, the magnitude of Hinchcliffe’s restoration/reopening has commanded extensive coverage by both local and national media outlets. A ribbon-cutting ceremony held the Friday before opening day was attended by a host of politicians, former players and celebrities including Cory Booker, Willie Randolph and Whoopi Goldberg. With all of the attention surrounding the project, we had been brimming with anticipation to take in a game and report back on our experience at the iconic park in Paterson.
Inside the Facility
The Hinchcliffe neighborhood redevelopment project is technically still a work in progress. Yet to come are a food court and the Charles J Muth museum, which will highlight the park’s history, especially its connection to the Negro Leagues. One thing that is irrefutable after attending opening day: the stadium, with its detailed restoration complete, looks incredible.
The internet is littered with pictures of the institution’s former state of disrepair prior to the start of the project. If you’ve never seen those images, just imagine a forest (riddled with debris and graffiti) emanating from the stands, and a cracked, badly-worn layer of blacktop covering the area where you’d expect to see the field of play. Considering the way it looked just a few years ago, the notion that Hinchcliffe could be brought back to life in its current form is all but inconceivable.
While many redevelopment projects fail to properly preserve historical sites, Hinchcliffe looks nearly identical to the images from its heyday. Apart from some modern amenities (updated bathrooms, scoreboard, etc.) and a few additions to the structure, visitors can’t help but feel the history as they walk around the classic, Art Deco venue.
Although Hinchliffe’s reopening, and the luring of a professional baseball team to Paterson, has been a seemingly positive story thus far, there are naysayers. Some of the biggest concerns raised by detractors (baseless or otherwise) have been related to logistics and security: ease of access to the stadium, parking, fan safety, etc. While the aforementioned issues could hypothetically deter potential visitors and thereby compromise the venue’s success, our recent visit certainly poked holes in the validity of those concerns.
Due to non-game-related traffic earlier in our commute to the stadium, we arrived at the parking deck (1 Jasper St.) adjacent to Hinchcliffe with just five minutes to spare before the first pitch. Anyone who has been to a professional sporting event will tell you that there’s not a shot in hell you’re finding parking, buying a ticket, passing through security and navigating to your seat in five minutes…and we didn’t. We did, however, do all of the above expeditiously enough to catch the final out of the top half of the first inning—a small miracle, really. Now, the attendance for opening day was nowhere near capacity but, nevertheless, a tip of the hat is due to stadium staff for their competence and professionalism.
Speaking of traffic: from our exit (56B) off Route 80 until roughly one block from the ballpark, the only backup we experienced was due to a stoplight, and that lasted less than a minute. The short drive through Paterson was without issue, and approaching the parking area (typically a slow creep in bumper-to-bumper traffic at any sporting event) was virtually smooth sailing—almost conspicuously easy. As for safety, and again we can only speak to our experience, there wasn’t a point during the game, our drive, walking to and from the parking lot, or exploring the inside/outside of the stadium where we felt even remotely unsafe. It’s also worth noting that from what we witnessed, the crowd (predominantly young families) moved in and around the park without issue or threat of any danger.
Peering out over the wall in left center field at a looming Garrett Mountain and the faint outline of New York City’s skyline in the distance, one can’t help but be impressed by the objectively striking views at Hinchcliffe—the surroundings added quite a bit to the overall enjoyment of a day game.
The cost, as is customary at minor league games, was a bargain: two tickets, two beers and parking in a deck next to the stadium (no more than a two-minute walk from the car to the ticket office) all for $60.
If we had to, for the sake of impartiality, provide one knock on an otherwise outstanding experience at Paterson’s historic park, it would be the field layout. Prior to this season, the NJ Jackals played home games at Yogi Berra Stadium on Montclair State University’s campus. While the park, named after former Yankee great and hall of famer Berra, can only hold 5,000 spectators, it’s a facility designed exclusively for baseball and offers fans optimal seating and sightlines for in-game viewing. Conversely, the larger Hinchcliffe Stadium—though teeming with cultural relevance and inextricably connected to the fabric of American baseball—is a multi-sport venue and not quite as accommodating for watching baseball as its counterpart on MSU’s campus.
The dimensions, abundance of poles and protective netting, makeshift barriers and odd angles are unfortunate but largely easy to ignore. The obstructed views and distance from the playing field in some sections are a tougher pill to swallow. For example, the most coveted tickets at every ballpark are the field level box seats, situated as close as possible to the field along the first or third baseline, or the scout seats behind home plate—this is not the case at Hinchcliffe. First of all, the layout of the track surrounding the field pits fans along the first baseline quite a distance from the action. Moreover, the absence of sunken dugouts means that the benches for both teams are located at field level and obstruct views from what should theoretically be the best seats in the house. We’d actually discourage buying front row seats at Hinchcliffe as the sightlines are far better from a little higher up. For our money, 5-7 rows behind the visitors’ dugout on the third baseline are where you want to be.
Does this mean that you can’t enjoy a baseball game at Hinchcliffe Stadium? Absolutely not. We had a great time and highly recommend scheduling your visit as soon as you can. Furthermore, while it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of sightlines or logistics, the most significant aspect of the stadium’s restoration—more pressing than history or any professional baseball agenda as far as we’re concerned—is its impact on the youth of Paterson.
Of course we want to see the NJ Jackals have great success for their sake; but our hopes are invested in their business mostly because if Hinchcliffe’s viability as a venue is secure, that ensures student athletes and their families will have an incredible resource (the Paterson school district is allotted 180 days per year to reserve the stadium for its high school teams), an athletic facility unlike any other, at their disposal for years to come. You can’t overestimate the profound influence a hub like Hinchcliffe can have on a community, particularly in a city like Paterson that has been routinely abused by the public and private sector alike for as long as any of us can remember.
With that in mind, we’re all big Jackals fans now and will return to Hinchcliffe every chance we get.