Last of the Old Negro League Ballparks
I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Negro Leagues. Recently, I was wondering about which of the old Negro League parks, if any, were still in existence. I suspected that only a small handful have survived through the years. That turned out to be an accurate assessment. Here’s some information about the last three Negro League ballparks, either still in use or at least having escaped the wrecking ball, in which Negro League players used to regularly ply their trade.
To be clear, if you search online you will find several other venues that once hosted Negro League players or teams at one time or another. I chose not to list several of them because they were merely locations where Negro League teams simply barnstormed through on the circuit, or they have been so modified that almost none of the original field exists (Ammon Field, now Josh Gibson Field in Pittsburgh, comes to mind), or at best sketchy evidence that Negro League teams played there at all (West Field in Munhall, PA.) Having said that, if you come across credible information that I’ve missed a significant Negro League home ballpark which still stands, by all means let me know.
1) Hamtramck Stadium: 3201 Dan St. Hamtramck, MI (a part of the Detroit metro area.) Built by Detroit Stars owner John Roesink in 1930. A brick, steel and concrete structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Most famous player who called this park home: Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes. Hosted the 1930 Negro National League Championship Series, which Detroit lost to the St. Louis Stars. Other Negro Leaguers who played here include Mule Suttles, Josh Gibson, Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell.
Though a short 315 feet down the left-field line to the wall, it was a very deep 415 feet to right-field, and a cavernous 515 feet to center. The park originally held between 8,000-9,000 customers. The original metal grandstand still stands. The park was used by local Little League teams in the 1950’s, and later by teams from the local Catholic high schools. Once those schools closed, the park was left abandoned. It hasn’t been used at all for the past few years, though structurally, it is still sound. The pitcher’s mound and the original flagpole are also still there.
2) Rickwood Field: 1137 2nd Avenue West, Birmingham, Alabama. Opened its doors in 1910 (making it older than either Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.) First pitch, first game: August 18, 1910, 3:30 p.m. Named for team owner Harvey “Rick” Woodward. Seating capacity: 10,800. Deepest part of the park: 399 to left-center. Outfield fence has twice been destroyed by tornadoes. Originally the home of the Birmingham Black Barons.
A’s owner Charlie Finley leased the park from 1967-75 for the Double-A minor league Birmingham A’s. Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Willie Mays each played at one time in their careers for the Black Barons. The Black Barons played their final game in 1963.
Until 1987, the Chicago White Sox Double-A affiliate, the Barons, called Rickwood home before eventually moving out to the suburbs.
It is 90 feet from home-plate to the backstop at Rickwood Field. Thus passed balls and wild pitches could be exceptionally dangerous.
The first legally integrated game at Rickwood for both players and fans took place on April 17, 1964. A representative of the Ku Klux Klan promised that his boys would not make any trouble that day.
Interestingly, Rickwood Field actually has a blog on WordPress.com. Here’s the link:
Today, Rickwood Field is maintained by the Friends of Rickwood who continue to work on restoring this facility which hosts exhibition games for local amateur and semipro teams. Some scenes from the 2012 film, “42” were filmed in this park.
3) Hinchliffe Stadium: Patterson, New Jersey. As with the previous two stadiums, this one is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Hinchliffe Stadium first opened in 1932. It was the home of both the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans.
In its prime, Hinchliffe held up to 10,000 fans, though sometimes even more crammed the place for special events. Hinchliffe was also used for football, boxing and even auto racing.
An oval-shaped park similar to the L.A. Coliseum or New York’s old Polo Grounds, the distance to straightaway center-field was 460 feet from home-plate. One member of the Black Yankees, George Crowe, was called up to play for the Major League Boston Braves in 1952.
In 1957, playing in place of the injured Ted Kluszewski, Crowe slugged 31 homers and drove in 92 runs in 133 games, at age 36. Many other fine Negro League stars played at Hinchliffe as well, though official records are generally incomplete.
The Black Yankees left in 1948, an ironic victim of desegregation in Major League Baseball.
Today Hinchliffe Stadium is the property of the Patterson, N.J. school system, though no games have been played on this field since 1997. The Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium continue to try to raise funds to renovate the park for potential future uses, and to preserve this historic place for posterity.
There are many more excellent photos of Hinchliffe Stadium at this link:
If you would like to donate to the Friends of Hinchliffe, here’s a link to their website:
This beautifully written, as always, and very interesting. Honestly, this something I hadn’t thought about, and if you’d asked me, I would have guessed that NONE of the original fields existed in anything resembling their original form. It’s nice that a few are still around.
I think it’s also interesting to note that Michael Jordan would have only been a few years too late to play in Rickwood during his baseball stint.
Hey Smak, Glad to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words. I hadn’t thought about the Michael Jordan angle, but that’s interesting to note. I’d like to get down to Rickwood someday, while it’s still around.
Thanks, as always, for stopping by.
League Park in Cleveland, home to the Cleveland Buckeyes, still has a portion of its structure standing.
Thanks for the update. Much appreciated and very helpful.
And thanks for stopping by,
We drove to Birmingham from southwest Florida for Rickwood Field’s 100th anniversary. Unfortunately it was a rainy day, and the scheduled game had to be cancelled. Even in the rain it was a special place.
Hello, Hilda, Too bad that your game got cancelled, but I’m glad you got to see the historic park. I think I’ll try to take a drive down there sometime in the next few months and see the place. I appreciate the comment.
Nothing creepier than photos of abandoned ballparks — I’m sorry now that I didn’t get up to Hamtramck back when I was living in the region. It’s a shame that more can’t be done to preserve this heritage. Several years ago, ESPN Classic hosted a Negro Leagues memorial game at Rickwood, using collegiate/semipro players — Jim Bouton managed one of the teams and Chuck D. from Public Enemy helped call the game. Was a lot of fun to watch, though without any professional involvement, the game itself was largely unmemorable… too bad that in-season exhibition games starring MLB teams have disappeared, because such an exhibition game really could/should become an annual event…
Yes, it is too bad that there are no longer any in-season exhibition games. Playing them at a venue like Rickwood would be a great way to call attention to the heritage of the game, and it would just be a nice break from the regular season. All of which means it’ll probably never happen. Too bad, though. And yes, old abandoned ballparks are a bit creepy. But then again, so too are abandoned factories, mental hospitals, malls, etc. Certainly a lot of them around.
Thanks for reading, and for the comment,
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Thanks again for the link!
Great work regarding the few surviving Negro League parks. And thank you for including Rickwood Field in your survey, and for contacting our blog. I will add this article as a post on our blog.
Perhaps I misunderstood your observation regarding Rickwood being originally the home of the BBB, but in fact, Rick Woodward in 1910 built the park as a home park for his team, the Birmingham Barons, and then in 1920 entered into a business relationship with the BBB allowing them to rent Rickwood as their home field when his team was away. But the park remained first and foremost the homepark of his team, the Barons. The BBB fielded their last team at Rickwood in 1963, with the return of the Barons in ’64 as an integrated squad. The Barons then ultimately left the park following the completion of the ’87 season.
Thanks again, and keep up the great work. David
Hello David, I’m so glad, and honored, that you stopped by to read my blog-post. I really appreciate you setting the record straight for me. I’m sure my readers will also appreciate the clarification. Also, thanks for linking my blog to yours. I’d love to get down to Rickwood Park someday. I’m sure it would be a great experience.
Again, thanks very much,
It might be fitting for the few parks left to be in varying states of disrepair, given that the Negro Leagues were never an especially solid institution, and from what I’ve heard few of the teams were on stable footing year to year. Rickwood seems to be the one park most likely to remain standing. It’s hard to see Hamtramck or Hinchcliffe being rebuilt when you consider the pressing needs and lack of surplus funds in their regions.
Well, you’ve hit the nail on the head as far as funding is concerned. It will take a great deal of effort, time and money to raise the funds that will be needed to not only fix up Hamtramck and Hinchliffe, but to continue to maintain them. Then the question becomes, what specifically would they be maintained for? Would they be turned into museums? Would they try to attract low-level minor league teams or semi-pro teams to relocate to their venues? Big questions.
Anyway, thanks for reading, and for the comment.
The irony is that if Paterson and Detroit had prospered over the past few decades, both parks would have been torn down for some sort of development a long time ago. They could host farm clubs for the Tigers and Phillies/Mets/Yankees, or independent league teams-remember Rickey Henderson ending his pro career in Newark?
That’s an interesting point, and almost certainly true. I do remember Henderson hanging on into his 40’s in Newark. Guess no one can say he didn’t love playing baseball.
A very interesting topic Bill, one not discussed very often. You did some great research here and that will hopefully lead to further research and reverse your excellent insight…”an ironic victim of desegregation in Major League Baseball.” Of course, Negro League baseball will probably never return, but there’s been a recent surge of interest in baseball within the African American community and playing on the fields you’ve uncovered here would be meaningful I think..
Thanks very much, Steve. It’s a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. I’m thinking of pursuing it further, not necessarily in a blog post, but I’m thinking of trying to contact some of the people involved in the restorations for an interview.
Maybe Gary could work some of his magic tongue and get them to talk.
Might not be necessary, but no one does it better than Gary!
Great job, Bill. Nice pix of each place. Sorry to see them in their current condition (except for the one in Birmingham, of course). I wonder how many black kids living near these places know what happened in them.
BTW you might check with the Negro League Museum website. They hopefully have a list of still standing Negro League parks.
Thanks, V. You’re right. I should check with the museum website. Good question about what the local population knows about the history of the old parks around them. The one in Patterson, N.J. might be well-known because there has been a lot of local publicity about it, and for some reason, it’s owned by the local department of education.