The stories of John Allen Ellerbee and Paterson’s Hinchliffe Stadium were entwined from the beginning, even until May 26, 2013, when Ellerbee, who lived in Paterson for decades before retiring to Cape Cod, passed away at the age of 102.
During the Great Depression, Ellerbee was part of the crew that helped construct Hinchliffe Stadium, which today, despite its dilapidated condition, is one of the few remaining athletic facilities that played home to Negro League baseball.
After Hinchliffe was completed in 1932, Ellerbee manned third base for Paterson’s Smart Set, a semipro team that dated to at least 1923, when the New York Amsterdam News noted that the squad was looking to book contests against all comers, black and white. In Ellerbee’s time, the Smart Set lineup included future Baseball Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Monte Irvin.
The Smart Set was only a semipro franchise, so most team members worked additional, full-time jobs. Ellerbee, who moved to Paterson from his native South Carolina with his family as a youth, labored as a car washer. He and his wife Merrian and their children lived on Hamilton Avenue.
Meanwhile, Hinchliffe, poised on a hilltop within earshot of Paterson’s Great Falls, became one of the city’s social centers, its 10,000 seats often filled with Negro League baseball fans. The Newark Eagles, featuring Doby, frequently hosted other big-time squads there, and the New York Black Yankees used the facility as their home stadium in the mid-1930s. The stadium also was the scene of high-school football clashes, car races, boxing matches and, in its later years, concerts by acts such as Sly and the Family Stone.
Hinchliffe closed to the public in 1997 and slid into disrepair as the Paterson school district took over ownership. Today, its interior walls are covered with graffiti, its concrete walkways cracked and filled with weeds, its iron gates padlocked.
However, thanks to a grass-roots movement led by the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, the historic structure is on the verge of a revival. Paterson voters approved measures to rehabilitate the facility in a non-binding referendum in 2009, more than a decade after Preservation New Jersey named Hinchliffe one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic sites.
The movement to revitalize the structure gained momentum last year when the federal government designated Hinchliffe a National Historic Landmark—the only such facility with a history connected to baseball. A bill submitted by U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell to include the facility in Paterson’s Great Falls National Historic Park is awaiting action in the House of Representatives and $1 million in grants have been earmarked to stabilize the stadium and halt its deterioration.
That work is to begin this summer—but there’s still a long way to go. The tab for the entire rehabilitation of the facility has been estimated at $15 million. Supporters of the effort are optimistic the funds can be raised after such recent victories.
Brian LoPinto, president and co-founder of Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium, says the city of Paterson is hopeful it will receive the requested $1 million in grants for the initial work.* He adds that such progress will help the renovation project gain even more steam.
“What a landmark like Hinchliffe does is honor the past and remember the players and teams that played there,” he says. “Now we have an opportunity to give it another life because we hope the latest news will spur more donors for the effort.”
As Hinchliffe began its phoenix-like resurgence, local awareness of Ellerbee heightened—especially in the city’s close-knit African-American community—even as he spent his golden years on Cape Cod. Local journalist and activist Jimmy Richardson says Ellerbee cherished his connections with Hinchliffe and to Paterson.
“He was a man with a strong interest in sports, a very religious gentleman, and he had high standards of ethics,” Richardson says of Ellerbee. “His legacy in local baseball is very important.”
In March 2013, just two months before he died, Ellerbee took part in a telephone interview for WBGO’s SportsJam with Doug Doyle. “I had the highest batting average of anyone else,” he told Doyle as he recounted his playing days. “I’m not bragging on myself, just telling it like it was.”
Ellerbee wrapped up the conversation with a life lesson. “You have to believe in yourself to be good at anything,” he said. “I don’t have no regrets. I don’t look back. I keep looking forward. Whoever you are, be noble. Whatever you do, do well. Whenever you speak, speak kindly. Give joy wherever you dwell. That’s what I believe in.”
*This article has been updated for clarification.Click here to leave a comment