by Allison Brophy Champion
CULPEPER, Va. (AP)—When the National Baseball Hall of Fame recasts the plaque of Negro League standout and Culpeper native “Pete” Hill later this year, changing his given name and birthplace, it will officially give Culpeper County its second inductee into the game’s most sacred institution.
In addition, the Hall of Fame will concurrently update Hill’s library file to fix his birth year.
“New information has shown that the genealogical information and history of his birth were not correct,” said Brad Horn, senior director of communications and education at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The organization’s formal acknowledgement of the new data is based on a packet of documentation and source materials Culpeper historian Zann Nelson submitted to them in January, following six months of intense research that included field visits to the local mountainside hamlet where Hill was born.
“What this does is shed new light on the person of Pete Hill,” said Horn, adding, “Zann’s research was excellent.”
In shedding that light, Culpeper can now officially lay claim to its second Hall of Famer, John Preston “Pete” Hill, born circa 1884, the son of former slaves, in the rural community of Buena, near Rapidan in the county’s southeastern corner.
|CAST IN BRONZE —This handout photo from the National Baseball Hall of Fame is the bronze Hall of Fame plaque of Pete Hill. Hill was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, July 30, 2006 in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Eppa Rixey, a White National League ballplayer born 1891 in the town of Culpeper, was inducted into Hall of Fame in 1963, two months before his death.
Hill was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 2006, more than five decades after his death in 1951. He went by the nickname Pete and was considered one of the greatest outfielders and hitters in Negro League history.
“He was a hit machine,” noted baseball historian Phil Dixon at the time of his induction.
During his 20-year career, Hill, standing a powerful 6-1 and weighing 215 pounds, hit better than .300 eight times and twice topped .400.
“I’m yet to find a box score in which he doesn’t have a hit,” Dixon said.
When Hill finally got his due from the Hall of Fame four years ago along with 16 other Negro League Players he was erroneously named “Joseph” on his plaque. Further, Hall of Fame library records and research reported that he was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1880.
Baseball researchers from around the country have sought to right Hill’s personal Hall of Fame information for years, but it wasn’t until Nelson picked up the trail that things started happening.
Former director of the Museum of Culpeper History, Nelson wrote a comprehensive three-part series, “Correcting History,” for the Star-Exponent and starexponent.com in December, documenting indisputable evidence that Joseph Hill was actually John Hill and that he was born in the rural south and not in urban Pittsburgh.
“I am just ecstatic about being part of something that rights a pretty significant inaccuracy significant in the sense that this was a real, living human being,” Nelson said. “When the wrong name and wrong birthplace are given, the individual’s true heritage is eradicated.”
Ron Hill of Penn Hills, Pa., the great-nephew of Pete Hill, agreed.
“Up to this point, I didn’t know where we came from,” said the retired major with the Allegheny County Jail. “It has brought a lot of closeness to our family.”
Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, Ron Hill had heard about a baseball player somewhere in the family tree, but never knew the extent of his great-uncle’s achievements.
In fact, Pete Hill started his career with the Pittsburgh Keystones in 1899 before joining the Cuban X-Giants in 1901. The child of Lizzie Seals and Reuben Washington Hill, Pete, by 1900, had left his Virginia birthplace on the side of Cedar Mountain the same name as the Civil War battle that occurred nearby in 1862 and was living in Pittsburgh with his mother, stepfather and two brothers, census records show. Lizzie Seals was born 1857 in Orange County, just south of Culpeper, likely into slavery, contended Nelson.
“I cannot find her father or Pete’s grandfather on his father’s side living as freemen in the 1860 census,” she said. “If they were free, they would have been listed.”
Nelson believes Hill’s humble roots drove him to work harder, to do what was necessary to achieve more, even if meant leaving home.
“They had their eyes set on something a whole lot better, and that is what they kept focusing on,” she said of struggles faced by Blacks in the newly emancipated South, and later the restrictive Jim Crow years.
“They went where the work was where they could get an education. It’s those kinds of characteristics perseverance and resilience that were instilled in Pete and his siblings.”
Ron Hill said today’s youth should embrace the example of his great-uncle.
“Children today should be able to go out there and do anything,” he said. “He came out of nothing and made something of himself his mother was only 20 years out of slavery when she came to Pittsburgh.”
Life in the North wasn’t easy for Black ballplayers of the time either, Ron Hill said, describing how if they wanted to eat in area restaurants, they had to go around back.
“It was rough these guys went through hell,” he said.
Nevertheless, many in the Negro League like Pete Hill accumulated impressive stats on the field. An outfielder for the Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants, Hill was a “giant among Giants,” the Hall of Fame described “one of the greatest line-drive hitters of his era.”
As captain of the legendary Leland Giants, he helped lead them to a record of 123 wins and six losses. With Philadelphia, he participated in two league championships.
Hill also starred in the Cuban Winter League, playing against major league clubs, including the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb.
Pete Hill “could do anything a White player can do,” the Chicago Defender wrote in 1910. “He can hit, run, throw and is what is termed a wise, heady ballplayer.”
Hill ended his baseball career in 1925 as manager/player with the Baltimore Black Sox and a career batting a
verage of .326. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ron Hill sponsors the Pittsburgh Black Sox, a Little League team.
In the 1920s, census records show Pete Hill living in Chicago with his wife, Gertrude, and son Kenneth. By 1930, he was divorced and living in Buffalo, N.Y., working as a railroad porter, which he did until his death some 20 years later, Nelson found.
There, the trail of Pete Hill goes cold. Many of the same researchers dedicated to correcting the story of Hill’s roots are now focused on determining his final resting place. His death certificate only says that he was buried in Chicago.
Researchers contend Hill is the only Hall of Famer whose burial site is unknown, though Horn, the organization’s communications and education director, said it is not uncommon for older inductees, particularly 19th century stars, to have unknown death sites.
Either way, the fact that the Hall of Fame will verify and correct Hill’s first name and birthplace will hopefully go a long way in the search for his grave, a search that may include help from PBS’s “History Detectives,” according to Nelson.
For now, the focus remains on what is to come in John “Pete” Hill’s legacy, that is, the unveiling of a new plaque Oct. 12, his birthday, in Cooperstown. When inducted the first time, no family members or supporters were present because Joseph Hill was unknown to them.
This time, various family members from around the country plan to travel to New York for the redo. Relatives from Los Angeles, Boston, Ohio and Pennsylvania came to Culpeper last month to retrace their ancestor’s steps, proudly embracing their history.
Horn said this is not the first time the Hall of Fame has recast a plaque. It’s the third this decade alone.
In 2008, the Hall of Fame redid Jackie Robinson’s to reflect the star hitter for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ contributions to breaking the race barrier.
In 2000, the plaque of Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente Walker was redone to reflect Walker, his mother’s maiden name, as his last name. It was previously cast as Roberto Walker Clemente.
“It’s important to have this information correct,” Horn said, noting Hill’s plaque was cast in 2006 using the best available information at the time. He said all the changes to Hill’s history would be made in unison.
Kent State University professor Leslie Heaphy has written extensively on the Negro Leagues, including articles referring to Pete Hill as Joseph Hill from Pittsburgh. She said last week that Nelson’s updated information “continues to fill in the gaps of the Negro Leagues’ history, especially the earlier years.”
“It is always important to try to be as accurate as possible with our understanding of history and facts,” she said. “We need to keep checking and finding new information and updating what we know so we are always learning.”