Penn Hills man wins battle with Baseball Hall of Fame for his great-uncle

Cooperstown plaque has wrong name inscribed for early 1900s player



Have you ever received an award that got your name wrong? Now imagine that award is a bronze plaque in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

That's a little of what Ron Hill has been dealing with for a year and a half, since discovering that his great-uncle, John Preston Hill aka Pete Hill, was one of the best hitters and all-around players of the early 1900s.

A star on some of the greatest early black teams -- the Cuban X-Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants -- he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 with 16 other African-Americans who loved the game and excelled at it, most long before Jackie Robinson won the right to play alongside white ballplayers in 1947.

But his plaque says "Joseph Preston Hill."

"We never heard of him," says Ron Hill, 64, his great-nephew from Penn Hills.

So no Hill descendant was in Cooperstown, N.Y., that day in 2006 when the plaque was unveiled. They might never have known they had such a famous relative -- or that his name, birth date and other biographical information were wrong -- if not for some sharp-eyed baseball historians and a cousin's love for genealogy.

Now, thanks to their research, Mr. Hill's determination and the genealogical sleuthing of a Virginia historian/journalist, the Hall of Fame announced in late July that it will commission a new, correct plaque and unveil it on Oct. 12 -- more than a century after John Preston Hill was born in Culpeper County, Va.

Mr. Hill, who sponsored a Wilkinsburg Little League team this year in his ancestor's honor, savored the news.

"They did what they had to do," he said. "He was the pioneer. If you don't talk about Pete Hill, you're only telling half of the history of baseball in Pittsburgh."

An obsession to correct error

Mr. Hill, a former college football player, Marine and commander at the Allegheny County Jail, is not a patient man. His disdain for bureaucracy and the baseball experts who dropped the ball while researching Pete Hill is obvious in conversation and in the many e-mails he has sent to officials and historians. Some no longer return his calls, including the Pirates, whom he has asked to erect a statue of Pete Hill beside those of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard and other Negro League stars at PNC Park.

Major Hill, as the retiree is still known, has several scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings, photos and documents to prove Pete Hill was his great Uncle John. He can't understand why it has taken baseball officials more than a year to acknowledge their mistakes. He knows his wait is minor compared with the 27 years it took the hall to fix Roberto Clemente's plaque (his mother's maiden name was in the wrong place). He can think of only one reason the errors weren't corrected sooner.

"Of course it's because he's black," he said days before the announcement. "It wouldn't take this long if Pete Hill was white."

Mr. Hill admits the Pete Hill campaign has become an obsession for him. It has given him a purpose and distracted him from the grief he has felt since Dec. 2, 2004, the day his 23-year-old son, Joseph Hill, was shot and killed in a drug deal gone bad. Not long after Joseph Hill's death, another son, former Penn Hills High School lineman Mike Hill, quit college and the football team and came home. The death was also a blow to Ron Hill's other sons, former Perry all-state defensive back Rasheen Hill and Montel Staples, former athletic director and boys basketball coach at Duquesne High School.

Mr. Hill says even he is a little surprised at the passion he now has for the relative he had never heard of until January 2009, when cousin Leslie Penn of Los Angeles, received an e-mail from a baseball researcher asking about the family tree he had found on www.ancestry.com.

Questions about plaque in 2007

Gary Ashwill, 42, an academic writer and freelance book editor from Durham, N.C., had been trying for years to find out more about Pete Hill. Agate Type, his baseball blog (http://agatetype.typepad.com/agate_type/pete-hill/) was the first to raise the question, "Is Pete Hill's hall of fame plaque wrong?" in April 2007.

Fellow researcher Patrick Rock, 55, a computer programmer/analyst from Overland, Kan., had found three pieces of evidence that Pete Hill's real first name was John and that he had been born in Virginia, not Pittsburgh, as indicated in the hall of fame's biography. Mr. Rock found a passenger manifest from a trip Hill made to Cuba to play ball in March 1916, his draft registration card from September 1918 and a listing in the 1920 U.S. Census that shows him living in Chicago.

The two researchers, who have never met and communicate mostly by e-mail, share a passion for baseball statistics and history.

"I started doing Negro League research because I was interested in statistics," Mr. Ashwill said. "Baseball is numbers, but there weren't many from the early 1900s, just some box scores in newspapers. ... I became really interested in the blank spaces."

Pete Hill was one of the biggest blanks. Later Negro League players and sportswriters raved about the outfielder's strong arm, hitting prowess and speed on the base paths. But his career ended before Gibson, Paige and other black ballplayers reached prominence.

Mr. Rock first stumbled upon Pete Hill while reading old newspaper accounts of his time as a player and manager of the Milwaukee Bears in 1923, near the end of his career.

"I realized what a great player he was, but nobody knew a lot about him biographically," he recalled.

As a volunteer researcher for the National Archives, Mr. Rock said he has received hugs and thank-yous from people he's helped find long-lost ancestors and relatives. But the thanks he has received from Ms. Penn and Mr. Hill are different. Mr. Rock said he might make the trip to Cooperstown to see the corrected plaque.

"I'll think, 'Yeah, I helped change that.' ... It's the human contact that's rewarding," he said.

Ms. Penn, 66, Mr. Hill's first cousin, feels indebted to Mr. Rock and Mr. Ashwill not only for revealing her uncle's baseball history but also for helping her trace her family's Virginia roots.

She began her family tree in 1999 with her grandfather, Walter Vaughn Hill, one of John P. Hill's two brothers. In the 1920 Chicago census, she noticed that her uncle had listed his profession as "baseball player," an unusual statement for a black man at a time when even white major leaguers had other jobs. She even had a faded family photograph of him in a baseball uniform. But she had no idea what an extraordinary player he was until Mr. Ashwill's e-mail arrived.

"To find out you have an uncle inducted into the hall of fame, I was just so excited," she said. "I passed it on to all my cousins. ... It's been an amazing journey."

Lorretta Hill of Lyndhurst, Ohio, Mr. Hill's sister, saw an immediate effect on her brother.

"He had been pretty down ... but once he got into Uncle Pete, it really changed him a lot," she said. "You can call it an obsession, but it's a good thing."

Help from a historian

Mr. Hill believed at first that the evidence collected by Mr. Ashwill, Mr. Rock and others would prompt the Hall of Fame to quickly change the plaque and the misinformation on its website. He even contacted members of the committee that had researched and selected Pete Hill and 16 others associated with black baseball for induction in 2006. He got nowhere until he e-mailed an editor at the Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent asking for help. They forward his e-mail to Zann Nelson, 61, who writes a weekly history column for the newspaper. She remembered receiving Mr. Hill's e-mail last August.

"I got very, very excited because it had everything to do with the history of Culpeper," she said. "Could I document that this family was from Culpeper? If I could, we could add yet another famous person" to a list of people who had lived or worked in the county, including George Washington, A.P. Hill, Clara Barton and Daniel Boone.

Many of Ms. Nelson's columns feature African-Americans, who often do not show up in birth records, deeds, tax rolls, wills and other documents used in genealogy.

"The injustice is that the lives of so many people, our African-American ancestors, have been obscured, obliterated," she said. "Anytime I can open somebody's eyes, bring a little more justice through knowledge, it's gratifying."

Ms. Nelson's three-part series on Pete Hill and his Virginia roots appeared on the front page of the paper in December. Within weeks, she was sharing her research with the hall of fame. In July, she received the John Coates Next Generation Award at the Society for American Baseball Research Negro Leagues Committee in Birmingham, Ala. Two weeks later, a hall of fame official called to tell her they planned to change the plaque.

Mr. Hill heard the news first from Ms. Nelson. He's thinking about chartering a bus to take Hill family members to Cooperstown, N.Y. in October.

"Seeing that plaque will put the icing on the cake," he said. "We will accept it as a family on behalf of him."

This month, Pete Hill will be honored in Pittsburgh, whose sandlots launched his baseball career. On Aug. 14, his great-nephew will present trophies he had made in his great-uncle's honor to the MVP of the Little League team he sponsored and three others in the city. Topped by bronze baseball gloves, each will have a plaque describing John Preston "Pete" Hill's career and information about other early black ballplayers.

As Mr. Hill hands them to the young players, he hopes they will be inspired to learn more about Pete Hill and others who paved the way for them. He makes only one promise:

You can be sure the names will be right.


Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978. First Published August 8, 2010 4:00 AM


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