John Preston 'Pete' Hill had storied career in black baseball
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John Preston "Pete" Hill was not born in Pittsburgh in 1880, as it incorrectly says in the Baseball Hall of Fame's official biography. But he did move to Homewood as a boy with his family and learned the game on local sandlots. Here is what we now know of his life and career, thanks to the efforts of historians past and present.
He was born on Oct. 12, 1882 (or maybe '83 or '84 -- he listed different ages on documents), in Buena, a Culpeper County hamlet hard by railroad tracks in northwestern Virginia. He was one of three sons born to Lizzie Seals and Reuben W. Hill, although there is no birth certificate.
The births of blacks in the late 1800s often weren't recorded, said Zann Nelson, a history columnist for the Culpeper Star-Exponent and former director of the local history museum. Her research into Mr. Hill's roots offers a glimpse into the migration of black families from Virginia to the North in search of work in the mid- to late 1800s.
In a three-part series that appeared in her newspaper in December, Ms. Nelson discusses how the proximity of the railroad -- with its porter jobs and access to black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier -- lured black Virginians north. Steel mills did the same in the 1910s and '20s, drawing black families from many Southern states, including that of Josh Gibson, the legendary Negro Leagues slugger, who came as a boy to Pittsburgh's North Side with his family from Buena Vista, Ga.
Ms. Nelson is particularly fascinated with Mr. Hill's mother, who arrived in Pittsburgh in the late 1880s, according to family history.
"This woman, born a slave, had three boys -- I'm not sure if she was married to their father -- and relocates herself and her three children hundreds of miles away in an environment that is different than anything she's ever known.
"How many of us have the courage -- or maybe it was desperation -- to make such a dramatic change? It made a world of difference in the life of her family and in the life of Pete Hill."
Pittsburgh was a hotbed of baseball talent then, and young John made a name for himself with his bat and strong arm. In 1899, as a 16- or 17-year-old, he broke in as a professional with the Pittsburgh Keystones, one of several teams with that name.
Mr. Hill first appears officially in the 1900 U.S. census as a 17-year-old day laborer living at 7221 Susquehanna St. in Homewood with his two older brothers -- Jerome B. and Walter V. Hill (Ron Hill's grandfather) -- his mother and her husband of seven years, a barber named John T. Reynolds.
In 1901 and 1902, he played outfield for the Cuban X-Giants, a New York City-based team that, despite its name, had no Cuban players. In 1903, he joined the Philadelphia Giants, a rising power in the East.
This was the time he began to use the nickname "Pete" to distinguish himself from an infielder named John Hill. Both Hills played for the Cuban X-Giants and Philadelphia Giants and both are mentioned in "Sol White's Official Guide: History of Colored Base Ball," published in 1907. King Solomon "Sol" White, a player and manager who had Mr. Hill on the Philadelphia Giants from 1903 to '07, names him as one of the 14 best all-around players in the "colored profession." He seems to be the sort of player Mr. White prefers -- solid, dependable and quiet:
"The ballplayer with the nerve on the inside does but little talking about what he is going to do, but just watch the man when it comes to the game depending on quick action and he is invariably there."
Another baseball man who clearly respected Mr. Hill was Andrew "Rube" Foster, a standout pitcher who joined the Philadelphia Giants in 1904 and later started the first successful Negro League. Their friendship lasted for the rest of Mr. Hill's career. In 1908, Mr. Hill followed Mr. Foster to the Leland Giants of Chicago and then become a linchpin of Mr. Foster's Chicago American Giants.
Author Phil S. Dixon says Mr. Hill's "slashing left-handed hitting" tormented opposing pitchers, especially in 1905, when his Philadelphia Giants won at least 128 games and lost only 23. Mr. Hill tallied 198 hits in 113 games and ranked among team leaders in stolen bases, doubles and home runs, Mr. Dixon says in his book "Great Teams: The 1905 Philadelphia Giants" (Xlibris, $19.99). In 1911, while playing for the American Giants, Mr. Hill got hits in 115 of 116 games.
Sometime in 1906 or '07, he wed the former Gertrude Lawson, and in 1909, while living in Chicago, they had one son, Kenneth, who died in 2001 in Gary, Ind. According to several ship manifests, Mr. Hill sometimes took his wife with him when he played winter ball in Cuba for six seasons. From 1919 to 1925, at Mr. Foster's request, he played and managed the Detroit Stars, Milwaukee Bears and Baltimore Black Sox. His lifetime batting average was .326.
In 1930, divorced and retired, Mr. Hill moved to Buffalo, N.Y., to work as a porter for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. Living nearby and also working for the railroad was his former teammate, Grant "Home Run" Johnson, who may have helped him form a minor league team, the Buffalo Red Caps. Mr. Hill died on Dec. 19, 1951. The death certificate said his body was sent to Chicago for burial, but no one has been able to find his grave. Upon hearing of his death, sportswriter Frank A. "Fay" Young wrote in The Chicago Defender:
"Pete Hill, the grand old man of baseball and one of the top outfielders of Rube Foster's original American Giants ... died Wednesday of last week in Buffalo, N.Y. ...
"Still fresh in our memory was the seventh and deciding game between the Leland Giants and the American Giants back in the early days. Foster's team won 1-0 in 10 innings. Two men on base ... Pete Hill took a three and two count and belted one sharply to center. The hit and run play was on and (Pat) Dougherty raced across the plate with the winning run.
"Good old Pete Hill. Always able to deliver in the pinches."
First Published August 8, 2010 12:00 am