Gorman: For Pete's sake, Hill family seeks truth
Ron Hill showed little interest in his family tree, at least not until learning his great uncle was a former Negro Leagues star inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in July 2006.
Pete Hill of Homewood, who died more than a half-century ago, entered the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum with little fanfare and no family present — and with a glaring error that his descendants are determined to correct.
Recent research has revealed the Hall of Fame plaque honoring their uncle bears the wrong first name. Hill, who played under the nickname Pete, is identified as Joseph Preston Hill instead of John Preston Hill, a mistake that could be unprecedented in a museum that honors the hall's 291 members.
The discovery of his Hall of Fame relative has revitalized Ron Hill, a retired major at the Allegheny County Jail who hasn't been the same since his 23-year-old son — coincidentally, named Joseph Hill — was killed in 2004.
"Ever since my son died, I've been standoffish," said Hill, 62, of Penn Hills. "Since this came up, it gave me a new outlook. I have a relative who is forgotten and no one to speak for him, so I'm speaking for him."
Ron Hill has made rectifying the error in his uncle's plaque a passion project. Pete Hill blazed a trail for Negro Leagues greats despite coming from a family only a generation removed from slavery, and Hill sees his great uncle as representative of the American dream.
Pete Hill starred for the Pittsburgh Keystones at the turn of the 20th century, is called "the catalyst and captain of the great Chicago American Giants clubs of the 1910s" on his Hall of Fame plaque and was described as "the greatest hitter in black baseball history" by baseball historian Phil Dixon.
His descendants, however, knew of their great uncle only as John Hill.
"His family didn't know who this 'Joseph' was, and he has a lot of family," said Pete Hill's great niece, Leslie Penn, 65, a Peabody High graduate who lives in Los Angeles. "The family history is a passion for me. Pete Hill is an obsession for my cousin Ron Hill."
Zann Nelson, former director of the Museum of Culpeper (Va.) History, spent six months poring over ship passenger manifests, census records and courthouse documents to prove that John Preston "Pete" Hill was born in Virginia in the 1880s before moving here and that the Hall plaque misidentifies his name.
"It's about the truth, the truth about invisible people, the people that history has either forgotten or obscured," said Nelson, who wrote a three-part series on Pete Hill last week for the Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent. "Pete's story is interwoven in our American history, about slavery, about emancipation, about the Great Migration, about the birth of black baseball."
The series wasn't enough to convince the Baseball Hall of Fame to make an immediate correction to Hill's plaque, spokesman Brad Horn said. Hill was one of 17 people to receive a special induction after a five-year study by the Negro Leagues Research and Authors Group, which Horn said focused mostly on baseball statistical evidence to determine candidates.
Horn said it could take "months, if not years" to determine that Pete Hill's given name is incorrect, although he admits that such a revelation would fall under the category of an "egregious error" and would be corrected.
"It certainly is a positive because both baseball and our institution are based on research, and they've got emerging information," said Horn, the Hall's senior director of communications and education. "The fact that people are continuing to research players who were born in the 1880s, such as Pete Hill, is fascinating. If it's research that could have been prevented, it's disappointing. But at the time of induction, this research was the best available."
That isn't a satisfactory explanation for Ron Hill, who also wants the Pirates to place a Pete Hill statue in the Highmark Legacy Square at the left-field entrance to PNC Park and the Heinz History Center to put a display honoring Hill in its Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
"What's important to me is, this is a Pittsburgh guy who is forgotten," Ron Hill said. "The people of Pittsburgh should know who he is. I want my relatives and their kids and their kids to know that they have a Hall of Famer in the family who came from the South and dealt with all the racism and still became a great ballplayer. No matter your situation, you can make it in the United States. I want that to be the legacy for the Hill family."
For Pete's sake, he's on a mission to make amends.