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For Pete’s sake

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One of the most rewarding aspects of reporting is the relationships built while writing about people, especially when you spend a decade covering sports in your hometown.

To explain how I came upon Thursday’s column on Pete Hill, a Negro Leagues star from Homewood who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, requires some background on his great-nephew.

I met Ron Hill back in 1999, my first year covering high school sports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His son, Joe, was a starting offensive lineman for Penn Hills, which was undefeated heading into a regular-season finale against a Woodland Hills team that starred Shawntae Spencer.

As I got to know Ron over the years, I learned that he played football for Pete Dimperio at Westinghouse and at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the 1960s. He also is the father of Montel Staples — who I covered plenty when he was the athletic director and boys basketball coach at Duquesne High — and former Perry all-state defensive back Rasheen Hill.

Ron’s youngest son would become a standout defensive lineman for Penn Hills. Mike Hill was a Terrific 25 selection as a senior who signed a scholarship with Toledo but never played Division I football. Mike’s football career was sidetracked by the death of his older brother Joe, who was shot and killed in December 2004.

Since then, life hadn’t been the same for Ron Hill — until he happened upon the information that his great uncle was not just a ballplayer but one of the greatest outfielders in Negro Leagues history who was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame.

What adds intrigue to the story is that recent research shows that Pete Hill’s name appears to be misidentified on his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y. As one of Pete Hill’s surviving descendants, Ron Hill is hellbent on righting that wrong and making sure his relative is remembered.

“He has a purpose now,” said Leslie Penn, Hill’s cousin and a great-niece of Pete Hill. “He had lost some of that zest and zeal. He’s been grieving for a long time, and he always will. He’s on a mission.”

That mission started when Penn, a Peabody grad, retired from her job with Von’s Grocery Co. a decade ago. She started researching her family tree, and was contacted through Ancestry.com by baseball blogger Gary Ashwill, who runs this Web site and shared the news about Pete Hill’s claim to fame and, in the process, helped Penn learn more about her lineage.

“The fascination for me truly is the family history,” Penn said. “The fact that Pete Hill is who is who he is, it’s commendable. The research Gary did found Pete’s father and mother and her maiden name. I was able to go back two more generations.”

When Penn shared this news with her cousin, Ron Hill, he started spending countless hours researching Pete Hill and the Negro Leagues, finding photographs on Ashwill’s blog and stories in black newspapers.
Ron Hill was fascinated to learn that legend has it that his great uncle — one of his grandfather’s two brothers, whom relatives simply spoke of as John Hill — spent winters playing against Ty Cobb in Havana.

“My relative played against Ty Cobb? That in itself is a story,” Hill said. “We talk a lot of baseball around here, but how many people in Pittsburgh have a relative in the Hall of Fame? I didn’t know until eight months ago.”

Adds Penn: “I have been so pumped since all of this has been uncovered for me. I am forever grateful. It’s wonderful to know that I have an uncle that was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s hurtful that I didn’t realize he was an uncle and he was who he was. Here he was honored and there was a family member there when he was honored.”

To the dismay of Ron Hill and Leslie Penn, however, they learned that their relative is misidentified on his Hall of Fame plaque. In Cooperstown, he is known as Joseph Preston Hill instead of his given name of John Preston Hill. That is a mistake they are vigorously trying to have corrected, partly because it cost Hill’s family members a chance to attend his induction ceremony.

“Names are very important. My name is Leslie Penn, not Lester. His name is John Hill, not Joseph,” Penn said. “His family didn’t know who this Joseph was, and he has a lot of family. … I don’t understand how the Hall of Fame could have this information that his name is not correct. That blows me away. How much research did they do?”

Apparently, not nearly as much as Zann Nelson did.

Nelson is a historian and contributing writer for the Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent who spent six months researching Pete Hill. Through documents such as ship manifests, marriage licenses, death certificates, wills and deeds, not only did she discover that his name is misidentified on the Hall of Fame plaque but that his birthdate and birthplace also are wrong.

Last week, Nelson wrote a three-part series that traces the family ties to Culpeper County and lays its claim as the birthplace of Pete Hill:

Part I: Correcting history
Part II: The mystery unravels
Part III: Digging deeper

Nelson has sent copies of her research to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it will be placed into Pete Hill’s official file.

“I don’t think anybody is going to be able to refute the documentation,” Nelson said. “Often in these older records, you’re off by a year or two on year of birth. This is clearly documented.”

When I spoke with Brad Horn, the Hall of Fame’s senior director of communications and education, he was reluctant to concede that Hill’s plaque is indeed wrong but admitted such a mistake would be considered an “egregious error” and would be corrected.

Hill was one of 17 former Negro Leagues players and executives to earn election in 2006, and Horn said that it was based primarily on statistical evidence. The discovery that Hill’s first name is misidentified would be embarrassing to the Hall of Fame’s reputation as a historical museum.

Horn said the Hall will conduct its own research of Hill’s history to determine his correct name, which could take “months, if not years.”

“The issue that arose last week deals primarily with lineage and heritage,” Horn said. “The emergence of new research is not new — and it’s always something that has driven baseball history. Based on one report, the institution is not ready to declare that they have made a claim that is correct.

“If this is true, that is a discussion that must take place. It is certainly something that is a positive because with emergence of new information comes new insight to players.”

As an historian, Nelson understands the discrepancy but is disappointed that the Baseball Hall of Fame could drag its feet in correcting the issue.

“When you think about it, they were inducting 17 with rather obscure records, so they’re going to focus on finding as complete of record of baseball stats as they can,” Nelson said. “It has taken me six months to unearth this information, and this is just one person, Pete Hill.”

But one person with a family focused on fixing that fact.

This is a story that isn’t ending, but rather just beginning.

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