Buried Truth: Pilgrimage to Cooperstown

Hill Family at the “Pete” Hill Day program in front of the corrected plaque.

One might have called it a pilgrimage as it certainly felt like one. Cooperstown, N.Y. is an out-of-the-way place not easily accessed. The residents fondly state, “six months out of the year it is difficult, but the other six it is an impossible destination.”

However, it was early October 2010, the weather crisply pleasant and the fall leaves in their height of glory. Visitors were arriving from faraway places to revel in “Pete” Hill Day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF).

The months and months of research had been confirmed and the leadership at the HoF had ordered a new plaque for Pete correcting his given name from Joseph (as inducted) to John, the one given him by his parents. They also corrected his place of birth, erroneously recorded there as Pittsburgh, to the actual home place of the Hill and Seals family in Buena, Culpeper County, Va. The unveiling was scheduled for October 12, Pete’s birthday.

They came from Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and, of course, Culpeper: family, friends and ardent researchers. It felt every bit as exhilarating as winning the World Series.

I often laugh at the image of the 2006 induction ceremony where there were no Pete Hill family members or hardcore fans present to celebrate this lifetime achievement. Hey, I am not sure at all that Joseph Preston “Pete” Hill born in Pittsburgh had any descendants or any over-the-top sports fans.

But Oct. 12, 2010, was an entirely different story! Everyone from fans to family, researchers inside and outside of the HoF, and even large numbers of unknowing strangers witnessed a life-changing correction to the record.

Jeff Idelson, president of the HoF, opened the ceremony in the plaque gallery with a detailed accounting of Pete’s baseball career and closed with a personal commitment to historical accuracy.

The actual installation of the new plaque was accompanied by more quieter emotional reflection than boisterous fanfare, but was quickly followed by media interviews, cameras flashing and congratulations all around.

The individual and collective spirits of triumph were overflowing and the festivities continued during a small private reception hosted by the HoF in the HoF library.

The final event of the day was a panel discussion held in the Bullpen Theatre on the subjects of Negro and pre-Negro League baseball, Pete Hill and the research that had brought everyone together for this most memorable occasion.

It is nearly impossible to prioritize the moments by meaningfulness, but it certainly was no small moment for me to sit with Jim Gates, director of the HoF library, and Eric Strohl, senior director of museum exhibits and collections, as we presented and discussed our separate yet collaborative work on bringing the human story to baseball, particularly that of John Preston “Pete” Hill.

It was a day never to be forgotten and my most fervent hope is that it will shine as a beacon to others to never give up!

Previously published in the Orange County Review on June 29, 2018.

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