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Baseball Hall of Famer Pete Hill gets a new plaque

Ron Hill stared at the shiny plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame gallery and sighed.

"History is now complete," Hill said.

Sitting just behind Hill, Zann Nelson fought back tears.

"It's overwhelming, just overwhelming," she said. "This family had no idea. It's pretty cool that these pieces are coming together."

Four years after he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, former Negro Leagues star John Preston "Pete" Hill was honored Tuesday on what probably would have been his 126th birthday with a new plaque that corrects his proper name and place of birth.

It was the culmination of a personal crusade taken up by Nelson and Ron Hill, a great nephew of the former slugger who had no idea he was related until long after his great uncle was inducted four years ago.

"We always knew we had an uncle named John, but we never knew how great he was as a ballplayer," Ron Hill said. "Once I jumped on that bandwagon, it hasn't stopped."

Pete Hill was a star outfielder for several black teams, including the Philadelphia Giants and Chicago American Giants. He also captained the Leland Giants, who finished the 1910 season with a record of 123-6, and he was a slugger. Hill hit 28 home runs for the Detroit Stars in 1919, the same year Babe Ruth hit 29 while playing in more games.

Hill, who died in Buffalo, N.Y., at age 69, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. His plaque read Joseph Preston Hill with the nickname "Pete" and cited his place of birth as Pittsburgh.

Questions about the accuracy of the plaque arose almost overnight. In 2007, amateur baseball historians Gary Ashwill in North Carolina and Patrick Rock in Kansas uncovered new information on Hill's name and birthplace, which they pegged to be somewhere in Culpeper County, Va.

Ashwill contacted one of Ron Hill's cousins in Los Angeles to inform her of what he believed was her connection to the great Negro Leagues player, and she relayed the news to Ron Hill in Pittsburgh.

That's when the real checking began.

Ron Hill took a link off Ashwill's Internet blog and e-mailed it to a newspaper in Culpeper, where Nelson lives. Nelson, a freelance writer who specializes in investigative and historical journalism, took it from there.

"I'm pretty determined when I decide to do something," the 61-year-old Nelson said. "I tend to not be put off too easily. If I get to a place where I just feel I'm stuck, I'll walk away and ponder it for a while. It seems like if you continue to think, sometimes you run into a place where at that given time, there isn't any more information. But not always. Sometimes you have to look a little harder."

Nelson spent most of last year tracking leads. She combed through court records, deeds, census reports, Social Security documents and death certificates. And she went into the field, knocking on doors and conducting personal interviews with longtime Virginia residents of Buena and Rapidan.

Nelson, who also served for 12 years as director of the Museum of Culpeper History, was able to confirm that Hill was born somewhere between 1882 and 1884 in Buena, a small African-American community settled along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad in Culpeper County after the Civil War. Nelson's research also showed that Hill's mother, most likely a former slave, was part of the great migration of African-Americans who departed the South during the era of segregation, settling with her three sons in Pittsburgh around 1888.

Hall of Fame librarian Jim Gates read Nelson's report and everything else he could find to see if he could match what she had. Details in an article about Hill in the 1942 Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, matched perfectly with his information and the material Nelson had provided.

Gates was convinced, and the Hall of Fame moved to forge a new plaque.

"It's about honoring the historical record," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said. "I think research like this will forever be unearthed on all sorts of people. That's the beauty of genealogy and the Internet."

Ongoing research has also resulted in the recasting of plaques honoring Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson to correct mistakes. Gates figures the future holds more.

"I have three files on my desk now where there are questions about a ballplayer's birthday or birthplace or full name," Gates said. "We're constantly doing research on this. But with anyone born before 1920, there could be issues because they didn't keep records then like they do today."

The Internet has become the driving force today as families from all walks of life trace their ancestors.

"The availability of what's online is what makes something like this possible," said Tim Copeland of the Society for American Baseball Research. "It's just so much easier to cover large distances that would require so much research to be done away from where you may live. The online availability, and there's more every day, has made biographical research that much easier.

"This was started by a group of baseball historians, and those guys were diligent in what they did," Copeland said. "Zann's the one that brought it home."

Ron Hill expressed no remorse at not knowing sooner, even though it prevented him from attending his great uncle's induction.

"This is more personal. This is just us," he said. "I feel history is completed now. Before, it wasn't completed. Here he is today, on a wall."