The little-known greatness of Pete Hill
By: Sarah Wexler | @SarahWexler32
Pete Hill could do it all, and he could do it all well.
A five-tool player before the term even existed, Hill was remembered by those who saw him play for excelling in all aspects of the game, as well as his ability to excite on both ends of the ball. Yet as much as his athletic abilities, it was the outfielder’s influence that made him so important; his obituary in the Chicago Defender asserted that Hill “helped put Negro baseball on the map.”
Those who know Hill’s story consider him to be one of the all-time greats, and more importantly, a pillar of the early days of Black baseball. Unfortunately, not enough people have heard his story.
Sure, Hill received the game’s highest honor with entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He even holds the rare distinction of getting not one, but two induction ceremonies. More recently, he was recognized in 2020 with selection to the Negro Leagues Centennial Team via a fan vote organized by negroleagueshistory.com.
Then why, in spite of this, is his name not better known today by the average baseball fan?
We’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s take a look at who John Preston “Pete” Hill was, and why he in particular is worth remembering.
Born in 1882, Hill spent more than a quarter of a century around the game of baseball. His professional playing career is believed to have spanned from 1899 through 1925 (though the official stats we have for him date back to just 1904), largely before the formally recognized formation of the Negro Leagues in 1920. Hill played for at least 14 different clubs, represented at least 10 different cities and even played in Cuba, where he had the opportunity to face Major League competition. His achievements were numerous, and he was as dependable a player as they come, described by compeer Ben Taylor as “the most dangerous man in a pinch in baseball.”
To understand just how well-rounded Hill was as a player, let’s take a look at all five of those tools he possessed:
Hitting for average
Hill was once labeled by Cumberland Posey as the “most consistent hitter of his lifetime,” and a .324 career average, per Seamheads, certainly speaks to that. We don’t have splits to back it up, but eyewitnesses, including Posey, testified to the lefty-hitting Hill’s ability to hit right-handers and left-handers equally well.
Several accounts claim Hill hit safely in 115 of 116 games while playing for the Chicago Leland Giants in 1911. While the sporadic availability of box scores from the era makes this difficult to confirm, games where Hill didn’t reach base via hit were definitely something of a rarity.
“I’ve yet to find a box score in which he doesn’t have a hit,” Phil S. Dixon, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, once told the Associated Press of his research on Hill.
Hitting for power
The ability to hit for power in the Dead Ball Era is a matter of relativity, but Hill, known for his line-drive tendencies, outpaced his competition in that regard. Contemporary newspaper accounts show that Hill homered 28 times for the Detroit Stars in 1919, a whopping total for those days. While this is something of an anomaly rather than reflective of his usual performance, it indicates a slugging ability unlike that of most of his peers.
Hill took particular pride in this achievement, mentioning it -- and noting that it was one fewer than Babe Ruth had hit that year, in fewer games -- in a press release printed in the Chicago Defender, uncovered by historian Gary Ashwill. In MLB that year, no one besides Ruth hit more than 10 home runs.
Hill was fast, and he knew how to make his speed work for him, both in the field and on the basepaths. At a 1911 athletic exhibition, Hill was clocked circling the bases in 14.4 seconds, according to findings by the Society for American Baseball Research. With the caveat that it’s impossible to verify the accuracy of this recording, it is the best available data we have to show how speedy Hill was.
Such a time would rank Hill right alongside the modern game’s top speedsters -- and while comparing players across eras is sometimes misleading, speed is one tool that doesn’t evolve much. Since Statcast began tracking home-to-home times in 2015, there have been just three recorded instances of times quicker than Hill’s: Byron Buxton, twice (13.9 seconds on Aug. 18, 2017, and 14.1 seconds on Oct. 2, 2016), and Dee Strange-Gordon (14.2 seconds on June 30, 2015).
Hill’s speed helped him here as well, giving him great range in left field. Unfortunately, defensive numbers from this era are even harder to come by than offensive numbers, making this one difficult to quantify. However, baseball historian Lawrence Hogan posits that Hill was “the first great outfielder in Black baseball history,” and game recaps accompanying box scores often mentioned Hill making incredible catches to rob opponents.
The same can be said for Hill’s arm -- without any sort of video evidence, we’re going to have to go entirely on the word of others. Newspaper accounts of his games include several mentions of Hill making great throws from the outfield to nab runners, including numerous instances of him recording putouts at the plate. It was something mentioned frequently enough that he is described on his Hall of Fame plaque as having a “rifle arm.”
It wasn’t just physical skill that made Hill great, though. He was also known for his baseball acumen, which he further honed during his 11 years playing for teams managed by “The Father of Black Baseball” himself, Rube Foster. As team captain, Hill helped lead the 1910 Chicago Leland Giants to what they claimed was a staggering 123-6 record. (Officially, the club had a record of 22-2-1, which would have only included games between recognized Negro Leagues teams, and wouldn’t count games between Black teams playing white teams, local amateurs, etc., according to historian Leslie Heaphy.) That would be an unheard of .953 winning percentage.
Hill ultimately got the chance to put what he learned under Foster’s tutelage to the test as player-manager for the Detroit Stars (1919-21), the Milwaukee Bears (’23) and the Baltimore Black Sox (1924-25).
After the end of his professional playing days, Hill remained around the game for a few years at the semi-pro level before retiring for good. He then found work as a porter in Buffalo, where he lived until his death at the age of 69 in 1951.
A year after he died, Hill was voted the fourth-best outfielder in Negro Leagues history in a poll conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier, behind Oscar Charleston, Monte Irvin and Cristóbal Torriente. Clearly, he was well-regarded by folks with a knowledge of the Negro Leagues' early years.
So, why is it exactly that Hill is not better known today? Part of this is circumstance. The same systemic racism that barred Black players from participation in MLB also prevented many of them from getting more mainstream appreciation. This was especially true for Black ballplayers from the start of the 20th century, whose careers involved a lot of barnstorming and bouncing around between teams, leagues, cities and even countries -- which, in turn, meant a lot of variation in quality of opponents.
For this reason, stats included in the official records rarely capture the full extent of these players’ accomplishments. With so much information to keep track of, it can be difficult to fully conceptualize a player’s greatness. Outside of certain niche circles, Black players from Hill’s era never really got their due, save for a few notable exceptions.
However, part of why notoriety has eluded Hill is something more specific to him.
When Hill was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 as one of 15 Negro Leagues players and executives, no one showed up specifically for Hill, according to Kevin Kirkland of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- no family, no friends, no fans.
That’s because Cooperstown had some key information about Hill wrong. His official plaque referred to him as “Joseph” instead of “John,” had his birth year listed as 1880 instead of 1882, and had his birthplace listed as Pittsburgh instead of Culpeper County, Va. These errors made tracking down Hill’s descendants virtually impossible.
The quest to correct the mistakes was a group effort that involved several researchers, including Ashwill, Patrick Rock and Zann Nelson. Through their work, they were able to confirm the actual details of Hill’s life, and to establish connections with his descendants. This culminated in a “re-induction” ceremony for Hill in October 2010, this time with surviving relatives in attendance, as the corrected plaque was unveiled on what would have been Hill’s 126th birthday.
“A lot of people forget about the baseball players who were pioneers of the game,” said Hill’s great nephew, Ron Hill, as quoted in the player’s Hall of Fame bio. “They’re forgotten like they never existed, but they were part of American history. How can you talk about baseball without talking about Pete Hill?”
That same year, the location of Hill’s unmarked grave in Chicago was discovered thanks to some incredible sleuthing by Jeremy Krock, a Peoria, Ill.-based anesthesiologist who also heads up the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project. Thanks to funds raised by SABR, Hill’s grave now bears a tombstone with his name and picture. In 2011, Hill received his own historic marker in his Virginia hometown.
The day may never come when Hill receives the recognition he deserves. But at the very least, the investigating done by diligent researchers ensured permanent -- and accurate -- commemoration of his legacy, ensuring future generations have the opportunity to find out just who he was and why he mattered.