Check out Pete Hill’s page at the HOF site, as well as his plaque (in this slide show). In both places he’s called Joseph Preston Hill. It is commonly accepted that he was born on October 12, 1880, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the little bio published in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1924 confirms these details (though not the first name “Joseph”).
It could be, however, that all this—his first name, his birthplace, his age—is wrong.
First, the evidence, collected by Patrick Rock (who else?).
1) A passenger manifest from the S.S. Chalmette, departing from Havana March 18, 1916, and arriving in New Orleans March 20:
Name: John P. Hill
Place of birth: Buena Vista, Virginia.
Date of birth: Not listed
2) A draft registration card from September 12, 1918:
Name: John Preston Hill
Place of birth: not listed
Date of birth: October 12, 1882
Age: 36 (doesn’t match birth date)
3) The 1920 census, in Chicago’s Third Ward:
(I had to break it in two here, though I overlapped it so you can see where the lines join; “John P. Hill” is line 12)
Name: John P. Hill
Place of birth: Virginia
Date of birth: not listed
There are also three other passenger manifests on which Hill and some of his teammates appear:
April 16, 1907, S.S. Merida (posted here), Havana to New York: Preston Hill, 23 years old (with wife “Gerdy,” 24)
April 12, 1908, S.S. Merida, Havana to New York: Preston Hill, 25 years old (with wife Gertrude, 25)
April 4, 1911, S.S. Chalmette, Havana to New Orleans: J.P. Hill, 28 years old.
There’s little doubt, when you consider the dates of travel, the other Negro Leaguers he traveled with, his wife’s name (Gertrude), the matching addresses on the draft card and census form, and the fact that he’s listed as a “Ball Player” on the census (which was quite unusual even for Negro Leaguers in the 1920 census), that these records all refer to the same person, and that that person is Pete Hill the Hall of Famer.
So what do we have? His first name listed as “John” all three times it’s given; Virginia as his birth state both times; and a range of possible birth years, from 1881 to 1884, with 1882 being given or implied three times (but never the officially accepted 1880). His official birthday, October 12, is corroborated on the draft card.
Patrick points out that Buena Vista, the name of a town in Rockbridge County, Virginia, is also the name of a suburb of Pittsburgh, though the census information also gives Virginia as Hill’s home state. This is the age of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to find work in the burgeoning industrial belt of the Midwest; it would not be unusual to find black people born in the South but raised in a Northern city, particularly a steel city like Pittsburgh. On the census form, both his parents are listed as born in Virginia, as is his wife’s mother. It’s even possible that the families knew each other before they moved to the North (his wife’s family going to Illinois).
So is Joseph Preston Hill, born in 1880 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, really John Preston Hill, born in 1882 in Buena Vista, Virginia? Is his Hall of Fame plaque wrong? I’d say it’s a very good chance on all three counts, name, birthdate, and birthplace, though Patrick is not so sure about the Virginia possibility. We’ll see. Unfortunately, as he told me, a birth record might not even exist:
Birth certificates were not kept in most states before 1910, and not many town or county records exist from the 19th century. There are exceptions, but no one has so far found Hill (under any name) yet on the 1900 or 1910 censuses, and we've been looking diligently, and it illustrates the fact that many institutions (including County Clerks’ offices and the U.S. Census Bureau) did not take very good care of records involving its citizens of color. Remember, Pete Hill was probably the son of former slaves.
UPDATE 10/17/2010 For subsequent developments in the rediscovery of Pete Hill, see:
Pete Hill’s Death Certificate (November 24, 2008)
Pete Hill’s Possible Family (November 28, 2008)
Pete Hill’s Family Confirmed (July 30, 2009)
A Solution to the Mystery of Buena Vista (July 30, 2009)
Photos: Pete Hill, Kenneth & Bettye Hill (August 11, 2009)
Redo? (August 13, 2009)
Happy Birthday (October 12, 2010)
Meet the New Plaque (October 13, 2010)