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Virginia Welcomes Ballplayer Pete Hill To His Proper Home

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Pete Hill's historical marker was recently erected in Culpeper County, Va.
Charlie Woodroof
Pete Hill's historical marker was recently erected in Culpeper County, Va.

Sitting snugged up against Culpeper County's Route 615, Cedar Grove Baptist Church is about all that's left of Buena, Va., a once-bustling African-American community founded soon after Emancipation. But the church was filled to bursting recently, when Kathleen Kilpatrick, Virginia's director of the Department of Historic Resources, took to the pulpit to participate in a ceremony called "Welcoming Home Pete Hill."

"Thank you to Cedar Grove for opening up your church room to us so that we can honor Pete Hill and bring him home to this community and to Virginia," Kilpatrick said to the crowd.

So who's Pete Hill? Arguably the greatest baseball player you've never heard of -- because, as a black man, he was barred from the majors.

"Pete Hill is probably one of the greatest hitters from the Negro Leagues," says baseball historian Phil Dixon. "Pete Hill is probably, in my estimation, the only African-American player that I think would qualify to get 4,000 hits."

So why is Buena just getting around to welcoming home a man who's been dead since 1951? Because the community only recently discovered Hill is theirs to welcome.

Negro League baseball lasted from Reconstruction through Jim Crow. Operating below white -- and so much of history's -- notice. When Hill was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, his plaque said he was born in Pittsburg, Penn.

A couple years later, an editor at the Culpeper Start-Exponent got hold of information suggesting Hill might be a local. The editor passed the information along to freelancer and local historian Zann Nelson.

"So he sent me the link to this information, and I saw place names and people names that I had come across in the last 10, 15 years of doing other research," Nelson says. "I said, 'Can I have this story?' He said, 'Yeah, what are are going to do?' I said, 'I'm going to start digging.'"

And digging is just what it took -- mostly around Buena, now almost depopulated. Nelson tromped muddy fields, searched records, generally had her idea of a great time, and proved to the Baseball Hall of Fame that its Pete Hill plaque was wrong.

John Preston "Pete" Hill was not born in Pittsburg on Oct. 12, 1880, but in Buena on Oct. 12, 1882. A corrected plaque hangs in the Hall of Fame. But that wasn't enough to satisfy the state of Virginia or Buena.

After the Cedar Grove Church choir's joyful noise closed the formal "Welcoming Home Pete Hill" proceedings, the crowd trooped outside to watch dignitaries unveil the Pete Hill historical roadside marker, newly planted in the church parking lot.

Luther Atkinson played in the Negro League for the Satchel Paige All-Stars.

"I'm glad that they started to recognize this," Atkins says. "Just like I'll tell anybody, I think that we set a great example for integration -- the Negro League ballplayers. And I'm glad I was part of it."

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