He’s a largely unsung hero in the baseball world, even as a Hall of Famer who played the majority of his career in the pre-Negro Leagues era for legendary teams such as the Pittsburgh Keystones, Cuban X Giants and Chicago American Giants; and yet most people have never heard of him.
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Hill, whose playing career dated from 1889 to the mid-1920s, was a fearsome center fielder with a powerful arm and “excellent glove.”
Babe Ruth. That name ring any bells? Funny, since Pete Hill may have been better than him.
It’s the story of disturbed graves at Burr Oak Cemetery, just south of Chicago, the legend of Pete Hill and a newspaper article titled something along the lines of “Is a Hall of Fame Baseball Player Buried Here?” that sent Canton, Ill., native Keith Carmack on a quest to make the slugger’s name known.
“They had dug up about 300 graves,” Carmack explains to The Root, “and resold the plots in the cemetery that was predominantly poor, African-American … and it just so happened that around that time there were a lot of Negro League baseball players buried there because a lot of those guys died poor, and so they were in this kind of cemetery with the unmarked grave or one little marker.
“People thought that he would probably be there, so I read that and it was really just one of those things where you just get this sort of just fire … inside of you,” adds the 29-year-old, who studied sound design at Columbia College Chicago. “I dropped what I was doing and just decided I needed to make a documentary. I kind of said I want to see this story play out … so I just had to make it.”
So Carmack went out and did exactly that. He went around gathering as much information and details as he could to compile what he calls the “most complete telling of Pete Hill’s life and storied baseball career.”
In the documentary, which runs a little under an hour and a half currently, Carmack interviews Hill’s descendants, different historians with knowledge about the player, and the league.
He started out just being curious about where, in fact, Hill was buried, but ended up finding out something even more intriguing. It turned out that Hill’s plaque in the Hall of Fame had actually been wrong at one point, with the wrong name and the wrong birthplace.
“His legal name was John Preston Hill and he went by Pete Hill … they ended up accidentally putting this player Joseph Hill on the plaque,” he explains. “They were thinking of Pete Hill when they put him on, but they put the wrong guy’s information on the plaque.”
“Once they corrected the name, they realize he has family, direct relatives still alive, and they just didn’t know,” Carmack adds.
The documentary is pretty much completed as far as main production goes. However, Carmack is still trying to fund b-roll, stock footage and studio time for the soundtrack for the documentary through his Kickstarter. As of Friday evening, he had a little over $2,000 raised and is looking to raise a total of $6,800 ultimately.
His dream, he says, is to screen the documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, which happens to be Hill’s birth month.
A longtime fan of that particular festival, Carmack says that “for me to have a streaming for that festival … and see the premiere screening and have a whole theater full of people on Pete Hill’s birthday, that would be everything to me.”
But the real reason behind the film is that he just simply thinks it’s long past time for Hill to have wide recognition.
“He didn’t get that admiration and respect when he was playing at the time [because of segregation]. In baseball, everyone looks at stats and it’s all numbers. … There was one year when Pete Hill hit one less home run than Babe Ruth and it was the year Babe Ruth really started to take off and become this home run king, and Pete Hill at that time was in the twilight of his career,” Carmack says, pointing out the fact that records weren’t as well-kept regarding the records of early black baseball players.
“He may have hit as many home runs as Babe Ruth, and by all accounts he played like Ty Cobb, and those are the two biggest names probably in the history of baseball,” he adds. “But because of the time he played, nobody really understands that.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.