Monday, July 18, 2016

Octavius Catto, the Pythians, and early black baseball in Philadelphia

Published drawing of Catto being shot by white protestor
The historical significance of Philadelphia as it relates to the birth and assimilation of baseball into the African-American culture in the 1860s is absent from mainstream baseball lure. Unfortunately, this absence also means the efforts of Octavius Catto are often forgotten.

Born into a mixed-race household in Charleston, South Carolina, Catto moved with his family to Philadelphia as a child and starred academically, eventually graduating as valedictorian from what's now known as Cheney University.

A man of many interests, Catto excelled in the arts and studied classical languages. More fervently, he worked as a youth teacher and fought for racial equality, often using baseball as an avenue to foster engagement and promote pride within the African-American community.

In 1866, Catto, along with entrepreneur Jacob White Jr., organized the Pythian Baseball Club, the nation's first preeminent African-American baseball team. Under guidance from the duo, baseball became a way for Philadelphia's black population to assert their independence and counter white culture.

The Pythians original roster was comprised almost entirely of middle-class colleagues, including educators and civil-rights activists connected to Catto. Like other social organizations of the era, players were governed by a constitution, bylaws, and elected officials. To join, members had to abide by a strict moral code that prohibited drinking liquor and wagering on games.

"At a time when black leaders stressed the need for self-improvement and moral respectability and attempted to establish an elite social status for themselves within the black community, the new national pastime served to advance high moral character and promote good health habits among the African American populace,” author Max Lomax wrote in Black Baseball Entrepreneurs 1860 – 1901.

Records are spotty, but the Pythians struggled on the field in their first year of play. However, the club bounced back and won nine of 10 documented contests during the 1867 season. Riding the momentum of improvement, in October of 1867 Catto sought membership for the Pythians in the Pennsylvania state chapter of the National Amateur Association of Base Ball Players. Unfortunately, of the 266 teams from around the state that applied, the Pythians were the lone club denied admittance, the decision based entirely on Catto and his teammate's skin color. Cowardly, delegates never let the Pythians application get to a vote, rather stalling and intimidating Raymond Burr, the club's representative, until he had no choice but to withdraw the Pythians request for consideration.

Angered but undeterred, Catto again attempted a month later to have the chapter vote on the Pythians application during a meeting in Philadelphia. This time, however, the application was voted on and flatly rejected, setting the precedence of future denials of “any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.”

Despite their lack of inclusion, the Pythians continued to improve on the diamond. The club won six of seven contests during the 1868 season as their games turned into community showcases. Games anchored a week's worth of celebrations in the Philadelphia black community.

By 1869, supporters began clamoring for a contest between the Pythians and a white opponent. Thomas Fitzgerald, a baseball man himself and editor of the Philadelphia City Item, made every effort to entice many of the city's white ballclubs to face the Pythians in an exhibition contest, but clubs feared the possibility of losing to an "inferior" black club.

Eventually, Fitzgerald's efforts paid off as the Olympics, one of Philadelphia's oldest clubs dating to 1833, accepted the challenge of facing the Pythians and the two clubs met on September 3, 1869. The contest, held at Twenty-fifth and Jefferson streets, drew a large crowd and marked the first documented interracial baseball game in our nation's history. Ultimately, the Olympics won 44-23, but the quality of play and grit showcased by the Pythians commanded the headlines.

Five months later, in February of 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified giving African-Americans the right to vote. On election day of 1871, while serving as a National Guardsman protecting black voters, Catto was gunned down at the intersection of Ninth and South streets by a white protester. He was only 32-years-old.

Catto was given a military funeral as thousands of Philadelphian's, white and black, lined Broad Street for the procession. City offices and businesses across the region closed for the day to pay respect. Unfortunately, Catto's killer - identified as a white Irishman named Frank Kelly - was never convicted.

Aside from his leadership on the diamond and in the classroom, Catto led efforts in Philadelphia to desegregate street cars and fought as a Union soldier during the Civil War.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced plans in June to construct a 12-foot bronze statue of Catto outside City Hall. The $1.5 million monument, titled “A Quest for Parity,” is expected to be complete by late 2016.

“There was this compelling need for me to rectify the injustice that was done to him and the fact that his contributions were ignored and not known by the general public for so long,” Kenney said.

The Pythians floundered in the 15 years following Catto's death, but officially reformed in 1887 and entered the National Colored Base Ball League, the first attempt in the country to organize a formal league for black teams. The infrastructure, unfortunately, wasn't conducive and the league folded within two months.
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Follow Patrick on Twitter: @PGordonPBR

BY PATRICK GORDON
Managing Editor
pgordon@philadelphiabaseballreview.com

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