Abolitionist Catto was Black baseball pioneer

November 2nd, 2020

A 12-foot bronze statue of a single African American man stands just south of Philadelphia’s City Hall; the first of its kind in the city’s history. Erected in 2017, it was commissioned as a memorial to Octavius Valentine Catto -- a civil rights activist, educator, abolitionist and baseball pioneer.

Born a free man in February 1839 in Charleston, S.C., Catto was raised in Philadelphia. He graduated from the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became the country’s first historically Black college, Cheyney University. Though he traveled to Washington, D.C., for postgraduate studies, Catto returned to the Institute a year later and was hired as a teacher.

Before moving to Pennsylvania, Catto’s family lived in Baltimore, where his father William, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had planned to leave for Liberia as a missionary. It was discovered that William Catto had written a letter that the Charleston Presbytery believed to explain his intent to “excite discontent and insurrection among the slaves,” and the family fled north to avoid William being arrested. William had earned his freedom by becoming a minister, and Octavius learned the foundation of his abolition activism from his father.

During the Civil War, Catto was a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Serving on a committee that recruited soldiers for the Union Army, he joined Frederick Douglass and other Black leaders in the fight for emancipation and the abolition of slavery.

Along with Jacob C. White, Jr., also an educator and activist, Catto founded the Pythian Base Ball club of Philadelphia in 1865. The Pythians were primarily composed of middle-class professionals from the Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York areas. As captain and star fielder for the team, Catto’s enthusiasm for baseball and his desire for equal rights intersected. The Pythians were an extremely talented and capable baseball team among Black ball clubs, and they wanted equal consideration from white clubs.

Catto used baseball to accomplish more than wealth; he believed Black credibility and acceptance could be promoted by competing against white teams on a baseball diamond. Baseball’s growing popularity helped drive his civil rights efforts. It was sport as activism and activism as sport. In 1869, the Pythians issued a challenge to every white team in Philadelphia: play us. Their challenge was accepted, and they made history when they played the first documented game of interracial baseball against the Olympics, Philadelphia’s oldest white baseball club.

Though the Philadelphia Olympics routed the Pythians, 44-23, Catto's club showed themselves to be worthy competitors for white clubs, and they went on to play white teams, both locally and regionally. Hoping to schedule more games with official recognition, the Pythians applied for membership in the Pennsylvania State Association of Base Ball Players, a subsidiary of the National Association, at their convention in Harrisburg, Pa., in October 1867. A white team had even agreed to sponsor their application.

After being told to rescind the Pythians’ application or risk being blackballed, the club decided to try to gain admission to the National Association at the annual meeting held in Philadelphia that December. Catto and his team’s efforts proved unsuccessful. The Ball Players’ Chronicle said the report of the Nominating Committee recommended the exclusion of African American clubs from representation in the Association. The stated reason for this decision was to keep out any discussion of any subject having a political bearing.

James Brunson, a professor at Northern Illinois and the country's preeminent expert on 19th-century Black baseball told philly.com, "Catto's social and political connections with white businessmen and white baseballists were crucial to the team crossing bats with white organizations. ... It is important to contextualize these efforts in relation to the efforts of other Black clubs during the period. Catto appears to have played hardball with the white organizers, and they responded in kind. It was as much politics as it was baseball. Many of these white players were hardcore Democrats; Catto was a Republican who pushed for Black male suffrage and citizenship."

Having successfully campaigned for the desegregation of Philadelphia’s streetcars, Catto also worked tirelessly to help Black Americans gain the right to vote. He was a well-known champion of the 15th Amendment. In October 1871, on the first election day that African American men were allowed to vote, the city was filled with violence and unrest as some tried to prevent them from being able to cast their ballots. Having cast his vote that morning and fearing the worst, Catto closed the Institute for the day. As a member of the state National Guard, he believed he would be needed to be of service amid the unrest. White intimidation of Black voters included riots and murders, and Catto saw it as his duty to keep peace and help Black Americans safely cast their vote. After purchasing a firearm, he headed home to retrieve his uniform. As he neared his home, Catto was shot and killed in the street at close range. He was a Civil War veteran, heading to exercise the right he had fought for; the bullet went through his heart.

Years later, in his book "The Philadelphia Negro," W.E.B. Du Bois retold eyewitness accounts of Catto’s assassination and funeral. He told of a funeral the size of which had been unseen for a Negro. All city offices and many schools were closed. Members of the city council, the state legislature, city employees and many others marched in sympathy at the passing of their fallen leader.

"And so, closed the career of a man of splendid equipment, rare force of character, whose life was so interwoven with all that was good about us, as to make it stand out in bold relief, as a pattern for those who have followed after,” Du Bois eulogized.

After Catto’s death, the Pythians disbanded. But the team name continued to be associated with agitating for change and inclusion. An iteration of the Pythians went on to become a charter member of the short-lived National Colored Base Ball League.