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Civil rights activist Octavius Catto was also a Philadelphia baseball pioneer


Feb. 22, 2022 marks the 183rd anniversary of civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto’s birth. Along with his teachings, mobilization efforts during the American Civil War and his work to desegregate the city’s trolley car system, Catto was known as a star baseball player who fought to integrate the sport in Philadelphia.

Octavius Catto was the founder of the Philadelphia Pythians. (Smithsonian)

The city’s first all-Black baseball team, the Excelsior Base Ball Club of Philadelphia, was founded in 1866. The club disbanded in 1867 following the team’s participation in the first Colored Base Ball Championship against the Brooklyn Uniques. Some players from the Excelsior Base Ball Club jumped to the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia, who were just coming off a stellar 9-1 season.

Better known as the Philadelphia Pythians, the team was founded by Catto along with friend and fellow civil rights activist Jacob C. White Jr. in 1866. Catto played shortstop and served as team captain. He was first exposed to baseball when he was stationed at Camp William Penn during the Civil War.

After the 1867 season, Catto and the Pythians applied to join the Pennsylvania Association of Amateur Base Ball Players. The Nominating Committee, according to the Ball Players’ Chronicle, recommended to disallow clubs with African American players the right to be represented by the Association. Sensing that was the case, the Pythians withdrew their application before the Association’s ruling, despite having the backing of Philadelphia Athletics vice president E. Hicks Hayhurst.

That didn’t stop the Pythians from playing — and winning against — white baseball clubs.

Catto and the Pythians faced off against the Olympics, Philadelphia’s oldest baseball team at the time, in September 1869. The Pythians lost 44-23, but the team’s play on the field made it evident that they were worthy opponents for the more established teams. Two weeks later, the Pythians defeated the white City Item ball club 27-17.

In 1870, African American men were given the right to vote through the passing of the 15th amendment. For Catto and White, two men who worked tirelessly for Black men to be granted the right to vote, that meant playing baseball in Philadelphia would become more difficult than it already was. Violent protests from the predominantly white Irish immigrant population in the city would make coordinating travel with other Black baseball teams as well as attracting fans nearly impossible.

Catto was assassinated by a white man partaking in violence against African American men exercising their right to vote on Election Day 1871. He was shot and killed at the young age of 32 in Philadelphia just outside of his home on 8th & South St. Thousands gathered to pay their respects on Broad St. at his funeral. The Pythians, who are remembered as the team that paved the way for the emergence of the Negro Leagues, disbanded shortly after Catto’s death.

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