Historical Markers
Octavius V. Catto (Baseball) Historical Marker
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Octavius V. Catto (Baseball)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
812 South St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

During the Civil War and its aftermath, the battles for African-American civil and political rights were fought on many fronts. When war broke out in 1861, many northern states offered African Americans only limited civil rights. The state of Pennsylvania had stripped African Americans of the right to vote in 1838, and in the city of Philadelphia, African Americans faced systematic discrimination. The American Civil War produced new civil rights leaders, and in Philadelphia none stood taller than Octavius V. Catto.

Born to free black parents in South Carolina in 1839, O. V. Catto grew up in Philadelphia, where his father had moved with his family in 1844 to become pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church. There Octavius attended the Quaker-sponsored Institute For Colored Youth (ICY), a school that provided Catto a superb liberal arts education. After his graduation in 1858, Catto continued his studies in Washington, D.C., then returned to Philadelphia where he became a teacher of literature, mathematics, Greek, and Latin at the ICY.
Formal portrait of Octavius V. Catto.
Octavius V. Catto

In 1863 this young African-American schoolteacher led a successful struggle for black Pennsylvanians to serve in the armed forces, then served himself as a major in the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 1864, he attended a national meeting of black leaders, then became secretary of the newly formed Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. In 1866, he started a protest movement that led to the integration of Philadelphia's streetcars and a state law against segregated public transportation. The next year, Catto and his childhood friend, markerJacob White Jr., formed the city's second black baseball team: the Pythians.

After the Civil War, baseball was spreading into all corners of Philadelphia. White Americans embraced the game whole-heartedly, as did the growing population of free blacks flocking to the city. There was, however, little intermingling on the field. Like so many institutions, baseball - in fact, if not in law - was a segregated endeavor, but that didn't slow its popularity in the black community. Informal teams sprang up everywhere. After the Civil War, two pre-eminent black amateur clubs, modeled after their white counterparts as both baseball and social organizations, emerged from the pack: the Excelsiors and the Pythians.

Catto, was the Pythians' linchpin. A firebrand off the field, he was a firebrand on it, too. He organized the team and found influential supporters - like White - to help finance it. He played second base and shortstop, and also managed and promoted the team. Like the Athletics, Philadelphia's best white team of the time, the Pythians took on all comers, enjoyed press coverage, charged admission to watch, and traveled, playing the best black teams in Albany, Washington, Harrisburg, and other cities. Pythians' games were all-day events; social affairs attended by large crowds of mostly black men and women. Banquets usually followed the games.

In 1867, the Pythians were the most powerful of all black baseball clubs. Catto reveled in that, dubbing his club the "Black Champions." He also reveled in his firm control of the team. As manager, he was a taskmaster who had no compunction about replacing good players with better ones he found on other clubs. Still, being the best black baseball club would never do for a man so vehement about equality. Catto wanted to play against the best white teams, too.
Score card: Pythians v. Excelsior June 28, 1867 American Negro Historical Society Collection, 1790-1905. Correspondence and Schedules of the Phila. Pyhthians (1867-1870)
Score card: Pythians v. Mutuals, Philadelphia, PA, June 28, 1867.

In late 1867, he petitioned the nine-year-old National Association of Base Ball Players, the closest thing the game had to a governing body, for admission. Though supported by the Athletics, he was quickly turned down. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the association's adamant opposition to "any club composed of colored man, and any white club having marker colored members." Sadly, most black leaders - unable, then, to see baseball's potential significance in the struggle for racial equality - paid little heed to the snub. The great abolitionist markerWilliam Still, a leader of the Underground Railroad, went so far as to pen a letter to the Pythians, expressing how small a priority he thought baseball really was. "Our kin in the South," he wrote, "famish for knowledge, have claims too great and pressing...for frivolous amusements."

But this was no frivolous issue for a competitor as proud as Catto. He continued to press his case beyond the NABBP's purview. And though his Pythians never did get to test themselves against the Athletics or any other NABBP member, on Sept. 16, 1869, they became the first all-black team ever to take the field against an all-white team. In a financially lucrative exhibition, they soundly trounced Philadelphia's City Items, 27-17.

For Catto, baseball was always more than a game. The contests allowed Catto to discuss the political and economic issues of the day with black men from different cities; one of these issues was the ongoing battle of African Americans to gain the right to vote. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, provided African-American men that right throughout the nation.

At the time, Philadelphia was in the midst of a political civil war between the Republican political "machine" that ran City Hall and the Irish Democrats who still controlled the southern wards. There, Democratic toughs had no intention of letting their black neighbors vote without a fight. Politics were serious business, and elections often accompanied by fist fights, shootings, and murders. To vote in 1870, black Philadelphians required the protection of federal troops. As the fall elections of 1871 grew nearer, a hooligan named Frank Kelly plotted and then carried out Catto's murder.

On October 16th, thousands passed through the City Armory to view Catto's body, where he lay in state in full dress uniform. Thousands more lined Broad Street to watch the large procession of soldiers, elected officials, students, and Pythians, who escorted Catto's body to its burial place at Mount Lebanon, the cemetery owned by his lifelong friend, Jacob White. After his death a local newspaper offered the following eulogy. "Catto did not die because the murderer was his natural enemy. He died because a poor demented wretch was taught that the black man had no right the white man should respect."
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