Octavius V. Catto, Baseball Trailblazer
Although he is virtually forgotten, Octavius V. Catto must be one of the most remarkable figures in baseball's storied past. The son of Presbyterian minister in Charleston, South Carolina, he grew up and was educated in Philadelphia, becoming one of the city's most accomplished young black men. During the Civil War, he helped found the Union League Association in Philadelphia and assisted Frederick Douglass and others in working towards their state's ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, securing black suffrage.
An exemplary scholar, athlete and civil rights pioneer, he founded the Banneker Literary Institute and the Equal Rights League, and by 1867, he had established and become captain and shortstop of the Pythian Baseball Club, the city's leading black baseball team.
On September 4, 1869, the Pythians took on the New York Olympics, a white outfit. The New York Times reported the next day: "BASEBALL - A Novel Game in Philadelphia - A Negro Club in the Field - The White Club Victorious - The Pythian Base-Ball Club, (colored), after challenging a number of white clubs of this city, who refused to play, succeeded in getting an acceptance from the Olympic, which club defeated them by the score of 44-23. The novelty of the affair drew an immense crowd of people, it being the first game played between a white nd colored club. Umpire--Col. Fitzgerald, of this city."
Catto paid dearly for his success and notoriety. Pennsylvania's passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in October 1870 led to citywide race riots during the elections the following year. Catto, then a major in the National Guard, was gunned down in uniform by an opposition political operative while attempting to keep the peace. Thousands of citizens--both black and white--and numerous public officials attended his funeral, the largest public memorial in Philadelphia since the death of Abraham Lincoln.