Civic leader changed society on the baseball diamond

Gravestone of Octavius Catto, a civil rights pioneer, on and off the baseball diamond.
Gravestone of Octavius Catto, a civil rights pioneer, on and off the baseball diamond. (CHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: July 10, 2014

HE WAS Martin Luther King one day, Malcolm X another, Jackie Robinson the day after that. Nearly 100 years before each man carved his indelible mark on the tree of American history, Octavius V. Catto hacked away at it, as well, blazing a zealot's trail amid the dangerously racist backdrop of post-Civil War Philadelphia.

His assassination at age 32, on the day his exhaustive voting rights efforts flipped the city's corrupt political system upside down, only emphasized the messianic impact he had on his people and his times. Born well (for his time) and educated better, Catto was a teacher, an activist, a statesman and a five-tool ballplayer who yearned to compete against the very best teams of his time.

And like nearly all of his endeavors, he achieved that dream only through a series of humiliating compromises and sometimes alienating coercions.

If you're still looking for a summer read, and you haven't had the pleasure yet, pick up a copy of "Tasting Freedom," the extensive Catto biography penned by Inquirer veterans Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin. Indicative of the man's wide-ranging impact on the post-Civil War era, there's only one chapter about his baseball efforts, which extended far beyond his power, range and throwing arm.

Catto batted second and played second base - sound familiar? - for the Pythians, one of two Philadelphia-based all-black baseball teams playing in the summer of 1866. The Excelsiors had preceded them, but the talent - and political clout - assembled by Catto and co-founder Jacob C. White Jr. quickly established the Pythians as the Philadelphia team. After a rocky start in '66, the Pythians lost only once in arranged games with black teams from other cities in 1867, and went undefeated in 1868, almost always winning by lopsided scores.

This was, of course, not enough for Catto, who had helped raise 11 regiments of black soldiers to reinforce depleted white-only Union troops only a few years before. Catto also led a successful challenge of the city's segregationist policies on streetcars via a campaign of peaceful protest and compelling oratory.

Again, sound familiar?

So it was consistent with his makeup that Catto's efforts to have his Pythians play against white teams was more Branch Rickey than Jackie Robinson. There would be no showboating. No arguing calls. Nothing to fuel the fears that these games between the races would become tinderboxes of trouble.

In those days of only one umpire, clubs made the calls on the bases and when there was a challenge, the umpire intervened. But days after a game between the Pythians and the Philadelphia Olympians was finally arranged, the umpire concluded days later that the Pythians had cost themselves countless runs in a 44-23 loss by appealing nothing.

"They had made their point in securing a meeting with a good white club, and they would not complain . . . " wrote the umpire in an excerpt from "Tasting Freedom." "Their conduct in the field was most gentlemanly."

That behavior produced exactly what Catto hoped for. Interracial matches followed quickly in other towns, and 2 weeks later, the Pythians played another all-white team, this time prevailing, 27-17.

More interracial games followed, but Catto had higher hopes. He wanted the Pythians to become members of the National Association of Base Ball Players, the predecessor to today's major leagues. The first step was to become a member of the state chapter, which Catto and his cohorts attempted unsuccessfully in 1867, withdrawing their application only after a vote to include them was avoided not once, but twice.

Later that year, seeking to gain admittance directly during the association's convention - held that year in Philadelphia - "Catto's proposal" did come up for a vote.

It was overwhelmingly defeated, a decision that was overwhelmingly criticized by the influential newspapers of the time, including the New York Times. Imagine how this nation's history might have been altered had Catto been as successful changing baseball as he was with the seating policy of streetcars and the practical application of the 15th Amendment as it pertained to voting rights for African-Americans. Simply put, Catto's views were decades ahead of their time, which ultimately cost him decades of his time on Earth.

In the midafternoon of Oct. 10, 1871, after leaving his teaching job and braving police-induced riots to join thousands of other black voters who ultimately would unseat the existing mayor and his supporters, Catto was gunned down as he neared his South Philadelphia home by Frank Kelly, a thug posing as a cop. Arrested by two cops a few blocks from the killing, Kelly was allowed to escape, triggering a nationwide manhunt and a nationwide examination of the corrupt city politics that Catto successfully helped overturn, and that ultimately cost him his life.

What might have happened had he lived? More political gains, no doubt. And a few more swings at fully integrating the sport he came to view, as we still do today, as our best attempts to level the playing field.

This much is certain: Had he lived, our world would know Octavius Catto much better than it does today.

He might have saved us a little from ourselves, too.

From the archives: For Jackie Robinson in 1947, Philadelphia was hell.


On Twitter: @samdonnellon

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