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Octavius V. Catto: Baseballer, Martyr

This is Octavius V. Catto and he is something of a forgotten titan of American history — if not American history, then certainly Philadelphia history. Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1839, Catto’s father — a slave — was granted his freedom when Octavius was a child and the family moved North, finally settling in Philadelphia. Catto took advantage of the educational opportunities available to blacks in the North as he attended the prestigious Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheney University). He was later hired by the ICY to teach math and English.

In the midst of the political ferment of mid-19th century America, Catto became involved in the movements for abolition and equal rights. He was a contemporary and colleague of Frederick Douglass, and joined the effort to enlist black soldiers to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Following the war, Catto was instrumental in the passage of a bill barring the segregation of streetcars in Pennsylvania.

I first discovered Catto when I was working as a research assistant on a project that retraced W.E.B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking sociological study of fin de siĆ©cle black Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Negro. Given my backgrounds in African American and Philadelphia history, I was interested in learning more about this apparently influential figure who I had never heard of before. There is one particular facet of his biography that was quite intriguing to me (and, likewise, should be intriguing to NotGraphers).

As it turns out, Catto was also an early baseballer. From Wikipedia:

Like many other young men of Philadelphia, both white and black, Catto began playing cricket while in school and later took up baseball. Following the Civil War he helped establish Philadelphia as a major hub of black baseball. Along with Jacob C. White, Jr. he ran the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia. The Pythians had an undefeated season in 1867.

Following the 1867 season, Catto, with support by players from the white Athletic Base Ball Club, applied for the Pythians’ admission into the newly formed Pennsylvania Base Ball Association. As it became clear that they would lose any vote by the Association, they withdrew their application. In 1869 the Pythians challenged various white baseball teams in Philadelphia to games. The Olympic Ball Club accepted the challenge. The first match game between black and white baseball teams took place on September 4, 1869, ending in the Pythians’ defeat, 44 to 23.

I, for one, am very curious what the pitchers’ respective SIERAs were after that game. The Pythian Baseball Club is mentioned briefly in Ken Burns’s Baseball.

Catto met his tragic end on Election Day, October 10, 1871. Racial tensions gripped Philadelphia as it marked one of the first elections in which blacks could participate following the passage of the 15th Amendment. The city’s Democratic Party machine dispatched armed thugs in an attempt to intimidate and/or physically prevent the black, largely Republican voters from exercising the franchise. On his way to the polls, Catto was harassed by a mob and then attacked by an Irish man named Frank Kelly, who shot Catto through the heart. Unsurprisingly, Kelly was not convicted for his crime. Catto was just 32. His long, winding funeral procession through the streets of Philadelphia remains one of the largest in history for a black man.

Also, he had a sweet mustache.