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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Octavius Catto and Charles Remond Douglass

In 1866, the U.S. Civil War was barely over and the ink was still drying on the newly ratified Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  Slavery had officially been abolished, but, throughout the country, Americans of African descent were still harshly being denied access to basic human and civil rights.  A new generation of black leaders was emerging to follow in the footsteps of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.  Among them were Octavius Catto in Philadelphia, and Charles Remond Douglass, youngest son of Frederick Douglass.  It's unclear whether Catto and Douglass intended to be baseball pioneers, but they both sought to recruit and organize young black men.  In the second half of the 19th century, the best way to do that was through baseball.

By this time, Catto was already a well-known advocate for equal rights, having helped lead a successful movement to desegregate Philadelphia's public transportation system.  He was also a highly educated civil war veteran, teacher of math and literature, and Secretary of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League.  Inspired by the formation of the city's first black baseball team the previous year (the Philadelphia Excelsiors), Catto and his friend, John White, Jr, created their own team; the Pythians (originally named the Independent Ball Club). Catto was the manager and second baseman.  His initial roster was comprised of young men from Philadelphia's leading institutions of culture and learning, suggesting he had higher expectations for his teammates than just winning a few games.  As they traveled the black baseball circuit throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, Catto would speak with players and fans of the opposing teams about current political issues, such as the ongoing struggle for the right to vote.

Having quickly established themselves as a dominant team, Catto wanted to show the Pythians could also hold their own against the best white clubs of the day.  In 1867, he petitioned the Pennsylvania Association of Amateur Base Ball Players and National Association of Base Ball Players for membership, but was rejected by both on racial grounds.  Adopting the mentality of "If you can't join them, beat them", the Pythians began to challenge well-known white teams in the region.  At first, no teams were willing to step forward, but in 1869, their challenge was accepted by the Philadelphia Olympics.  The subsequent game is the earliest-known baseball competition between an all-white team and an all-black team.   In front of a large crowd, the white Olympics beat the Pythians 44-23.  A few weeks later, the Pythians played another local white team, the City Items, and this time they won 27-17.

Meanwhile, in DC, Charles Douglas had just moved from Rochester, New York to begin a clerkship in the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau).  Once settled, he joined the Washington Alerts and Washington Mutuals baseball teams, both as a player and team organizer.  His well-known father would occasionally attend games, and when he did, it often made the press the next day.  In 1870, the Mutuals, now with Charles as the team president, made Frederick Douglass an honorary member, perhaps because of the publicity he brought to the team.

loc.govIt's generally believed that Charle Douglass was not interested in integration on the baseball diamond.  Rather than fight for black players to be able to join white teams (or black teams to be able to join white leagues), he was more concerned with having equal access to fields and resources.  At that time, the grassy area just south of the White House was called the White Lot because of the white fence marking its perimeter.  The field was the primary spot for baseball in the District, and the Alerts and Mutuals were among the local clubs - black and white - to use it for their home games.  Despite the ratification of three constitutional amendments in 1865, '68 and '70 theoretically confirming rights and freedoms of African-Americans, black teams were banned from playing on the White Lot in 1874.  This was indicative of what was happening around the country and what would continue to happen for many decades to come.  Amending the law did little to change the national mentality.

Between 1867 and 1871, the Pythians played the Alerts and Mutuals several times with varying results.  The rivalry ended on October 10, 1871, the day of a racially charged municipal election (the first election in which black Philadelphians were legally allowed to vote).  Angry white members of the city's Democratic party had taken to the street in an effort to intimidate black citizens against casting their ballots for the Republican party; the party of Abraham Lincoln.  At 3:30 pm, Octavius Catto was shot and killed outside of his home.  He was 32 years old.  The Pythians disbanded soon after.

Charles Douglass remained active in baseball through the 1870s, organizing games and helping black teams fight for equal access to playing grounds.  In 1872, he was made a trustee of DC Schools.  Douglass used this position to diversify the racial make-up of the city's school teachers and ensure that African-American educators received equal pay for their work.

Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, Paul Finkelman,Oxford University Press, 2006 
Negro Leagues Baseball, Roger A. Bruns, ABC-CLIO, 2012
When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime, Ryan Swanson, U of Nebraska, June 1, 2014
"September 3, 1869: Inter-racial Baseball in Philadelphia", Jerrold Casway, Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), 2013
"Fighting for Equality on the Baseball Grounds", Matt Rothenberg, National Baseball Hall of Fame
"Frederick Douglass; Honorary Member of the Mutual Baseball Club", John Muller, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC: The Lion of Anacostia, 2012
"An Early Quest for Equality on the Diamond", Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin, September 13, 2010, Philly.com
"Base Ball: A Novel Game in Philadelphia...", The New York Times, September 5, 1869
Timothy Hughes: Rare and Early Newspapers, RareNewspapers.com
Washington, DC Views from the Washington Monument (Photo), Reginald Hotchkiss, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division