Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Philadelphia's Negro Leagues Tradition

As a new exhibit honoring the players of the Negro Leagues opens to mark Black History Month and commemorate winter ball, it's a good time to remember the origins of black baseball in Philadelphia. Between 1934 and 1950, Philadelphia had an organized team called the Stars, who, with such prospective Hall of Famers as Dick Lundy, Biz Mackey, and Jud Wilson, took the Negro National League pennant in their inaugural year. The Stars' park was at 44th and Parkside in West Philly, across the street from the site of America's first world's fair, ground upon which now stands a memorial including the above mural.

Seventy years before the Stars were born, the city's first black baseball club, the Philadelphia Pythians, were founded by the spectacularly named Octavius Valentine Catto in the midst of the Civil War. Catto was the star shortshop for the Pythians, who, adhering to the fashion of the day, adopted a Greek name, this one based on athletic contests that were precursors to the Olympics. When, at the 1867 convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players, Catto applied to have the Pythians officially recognized, the association explicitly erected the baseball color barrier that would be ultimately crossed by Jackie Robinson four score years hence:
It is not presumed by your committee that any club who have applied are composed of persons of color, or any portion of them; and the recommendations of your committee in this report are based upon this view, and they unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.
But Catto wouldn't let his fight for black political equality be sidetracked by one racist organization. Beyond his role as team leader and star, he was a renowned academic, activist, and sometime military leader. Years prior, in 1863, when Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed into Pennsylvania and approached Gettysburg, Catto raised a company of volunteers, many of whom were his students from Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth, only to be rejected upon arrival in Gettysburg by a Union General who reasoned that black troops were not authorized. As the 1860s turned into the 1870s and the height of Reconstruction, Catto, rebuked for his color and that of his colleagues by both the Union Army and organized baseball, became instrumental in passing Pennsylvania's fifteenth amendment, which gave black men the right to vote, and in organizing African-American voting efforts throughout Philadelphia.

In that era, African-Americans overwhelmingly supported the liberal party of their day, the Republican Party, which, as the party of Lincoln, resisted the racial bigotry and conservatism of the Democrats. During one particular contentious campaign in 1871, gangs of white Democrats organized around volunteer fire companies threatened violence against black voters and, come Election Day, made good on their promise. On that day, as he walked amid rampant street violence to his home at 8th and South, he passed white members of South Philly's Moyamensing Hose Company, one of whom turned and fired two fatal shots into the back of Octavius Valentine Catto.

Years later the organized Negro Leagues brought recognition to black baseball, and after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color barrier Philadelphia pro teams followed suit, with the A's signing Bob Trice in 1953 and the Phillies signing John Kennedy in 1957. The last negro leagues teams petered out in the fifties, with the Stars closing up shop as that decade opened.

Today the Stars are remembered with a mural and a statue in a tiny park. An East Camden elementary school bears Catto's name. At 812 South Street in Philadelphia, a historical marker reads
Octavius V. Catto

An early graduate of the Institute for Colored Youth, Catto, who lived here, was an educator, a Union army major, and a political organizer. In 1871 he was assassinated by street rioters while urging African-Americans to vote. His death was widely mourned locally.
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Image credits: (1) "Philadelphia Stars Mural 4" by capnpitz, available under Creative Commons license; (2) "Octavius Catto, Black Baseball Pioneer," courtesy Wikipedia, public domain.


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