Ahead of His Time

Octavius Catto pursued Civil Rights on the diamond in the 19th Century

February 13, 2013

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Jackson Malnati

While skilled and athletic, Octavius Catto was plenty more than just a ballplayer. An excellent leader both on the field and off, his life’s work amounted to a resume of astounding proportions. By the time of his death in October 1871, Catto was recognized an educator, organizer, and activist.

Octavius Valentine Catto was born in 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina as a free black man and the son of a Presbyterian minister. Upon moving to Philadelphia at the age of five, he became a star pupil, graduating from the Institute for Colored Youth in 1858 with the honors of class Valedictorian. Afterwards, he began his career as a teacher at his Alma Mater, but this was not enough for the ambitious Catto.

In 1863, at the age of 24, Catto responded to a call for Civil War emergency troops by raising one of the first volunteer companies with black soldiers and white officers. In addition, he and Frederick Douglass raised all-black regiments. As a recruiter, his message was simple, yet effective: “Men of color, to arms to arms, now or never.”

After the war, Catto turned toward the public arena. In 1864, Catto led a successful charge to desegregate the public transit system in Philadelphia. His method for achievement was the same one used by Rosa Parks in the 1960s: Civil disobedience. It is widely believed that Catto organized pregnant women and college students to board the streetcars in large numbers. At the time, this was an incredible feat and an approach that was just as unique as the effect it had.

At around the same time, Octavius Catto delved into a career in baseball. Prior to the war, baseball was a game only played by the wealthy. It grew to include a larger audience that included the lower class, and eventually spread to African-American participants as well. Along with popularity, organization drastically spread. The Pythian Baseball club formed in 1867, with Catto as its captain and second baseman. The members of Catto’s team were influential African Americans, wealthier and more privileged than the majority of African Americans in the era immediately following the Civil War.

As captain, Catto scheduled games, reserving umpires and venues for the occasions. He corresponded with secretaries from other clubs, but he focused on the bigger picture – the question of what would follow from these games. His vision seemed to take a step in the right direction when, beginning in 1867, white players and black leaders attended games as spectators, recording that the man on the field were a “well-behaved, gentlemanly set of young fellows.”

After the 1876 season that saw the Pythian club finish with a 9-1 record, Catto got bold. He applied for membership to the state chapter of the National Amateur Association of Base Ball Players. His motto was, “Fight if there’s a chance.” This led to his instrumental role of corresponding secretary in the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, an organization that laid the groundwork for civil rights actions. Catto was a man ahead of his time, as delegates refused to address his appeal for integration on the diamond. His death came shortly after, in 1871, on the night before the election. He was the victim of political violence, assassinated because he was so widely recognized in the community.

It would take nearly eighty years for Catto’s seed to sprout a flower, as another strong-willed second baseman – Jackie Robinson – would break baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’NeilElston HowardRachel Robinsonthe Evolution of Night BaseballWelday WalkerHerb WashingtonConnie MorganBill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson.

Jackson Malnati was a 2012 membership  intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development. For information on how to apply for the Class of 2014 Steele Internship Program, click here