Philadelphia Pythians, all-black baseball team, mixed athletics with advocacy after the Civil War

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 African-American activist Octavius Catto led the Pythians, Philadelphia's post Civil War, all-black baseball team

African-American activist Octavius Catto led the Pythians, Philadelphia's post Civil War, all-black baseball team

Just after the Civil War, all-black baseball teams began springing up. Philadelphia’s team was called the Pythians, and it was led by African-American activist Octavius Catto.

The Phillies kicked off a new home season at Citizens Bank Park this week. Founded in 1883, they’re the oldest, continuous, one-name, one-franchise team in all of professional sports.

But Philadelphia’s baseball tradition dates even further back, and it’s intertwined with a transformative period in American history.

Just after the Civil War, all-black baseball teams began springing up across the Northeast. In Philadelphia, the team was known as the Pythians.

Led by African-American activist Octavius Catto, the Pythians played mostly other black teams in the region.

But their games often sparked debates and discussions among politically minded black men living in the North. “They’re also talking about equal rights, they’re talking about promoting black liberties, they’re talking about the desegregation of streetcars,” said Dr. Jerrold Casway, history professor at Howard Community College in Maryland.

Though it was rare, the Pythians also faced white teams. They formed a bond with the 19th century version of the Philadelphia Athletics (unrelated to Oakland’s current team) and its owner, Col. Thomas Fitzgerald, who shared an abolitionist vision. “Both Catto and those who associated with the Athletics believed that on the field of green, the competition … could level the problems that separated the races,” said Casway.

Catto, an outspoken proponent of the voting rights of African-American men, would later be shot by a local man after a protest-scarred mayoral election day, and the Pythians quickly dissolved. But their legacy didn’t.

“They sort of hang up their spikes and they almost, almost go into oblivion.”

To hear Dr. Casway discuss the Pythians with WHYY’s Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn, click the yellow speaker button above to reveal audio player.

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