Pythian Baseball Club Headquarters

Octavius V. Catto. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

718 Lombard Street

Founded in 1867, the Pythians were Philadelphia's first black baseball club. Although they played in Fairmount Park, the Pythians used this building, Liberty Hall at the Institute for Colored Youth, for their club house. The Pythians were founded by prominent young African American leaders, Jacob C. White Jr. and Octavius V. Catto. Catto and White viewed baseball as more than just a pastime; they believed the game could be a vehicle for black self-improvement. Baseball was literally another field upon which African Americans could assert their skills and independence, and prove their right to full citizenship and equality. In 1867, the Pythians were refused membership in the National Association of Base Ball Players, solely on the basis of race. This set the precedent for the segregated major leagues as well as for the independent Negro Leagues that flourished in 20th century.

Many of the Pythian members were affiliated with Quaker-sponsored Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University), a prestigious black teacher's college and intellectual hub of African American Philadelphia. The institute, located at 715 Lombard in the heart of the Cedar Street corridor, taught higher mathematics, classical languages, literature, and philosophy as well as the ideals of individual freedom and equal rights.

The founders of the Pythian Baseball Club were educators and equal rights activists. White was the principal of the Robert Vaux School and president of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital. Catto, called "Philadelphia's Renaissance man" by historian Andrew Waskie, was the Pythians' manager and star player — second baseman and shortstop — but is better known as an educator, Civil War veteran, and civil-rights activist. He was an early graduate and later president of the Institute for Colored Youth.

For European immigrants, playing baseball — "America's Game" — whether in a city park or on a professional diamond, was often a route to American cultural assimilation and integration. But this path to mainstream America was denied African Americans.

In 1871, while trying to organize Philadelphia's African American voters, Catto was assassinated by white rioters just blocks from his home. Six days later, shops and businesses closed for the day as Catto was honored with Philadelphia's largest public funeral since Lincoln; the cortege included a procession of his fellow Pythians. In June 2006, the City of Philadelphia kicked off a $1.5 million fundraising campaign to erect a statue honoring Octavius Valentine Catto at City Hall.

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