Thursday, July 16, 2015

Before Jackie Robinson - Octavius Catto

I learn something new everyday.

Some of my favorite social media accounts to follow are those that post up nothing but photos, and if it's geared towards baseball then I likely check it out several times a day.  This morning one of my favorites, @TheSkimmers on twitter, shared a pic of a late 19th century CDV of a fellow in a suit (check it out above).   This twitterer focuses solely on vintage Baseball pics, so at first glance this post just didn't make sense.

Who is this awesomely named guy and what are you doing on my twitter feed?

Naturally, I did some googling and what I found out is fascinating.

Octavius V. Catto was like the Jackie Robinson of the 19th century. 

From Philadelphia, Catto was a part of just about every important freedom/liberation movement during his time, and spokesman for civil rights.  He was active in Republican Party politics (during the time of Abraham Lincoln), lobbied for civil rights, helped raise 11 all black regiments during the Civil War and thereafter, used passive resistance in the fight for equality in public transportation, and campaigned aggressively for voting rights.

Octavius Catto was also the first black ballplayer to seek entry into the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) - the games main governing body.  He was an accomplished short stop, coach, captain and founder of the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia - America's first African American team. Knowing that Base Ball was a pathway to inclusion into the American way of life, he used the game as a way to break down barriers.  In fact, the very first match between a black and white team was between Pythian and the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia in 1869.  BTW, by 1902 the Pythian team morphed into the vaunted Eastern League Philadelphia Giants ballclub.

As I wrote above, Catto was active in the fight for voting rights, and by 1870 Pennsylvania had ratified the 15th Amendment that provided those rights.  A year later those once disenfranchised could came out to vote in the states first election.  So, folks fearful of the changes that could occur from the changing ballot box formed roving gangs to instill fear within the black populace.  Violence and riots ensued.

On that election day, October 10, 1871, Octavius V. Catto was steps away from his front porch when Frank Kelly, an active Democratic Party honcho, recognized him and shot him dead.  The violence caused a public outcry and an severe backlash.  Large majorities voted Republican that day.  Unfortunately, justice did not come in Catto's murder.  Even with numerous eye witnesses (many of whom knew the shooter personally) Frank Kelly was acquitted of his crime.

Although Catto's story ends in a sad note, I think it's important to note what a big stepping stone his actions were.  He is an unsung hero for equality and arguably the first person to recognize how the nation's pastime can be used to bridge a divide that had split the country for far too long. 

As Jackie Robinson said,
 "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."
Octavius V. Catto certainly exemplifies what Jackie meant. After learning a little bit about this man life I would fully support his inclusion into Copperstown.

* Please follow on twitter @ernestreyes *
* Dodgers Blue Heaven home page *

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