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Honoring a Philly field where baseball brought races together

"Baseball brings communities together," a speaker told those gathered at the Jefferson Street Ballparks, where the first interracial baseball game on record in the U.S. was played.

A new historical marker commemorating the Jefferson Street Ballparks was unveiled in North Philly on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.
A new historical marker commemorating the Jefferson Street Ballparks was unveiled in North Philly on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

About 40 people gathered on a grassy North Philadelphia field Saturday morning to celebrate a new state historical marker honoring the spot where, on Sept. 3, 1869, civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto captained the all-black Pythians baseball team in the country's first recorded interracial game.

The Pythians lost to the all-white Olympics. But the fact that the game was played shortly after the Civil War spoke to progress being made.

The Jefferson Street Ballparks, on Jefferson Street near 26th, now home to the baseball fields, playground, and basketball courts of the Athletic Recreation Center, served as the practice grounds for the Olympics and another all-white team, the Athletics, in the late 19th century.

Matt Albertson, 28, of Havertown, a baseball history buff who made the nomination to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the marker, told the seated and standing crowd before the unveiling: "This site was host to monumental baseball events, which both pressed for cultural change and ushered in the modern era of professional sports in America."

The new cast aluminum marker is one of more than 2,000 in Pennsylvania commemorating a part of the state's history.

"Pythian captain Octavius Catto, to whom a brand-new statue was dedicated at City Hall this past Tuesday, used baseball — among other things — as a vehicle for social change," Albertson said. "They challenged the established racial hierarchy immediately following the Civil War and proved that baseball was no longer a game for moneyed elites, but was also for the common man and free African Americans."

The Jefferson ballpark was also where the first major-league baseball game — a National League game between the Athletics in Philadelphia and the Boston Red Caps — was played on April 22, 1876. The Boston team won.

Rob Holiday, who oversees amateur scouting for the Phillies, told those in attendance that he hadn't been aware of the Jefferson Street Ballparks until Albertson told him about the site. He called the grounds a "mecca of baseball for all time."

The Athletic Base Ball Club was revived in Philadelphia in 2009, with the formation of a vintage team that competes with others in the Mid-Atlantic region. They use rules from 1864 and bats, balls, bases, and uniforms fashioned to resemble the originals.

Albertson is a member of the vintage baseball club. So is Dan Gordon, president of the club, who was one of five team members who showed up at Saturday's marker-dedication ceremony in the team's wool uniforms — white shirts with a Gothic letter "A" shield in front, blue pants, and a white cap with a five-pointed blue star on top.

"Baseball brings communities together," Gordon told those gathered for the celebration, noting the club consists of musicians, artists, politicians, educators, and community organizers.

Gordon explained after the unveiling that the Olympics team was considered the oldest recognized ball club in the nation. But, at the time of its founding in the early 1830s, the team played town ball, which differed from baseball. By the time the Olympics played on the Jefferson Street Ballparks in the late 1800s, the game had evolved and the Olympics were then playing baseball, Gordon said.

Also in attendance Saturday were Seamus Kearney and Dick Rosen, cochairs of the Connie Mack Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, who supported the campaign for the marker. "This is a story about American culture where baseball first began," Kearney told the crowd.

Two years from now, in September 2019, said Kearney, a re-creation of the first interracial game will be played on the field as part of a 150th-year commemoration of the historic event.