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Philadelphia's Pythians made baseball history in 1800s

It's rare enough that a baseball team makes history once, let alone twice. But the Philadelphia Pythians did it three times.

The Pythians became arguably the nation's first truly evolved African-American hardball team when they coalesced in 1866 under the direction of civil-rights pioneer Octavius Catto. Then, in 1869, they shattered barriers again when they played the Olympics, Philly's oldest white ballclub, and became part of the first documented game of interracial base ball (two words back then).

But the Pythians weren't done. In 1887, they entered the National Colored Base Ball League, the first attempt in the country by black base ballists to organize a formal league. Although the venture collapsed shortly after its launch, the NCBBL, including the much-respected Pythians, proved that the nation's African-American base ball community had the aspirations for success that the parallel white leagues and teams had.

Such trailblazing efforts and events take on extra significance during February, Black History Month. It's hard to deny the Pythians' crucial place in the history of not only the national pastime, but also in America's social and political history.

"The Pythians, in my view, allow us to peer into the socio-cultural world in which they lived, thrived and tragically died," says James Brunson, a professor at Northern Illinois and the country's preeminent expert on 19th-century black baseball.

"I find it more significant, if not as significant, as the 'sociopolitical' territory. As such, the black luminaries that crossed or intersected the [Pythians'] path offer an interesting case study in American cultural history."

The Pythians also were part of the machinations that created what could be the first formal barring of a black base ball aggregation from an all-white league. That happened in late 1867, when the Pythian Club was forced to withdraw its applications for admission into two burgeoning leagues: the National Association of Base Ball Players and the Pennsylvania Base Ball Association.

But instead of handling such a rejection with despairing resignation, the African-American base ball community used it as inspiration to do what white teams and players were doing on a parallel track of history. Thus, what happened in the late 1860s and 1870s helped lead to the creation of the first sustained, successful professional black baseball circuit, the Negro National League, in 1920.

"In response, African Americans in Philadelphia and elsewhere embraced the self-help strategy advocated by Booker T. Washington in the late nineteenth century," author and researcher Neil Lanctot wrote in Negro League Baseball: The rise and ruin of a black institution.

"Rather than actively agitate for participation in Organized Baseball ... blacks began to build separate institutions of their own, forming their own amateur and later professional teams by the mid-1880s."

According to the book, The Negro Leagues: 1869-1960, by Kent State University professor Leslie Heaphy, the Pythians also made their mark by establishing only the highest standards for the team's members, on and off the field.

Heaphy noted that, while renting rooms at the respected Banneker Institute, Pythians players were fined for breaking team rules and served as gracious hosts to their opponents after each game. Funds raised by such fines as well as the players' membership dues to the sponsoring Pythian Fraternal Organization paid for elaborate social gatherings and various team expenses.

On the field, the nine took on any and all challengers. The Pythians didn't play just other African-American clubs such as the Excelsiors of Philadelphia; New Jersey's Arlington Club; the El Dorados, Alerts and Mutuals from the nation's capital; and the fellow Pennsylvanian team, the Monrovians. They also squared off against top regional white clubs.

One of those clashes made sporting history. On Sept. 3, 1869, Philly's oldest base ball team, the Olympics, boldly accepted a challenge issued by the "Pyths" to every white team in the city.

The Olympics entered the contest with a pedigree that traced back to the 1830s, and that made their 44-23 victory over the African-American squad not too surprising. Still, the resulting press coverage of the clash acknowledged that the Pythians played a solid, hard-nosed game and didn't go down without a fight.

Besides, the score didn't matter as much as the fact that such a landmark event even took place. That led, The Crisis, the NAACP's official magazine, to celebrate the happening.

"The novelty of the affair drew an immense crowd," the publication reported on Sept. 8, 1869, "it being the first game between a white and colored club."

The ripples of influence indeed reached far beyond Philadelphia; the Baltimore Sun, for example, ran a report of the game on the paper's front page.

Perhaps the most pivotal figure driving the Pythian Base Ball Club, at least at the nascence, was Catto, a South Carolina native from a family of base ball enthusiasts and upper-middle-class "free people of color." He moved to Philadelphia as a youth and developed into one of the nation's leading abolitionists and equal-rights activists. Unfortunately, Catto's courageous stridency got him killed; he was murdered on a street in 1871 while on his way to vote in that year's election, a crime that ultimately went unpunished.

Catto's death made him one of the first martyrs of the civil-rights movement, a much revered activist and educator whose passion and dedication influenced equal-rights supporters for a century.

While he was alive, Catto's additional status as an early African-American base ball enthusiast intersected with an informal but tense color line that separated Philadelphians not just by race, but by politics as well. But, in many ways, Brunson said, the situation wasn't as simple as that.

"Catto embodied the drive for black rights and citizenship in the United States prior to the passage of the 15th Amendment," Brunson said. "A celebrated figure in Philadelphia black society, Catto actively engaged in Republican politics. ... He taught at the Institute for Colored Youth. Catto was a Civil War veteran.

"Catto's social and political connections with white businessmen and white baseballists were crucial to the team crossing bats with white organizations. ... It is important to contextualize these efforts in relation to the efforts of other black clubs during the period. Catto appears to have played hardball with the white organizers, and they responded in kind. It was as much politics as it was baseball. Many of these white players were hardcore Democrats; Catto was a Republican who pushed for black male suffrage and citizenship."

Catto died shortly after the formation of the Pythian nine, but the club forged ahead and evolved into a powerful force on the base ball scene in the 1870s and 1880s. That influence culminated in the spring of 1887, when the Pyths spearheaded the creation of the first known, organized black hardball league in history, the NCBBL. That The Inquirer followed the development of the NCBBL fairly closely perhaps reflected how vital the Pythian club had become.

"The circuit is complete. ... All [the league squads] are said to have good financial backing, and the projectors of the league have hopes that all of them will play the season through," the paper reported in March 1887.

"The Pythian Club, of this city, has a large following, and its stockholders are from among the best colored people of the city," The Inquirer added.

Unfortunately, the ambitious plans for the new black league crumbled quickly in May 1887, roughly only a week into the season scheduled. Several teams ran into major financial troubles, spurring them to withdraw from the NCBBL and continue as independent clubs.

The moves naturally killed the league, with the Pythians deciding to go it alone, the last straw coming when the New York Gorhams failed to show for a slated contest May 17. The Inquirer subsequently reported that "it is now almost certain that the Pythians will withdraw from the Colored League and play as an independent club."

Alas, perhaps because the aggregation had invested so heavily in the league, the Pythians seem to have been crushed when the circuit went down so quickly - the club seems to have been snuffed out of existence soon after.

But by then, the Pythian club had already staked out a firm place in the history of the sport, becoming an inspiration for a slew of other black players and teams and redefining, whether they knew it or not – and for better or for worse – the role race played in the national pastime and society as a whole.

However, while the Pythians' place in hardball evolution cannot be denied, Brunson asserts it's important to remember that the Philadelphia nine has earned such a revered place in baseball history because, compared to the dozens of other early black aggregations, it has been relatively well studied and documented.

The Pythian Base Ball Club may loom large over the development of black baseball, but the Pythians didn't do it alone or in isolation. They might have paved the way, especially in Philly, but they were buoyed by other ambitious teams that helped lay the foundation, often and still in anonymity, for the greatness that was to come.