The Complex Story of Black Baseball Prior to 1880

When thinking about Blacks in baseball, the conversation usually starts with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier or the slow process of integrating the greats from the Negro Leagues. However, that was more than a lifespan after the real story of African-Americans in baseball.

Baseball started for African-Americans at least 100 years before Jackie played for the Dodgers. Baseball played an essential role in northern Black communities well before the Civil War. It was also a part of everyday camp life during the war and played a part in blacks campaigning for civil and political rights after the war.

Baseball was evolving across the northeast in the 1840s and 1850s, and Blacks were just as fond of the newly popular sport. Yes, many African-Americans in the north were poor, but some could afford the expense and the time of forming and participating in their own ball clubs.

In 1859, Joshua Giddings, a white antislavery republican and congressman from Ohio, played in a game with African-Americans to show his support for desegregation and equality in baseball. At that time (in 1859), Blacks up north had established three teams around the Brooklyn area: the Unknowns of Weeksville, the Henson of Jamaica, and the Monitor of Brooklyn. Two more teams: the Uniques and the Union joined shortly after.

The Civil war started in 1861, but it did not interfere with baseball. It helped the sport flourish. The war promoted the game economically, socially, and geographically due to the number of men in camps. It got to the point where soldiers from different areas of the country taught the game to those that weren’t familiar with the sport yet. Integrated games were played during the war between the soldiers.

The love for the game wouldn’t cease even after the soldiers returned from the war. It aided in bringing Black communities together and piqued the interest of well-known leaders.

Surely you recognize the name of Frederick Douglass right? He was one of the most notable to become a fan of baseball. His son, Frederick Douglass Jr. played with the Charter Oak Juniors, an integrated team from Rochester, New York in 1859.

Jumping forward a few years to the Negro league baseball clubs, one of the first was the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia that was founded in 1865 by Jacob C. White Jr. and Octavius Catto. Both White and Catto were educators, intellectuals, and civil rights activists. The Pythians were predominantly middle-class Blacks from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.

“Catto’s social and political connections with white businessmen and white baseballists were crucial to the team crossing bats with white organizations,” said James Brunson, a professor at Northern Illinois and black baseball’s 19th-century expert. “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.”

The Pythian’s first official full season came two years after the Civil War ended, and it started with a home-and-home series against the Mutuals and the Alerts with Douglass in attendance.

After their first official season, the Pythians established themselves as the premier, most talented Black club and wanted equal consideration from white clubs. They then challenged every white club in Philadelphia to play them in 1869. The Olympics, the oldest white club dating back to 1832 in Philadelphia, picked up that offer, and the first interracial baseball game was played.

The Olympics were established and affluent, so there’s no surprise that they blew the Pythians out 44-23, but this game meant more than the game itself. This was validation for the Pythians. This showed that they were capable of competing against white clubs, and that’s what they continued to do on the local and regional level.

The Pythians were before their time, but other Black clubs were still making history themselves. In 1867, the Brooklyn Uniques played the Philadelphia Excelsiors in the first official, ‘Colored Championship.’ It was just one game, played at the Satellite Grounds in Brooklyn. The game was called in the seventh inning due to darkness, but Philly won the game after three different final scores were reported. They became the first Colored Champion of Black baseball.

The Pythians believed they could gain more notable recognition from the Pennsylvania State Association of Base Ball Players at its convention in October of 1867. A white team called the Athletics sponsored the Pythian’s request, but their secretary, White Jr. rescinded their application due to the risk of being blackballed. Two months later, the club attempted to gain acceptance into the National Association at the annual meeting held in Philly.

At the annual meeting on December 19, 1867, The Ball Players’ Chronicle reported that the nominating committee advised the exclusion if African-American clubs from representation in the association.

The reason: to avoid discussion of any subject having political relevance. The committee excluded Black baseball clubs to dodge an uncomfortable conversation and possible political consequences.

Three years later, however, The New York Base Ball Association amended its rules for admission to bar baseball clubs composed of men of color completely, which started the color line.

The Pythian’s Catto was murdered in 1871 while he was en route to vote.

The Pythians went on to become a member of the National Colored Base Ball League (NCBBL). Baseball still played an important role in Black communities, but the activism around the sport came to a halt. Blacks played in their league, and whites played in their league until there was no choice but to include Black players more than 70 years later.

For years, Black people were on a mission to be considered equal. Not only a fraction of a person but equal. It took more than 70 years after the Pythians virtually gave up hope for baseball players like Robinson, Larry Doby and Hank Thompson to be deemed ‘worthy’ of playing with their white peers, and even then that was a fight. Black people have been fighting adversity for hundreds of years, and although they’ve dominated sports by 2020, they’re still fighting the old mindsets of generations past.

Addam M. Francisco

Founder & Editor-in-Chief. National Association of Black Journalists. University of Central Oklahoma.

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