The Civil War, Civil Rights and Black Baseball

Union prisoners playing baseball at Salisbury, N.C, drawn from nature by Act. Major Otto Boetticher (via The Library of Congress)

For many, the conversation of black baseball and civil rights begins and ends with integration. The hardships endured by Jackie Robinson as he broke the color barrier, along with the slow march to integrate other greats of the Negro Leagues, occupies much of the popular imagination. But the story is much much older than that. African-Americans were playing baseball at least 100 years before Jackie donned Dodger blue. Baseball, which played a vital role in northern Black communities before the Civil War, and was an important part of camp life during the war, was tied to African-American agitation for civil and political rights following the war.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Black ballplayers shared in the baseball mania that was spreading in the northeast. While many northern Blacks were impoverished, others could afford the time and expense of forming and joining their own ball clubs. In 1859, white, antislavery Republican Joshua Giddings, a congressman from Ohio, showed his support for desegregation and equality in baseball by playing in a game with African-Americans. By that year, African-Americans had formed three clubs in the Brooklyn area: the Unknown of Weeksville, the Henson of Jamaica, and the Monitor of Brooklyn. They were followed soon after by the Uniques and the Union, both of Williamsburgh.

The Civil War didn’t disrupt the game; indeed, it spread the burgeoning pastime. The war promulgated the game socially, economically and geographically due to the large number of young men in army camps. Soldiers from different parts of the country taught the game to those from regions the game had yet to reach. During the War, soldiers often played integrated baseball games to pass the time. Once Black soldiers returned from war, baseball would remain an important site of coming together for Black communities, drawing the notice of prominent leaders and serving as a literal field on which to agitate for change and inclusion.

Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a fan of the game himself. His son, Frederick Douglass Jr., played baseball with the integrated Charter Oak Juniors in Rochester, New York in 1859. After the war, Douglass Jr. moved to Washington, where he helped found the Alerts Base Ball Club of Washington. His brother, Charles, was the third baseman for the team. Charles Douglass later joined the Washington Mutuals Base Ball Club.

One of the earliest Negro league baseball clubs, was the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia, founded in 1865. Founded by Jacob C. White Jr. and Octavius Catto — both educators, intellectuals and civil rights activists — the Pythians was primarily comprised of middle class professionals from the Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York areas. In the Civil War, Catto served on a committee that recruited soldiers for the Union Army and joined a local African-American militia. He also campaigned for the desegregation of Philadelphia’s streetcars and for Blacks’ right to vote.

Catto’s enthusiasm for baseball and his desire for equal rights intersected. In February 2015, James Brunson, a professor at Northern Illinois and the country’s preeminent expert on 19th-century black baseball told

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.”

Baseball’s growing popularity helped drive his civil rights efforts.

During their first full season, just two years after the Civil War ended, the Pythians took on the Alerts and the Mutuals, in a home-and-home series. Frederick Douglass was in the stands to watch the games.

The Pythians were an extremely talented and capable baseball team among Black ball clubs, and they wanted equal consideration from white clubs. In 1869, they issued a challenge to every white team in Philadelphia: play us. Their challenge was accepted and they made history when they played the first documented game of interracial baseball against the Olympics, Philadelphia’s oldest white baseball club.

Though the Philadelphia Olympics routed the Pythians, 44-23, The Spirit of the Times of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, declared, “old-time prejudices are melting away in this country.” They went on to say, “It is not considered outside our own territory a lessening of dignity nor in the least disparaging to white men that they contend with blacks.” That journal hoped that “now that the prejudice has been broken through here, it will be entirely swept away.” The Pythians showed themselves to be worthy competitors for white clubs, and they went on to play white teams both locally and regionally.

The game continued to advance for Black ball clubs. In October of 1867, the Brooklyn Uniques played the Philadelphia Excelsiors, in the first recognized “Colored Championship.” The one-game championship contest was played at the Satellite Grounds in Brooklyn. In the seventh inning, the game was called due to darkness. Though three different final scores were reported, Philadelphia won the game and became the first “Colored Champion” of black baseball in the United States.

After the war, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments redefined state and federal citizenship and extended civil and political rights, but the amendments included no provisions for equality in private, voluntary activities. The leading Black clubs of Brooklyn, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington sought equal treatment by the white ball-playing fraternity.

The Pythians believed that their club could gain official recognition from the Pennsylvania State Association of Base Ball Players, a subsidiary of the National Association, at its convention in Harrisburg in October, 1867. The Athletics, a white team, agreed to sponsor their application. After being told to rescind the Pythians’ application or risk being blackballed, Pythians secretary Jacob White Jr. did just that, but the club decided to try to gain admission to the National Association at the annual meeting held in Philadelphia that December.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The December 19, 1867 The Ball Players’ Chronicle said that the report of the nominating committee recommended the exclusion of African-American clubs from representation in the Association.

The stated reason for this decision was to keep out discussion of any subject having a political bearing; that such an exclusion was itself political seems to have escaped the committee’s notice. The Association chose to exclude African-American ball clubs to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, and potentially, political ramifications. The Report to the Committee read as follows:

To the National Association of Base Ball Players:
The Nominating Committee beg leave respectfully to report:

First — That eight State Associations, representing 237 clubs, have applied for admission, and your committee recommend they be elected members, waiving such irregularities as are named in schedule №1 attached to this report.

Second — That they have elected eight clubs probationary members, according to Art. III, sec. 5 of the Constitution, and report favorably upon their election by the Convention, waiving such irregularities as are noted in schedule №2.

Third — That they report favorably upon the admission of twenty-eight clubs whose applications are correct as named in schedule №3.

Fourth — That they recommend the admission of eight clubs whose applications are more or less irregular, particulars of which can be found in schedule №4.

Fifth — That they find two memoranda received from the Recording Secretary (no doubt intended as applications from the Excelsior of Philadelphia and Crescent of — — -), which are too informal to be noticed by your committee.

Sixth — Your committee would beg to add, that it has been quite impossible for them to ascertain the condition, character, and standing of all the clubs, in different parts of the country, as required by the Constitution, and can only assume that the applications made are based upon good faith. It is not presumed by your committee that any club who have applied are composed of persons of color, or any portion of them; and the recommendations of your committee in this report are based upon this view, and they unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.

/S/Wm. H. Bell, M.D., Jas. Whyte Davis, Wm. E. Sinn; Philadelphia, Dec. 11, 1867.

The Pennsylvania State Association’s decision, however, was not isolated to rejection on a local level. Three years later, the New York Base Ball Association amended its rules for admission to bar baseball clubs composed of men of color entirely. And thus, the color line was born.

In 1871, Octavius Catto was murdered while on his way to vote. He used baseball as a means to accomplish more than wealth; Catto believed Black credibility and acceptance could be promoted by competing against white teams on a baseball diamond. It was sport as activism and activism as sport. It was a rather simple assertion of dignity, in the radical form of Black bodies pitched in equal competition against white bodies.

It would prove temporarily fruitless; the attempt to achieve equality through baseball failed. 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.”

The Pythians went on to become a charter member of the short-lived National Colored Base Ball League (NCBBL). Baseball was still a vital part of the community, but the activism of the diamond changed, reshaped in separate leagues where credibility and some wealth and prominence could be obtained, until the day when white baseball had to make room for Black players.

The quest for equality on the baseball field, and in the rest of the United States, would continue for years to come. The slow trudge to Jackie, and Larry Doby, and Hank Thompson was too long a road. But it was one that started not just with Jackie’s Montreal Royals, or Doby’s Newark Eagles, but in the muddy fields of the Civil War, and Octavius Catto’s Pythian Base Ball Club, and a series of dreams and leagues that came and went, but were tied closely to a simple, but clear request to be included. To be thought of as full people, on a green field, with belief that baseball might mean something more. That we might all be entitled to more.

References and Resources

Shakeia Taylor is a writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on the intersection of Black culture and sport in America.
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5 years ago

Great piece! Shakeia, your perspective on the sport continues to be my favorite out there right now

5 years ago

Great article! In a game with so much history, it’s especially important to learn different facets of its history, like what is reported here.
5 years ago

Thank you for this article. Very interesting. I am intrigued by the early days of baseball and stories like this one need to be told. Keep them coming!

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Fascinating article. Baseball and race are an integral part of American history and the African American struggle for equality. Jackie Robinson is as much a recognized figure in this country as is Martin Luther King, Jr. Looking back before the Negro Leagues formed offers a fresh look at the origins of excluding black players from the major leagues. It was a practice destined to end if for no other reason than competition. Economic cartels always fall apart when one party figures out it can beat out the competition and maximize profits by opting out of the nefarious agreement. What I find interesting is that no other American sport has such a conflicted relationship with racial hiring. I am sure there was a first black player in the NBA and NFL but I am clueless as to who they are and really don’t care. But show me a book like A Well Paid Slave by Brad Snyder or 1964 by David Halberstam and I will read it and never shut up about it.

5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

From Wikipedia:

“Charles Henry “Chuck” Cooper (September 29, 1926 – February 5, 1984) was an American professional basketball player. He and two others, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd, became the first African-American players in the NBA in 1950.[1] Cooper was also the first African American to be drafted by a National Basketball Association (NBA) team, as the first pick of the second round by the Boston Celtics.”

The NFL is harder, as there were a few black players up until 1934 when the league finally banned their participation. In the post-WWII era, the newly installed Rams in Los Angeles signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, previously of UCLA and the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League in 1946. However it’s the better known Marion Motley and Bill Willis, both of the Cleveland Browns who get the historical focus of the NFL and its fans after the Browns joined the NFL from the All-America Football Conference in 1950.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago
Reply to  trevise-en


5 years ago

Great article thanks. I’d like to learn more about pre 1869 baseball. What books would you recommend?