I’ll admit. I was not familiar with the story of Octavius Catto – black activist after the Civil War – until I came across his story in an unexpected place: MLB historian John Thorn’s terrific book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.
Catto was very much a renaissance man. Catto was an educator of boys in Philadelphia. He was an abolitionist, who helped fight for the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, securing voting rights for blacks. (Note of remembrance: women still had not attained suffrage at this time.) But of all the things he loved, perhaps his “rose bud” moment as he died, he loved baseball. He was an accomplished ball player who ran the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia. They even had an undefeated season in 1867.
His sudden demise is a tragic one. On election day 1871, the first time that Catto would be able to exercise his right to vote, he got word of voter intimidation voters coming from the Democrats – especially amongst the Irishmen of the city. Wanting to protect himself, he left his school and went to Freedman Bank, withdrew $20, then continued on to a pawn shop, where he purchased a hand gun. As he was walking through the streets, gun in his pocket, an Irishman named Frank Kelly recognized him, brushed passed him, turned around and shot him in the back. Catto fell to the ground, but as he tried to get up and escape, Kelly approached and shot him dead in broad daylight, amongst many witnesses.
Kelly was put on trial and acquitted by an all-white jury.
I’m fascinated by this tragic tale for a variety of reasons. I have already written a play about the incident and I’m looking to do some more creative writing surrounding it as I think it has much to say to us today. It’s going to involve some fantasy. Maybe you didn’t see that twist coming! Stay-tuned for more about this remarkable ballplayer.
His courage and ballplaying skills were largely forgotten to history, except that a statue of Catto was erected in Philadelphia in 2017. A man who earned the right to vote but never got to exercise it. A man who loved the game of baseball, but never again suited up to play.
Who are the other lost heroes of the American past? I’m sure they are longing to have their stories told as well.