The Drawing of the Color Line, 1867

African Americans had played baseball near Madison Square in the 1840s and by 1859, they had formed three clubs in the Brooklyn area: the Unknown of Weeksville, the Henson of Jamaica, and the Monitor of Brooklyn; these would be followed by the Uniques and the Union, both of Williamsburgh. In Rochester, in 1859, Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the great abolitionist orator, played baseball with the integrated Charter Oak Juniors. A somewhat later all-black club in Albany was the Bachelors; the Excelsior, the Pythian, and L’Overture formed in Philadelphia. When young Douglass moved to Washington, he helped to form another baseball club, the Alerts.

In July 1867, the Pythians agreed to take on two Washington clubs, the Alerts and the Mutuals, in home-and-home series. The white Athletics offered their grounds for the Philadelphia matches and were broadly supportive of the Pythians. “Fred. Douglass Sees a Colored Game,” reported the Clipper on July 13:

The announcement that the Pythian, of Philadelphia, would play the Alert, of Washington, D. C. (both colored organizations) on the 15th inst., attracted quite a concourse of spectators on the grounds of the Athletic. The game progressed finely until the beginning of the fifth innings, when a heavy shower of rain set in, compelling the umpire, Mr. E. H. Hayhurst, of the Athletic, to call the game. The score stood at the end of the fourth innings: Alert 21, Pythian 16. Mr. Frederick Douglass was present and viewed the game from the reporters’ stand. His son is a member of the Alert.

The 1867 season was a triumph, as African-American clubs proliferated and on October 25 the Uniques and Monitors, both Brooklyn clubs, met in a contest for the “championship of colored clubs.” The Pythians felt confident that their club could gain official recognition from the Pennsylvania State Association of Base Ball Players, a subsidiary of the National Association, at a convention in Harrisburg in the middle of October. The Athletics agreed to sponsor their application. As Pythian secretary Jacob White Jr. later reported:

Whilst the Committee on Credentials were making up their report, the delegates clustered together in small groups to discuss what action should be taken. Sec. Domer stated although he, Mr. Hayhurst, and the President were in favor of our acceptance, still the majority of the delegates were opposed to it, and they would advise me to withdraw my application, as they thought it were better for us to withdraw than to have it on record that we were black balled.

Instructed to “fight if there was a chance,” White finally relented, as “there seemed no chance for any thing but being black balled.” The Pythian Club then tried to gain admission to the National Association at the annual meeting held in Philadelphia at the Chestnut Street Theater on December 11 and 12. The Ball Players’ Chronicle of December 19, 1867 commented that the report of the Nominating Committee, through its acting chairman, Mr. James Whyte Davis of the Knickerbockers, recommended the exclusion of African-American clubs from representation in the Association:

After the roll call the reading of the minutes of the last Convention came up in order; but as they included all the reports of the committees, the reading was, on motion, dispensed with.  The reports of officers being next in order, the Recording Secretary reported verbally that he had attended to a voluminous correspondence on subjects appertaining to his office, and had written 379 letters in reply during the year.  The subject of the order by the President changing Rule 10, last season, then came up.  The President made an explanation of the case, stating that he had been convinced, by representations made to him by the chairman of the Committee on Rules, that the rule as printed was erroneous, and he had therefore ordered its correction.  A long and rather personal discussion was about to ensue, when the Convention, taking the same view of it that the President did, by a majority vote, decided to close the discussion.  This done with, the report of the Nominating Committee, through the acting chairman, Mr. James W. Davis, was presented, the feature of it being the recommendation to exclude colored clubs from representation in the Association, the object being to keep out of the Convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, as this undoubtedly had.  The following is the REPORT OF THE NOMINATING COMMITTEE.

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 No. 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 No. 2.

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

In seeking to keep out of the convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, the game’s color line had been drawn. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”

The 1870 New York State Base Ball Association meetings added a final insult: The rules for admission of new clubs were amended so as to bar clubs composed of gentlemen of color, which prompted the Clipper to write, “we would suggest that the colored clubs of New York and Philadelphia at once take measures to organize a National Association of their own.”

1 Comment

Nice article! I covered a lot of this in Chapter 5 of “Base Ball in Philadelphia.” A couple of minor points…

I’ve always assumed the L’Ouverture club was named after the famous Haitian revolutionary leader, Touissant L’Ouverture, who was indirectly responsible for the U.S. being able to make the Louisiana Purchase.

The umpire of the Pythian/Alert game was, of course, the same Hicks Hayhurst who later championed Pythian’s attempt to join both the Pennsylvania State and National associations. As I understand it, if Pythian had been accepted into the Pennsylvania
State Association, that would have also made them members of the NABBP.

Was “Excelsior of Philadelphia” another “colored” club that had applied for admission? I wasn’t able to nail that down.

The envelope (which I would probably be willing to commit a minor felony to have) is indeed addressed to Pythian’s office at 718 Lombard St., right across the street from the Institute for Colored Youth (the future Cheyney University), where Pythian founder/captain/manager/promoter/second baseman, etc., Octavius Catto was assistant to the principal. Catto also worked together with the senior Douglass to get the 17th Amendment passed. Catto lived about a block south of the school and office, and was shot and killed by a Democrat (times have changed…), also about a block south, on Election Day 1871, having voted for the first time under the 17th Amendment.

Rationalizations aside, this line really says it all about the drawing of the Color Line… “The committee further proclaimed, `If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.'” No injury to ANYONE? A very typical sentiment on race relations on the late 1860s.

The Pythian scorecards are preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, less than 10 blocks from Pythian’s former office.

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