In their very first season, the Pythians proved themselves on the fields of Philadelphia, Camden, West Chester and Harrisburg. Later that same year—1867—when the National Association of Base Ball Players met in Philadelphia, the Pythians applied for membership and soon heard the unanimous decision: “Any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons” could not join. And so, this all-African-American team led by Octavius Catto, would be excluded from organized baseball.
The decision didn’t sit well with baseball organizer, journalist and reformer Thomas Fitzgerald. As mentioned in a recent post, at the start of the 1869 season Fitzgerald proposed going “against the rules” and called for “a game between one of our white clubs and the Pythians.”
“Who will put the ball in motion?” he challenged.
Working out the details took most of the season, but the Pythians and the Olympics arranged to play and Fitzgerald agreed to serve as umpire on September 3, 1869 at Jefferson Street Ball Park.
“Perhaps the first base ball game of the kind was played yesterday afternoon at Twenty-fifth and Jefferson streets reported the Inquirer. The Pythians “acquitted themselves in a very creditable manner, especially their outfielders, who made several very fine catches.” The crowd was one of the largest that has been on those grounds for years…”
“A Novel Game in Philadelphia—A Negro Club in the Field…” read a page-one headline in The New York Times. “The novelty of the affair drew an immense crowd of people, it being the first game played between a white and a colored club.” Word of this “novelty” spread as far as Utah.
The game between the Pythians and the Olympics was, it turned out, curiously off kilter.
The Pythian strategy was to not challenge any calls. The Olympics, on the other hand, didn’t hold back at all. And by the third inning, when the Olympics scored 14, including two home runs, the tone of the game was set. According to the Inquirer, the Pythians then suffered “their first whitewash, their men going out in rapid succession.” They held up better in the fourth inning, when the Pythians scored one more run than did the Olympics. And, “to the astonishment of all,” according to the Inquirer, “the whites were treated to a blank” in the 7th inning.” But the Pythians were only able to add four runs during their turn at bat. And they went scoreless in the 8th. In the final inning, the Pythians made “a desperate effort…to reduce the disparity” but only came up with two more runs than did the Olympics.
The Olympics defeated the Pythians in that game, 44 to 23.
A few weeks later, Fitzgerald’s white team from The City Item played the Pythians at another field on Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore) near 17th. That game the Pythians won, 27–17.
The New York Clipper appreciated the breakthrough, but worried about the showmanship. “The prejudices of race are rapidly disappearing.” First “we chronicled a game between the Pythian (colored) and Olympics (white) clubs, of Philadelphia. This affair was a great success, financially and otherwise.” They noted the second game with The City Item and a third between white and black teams in Washington, D.C. But there’s more to baseball than displays of inter-racial gamesmanship, suggested the writer from Brooklyn. “The Unique Club, of Williamsburgh, composed of colored gentlemen, is anxious to get on a match with the Pythians. What say the Quakerdelphians?”
As Jerrold Casway points out, the field where the Pythians and the Olympics met in 1869 could, in its earliest years, be described as fitting into the angle of two country roads: Turners Lane and Mineral (or Market) Street. By the 1870s, these roads disappeared, giving way to the city’s ever-expanding grid. We may not be able to know the exact, original location of home plate, but one thing is for sure: the Jefferson Street Grounds (as it was first known) or Athletic Field (at it became known for the team that made its home there) or the Athletic Recreation Center (so named in the early 20th century) has been a baseball venue since May of 1864—more than 150 years. Is there a field with a more venerable vintage?
And there’s more: On April 22nd and 24th 1876 the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Caps played two games there. (Boston won the first, 6 to 5: Philadelphia won the second, 20-3.) The former was the first game of the National League played in Philadelphia, and, thanks to rainy weather elsewhere, the first National League game played anywhere.
Is there a historical place with more awesome associations?
Walking the field today, we ask: Is there a reason this place is so understated? Now that we know a few of its secrets, the field itself is stirring. But there’s nothing to remind, to inspire or to help us celebrate: no historical marker, no public art, no mural, no monument. Shouldn’t we make something more of this place? It’s time to again challenge ourselves with the big questions:
“What say the Quakerdelphians?”
“Who will put the ball in motion?”
[Sources include: “Base Ball – Olympic vs. Pythian,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 1869; “A Novel Game in Philadelphia,” The New York Times, Sunday September 5, 1869; “White vs. Colored Clubs,” New York Clipper, September 25, 1869; “The Boston-Athletic Game,” The Philadelphia Inquirer; April 24, 1876; and “Athletics vs. Boston—The Latter Badly Whipped,” The Philadelphia Inquirer; April 25, 1876.]