Baseball has been part of Philadelphia’s history for a long time. There’s a new chance to relive some of that legacy at “A League Apart,” an exhibit highlighting four of the city’s “barrier breakers” through the stories of the Philadelphia Negro Leagues.
Set up at the Cherry Street Pier on the Delaware River waterfront (right next to the Ben Franklin Bridge), the self-guided tour is open through Aug. 24.
It showcases the baseball successes of Black Philly players over the past two centuries, focusing on Octavius Catto, Ed Bolden, Dick Allen, and Mo’ne Davis.
Produced by University of the Arts alum Carolyn Quick and Brian Michael, co-owner of Shibe Vintage Sports, the exhibit examines the leagues’ formation and ongoing legacy “so that people today can have a complete history of America’s pastime,” Quick said.
The limited run installation at Cherry Street Pier is hopefully just the start, Michael explained on a recent episode of Hittin’ Season.
“Ideally, we’re looking to have it travel over time,” Michael said. “Have it grow with more interactive features, and then eventually become part of the All-Star Game and 2026 festivities a couple years from now when there are going to be a lot of people in the city.”
The show is free to the public and guided tours are available to groups of 12 or more. There’s also a gift shop where folks can buy posters, t-shifts and hats of two former Philly Negro League teams — the Hilldale Daisies and Philadelphia Stars — as well as a free set of baseball cards.
In advance of your visit to the pier at 121 N. Columbus Blvd., scroll down for a brief summary of the four barrier breakers highlighted in the exhibit.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1839 as a free man, Octavius Catto is commemorated with a statue on the south side of City Hall, which captures him in motion, walking forward.
That forward movement captures the way he lived his life: He founded Philadelphia’s second Black baseball team, the Philadelphia Pythians, in 1865 along with Jacob C. White. He played shortstop and was the captain, and it was his and the Pythians’ application for admission to the Pennsylvania Association of Amateur Base Ball Players — denied on the basis of race — that officially set America’s color barrier in baseball.
Outside of baseball, Catto followed in the groundbreaking footsteps of his father, who cofounded African American intellectual and literary society the Banneker Institute, by serving as president of the Institute for Colored Youth, now known as Cheyney University.
Catto also served in the Pa. National Guard as a major and inspector general who recruited soldiers for the Union Army and fought to desegregate Philadelphia’s trolley car system.
He also was an active voter — a right restored to African American men for the first time in 1871. It was an act for which he was murdered on Election Day at 8th and South. Catto had returned to the polling place with the National Guard to help quell riots, and was fatally shot by a white rioter.
Octavius Catto was just 32, but his legacy lives on.
Like Catto before him, postal employee Ed Bolden saw baseball as an opportunity to unite Black American society, this time in the early 20th century.
In 1910, Bolden took over a Darby sandlot team known as the Hilldale Daisies and turned it into one of the most successful dynasties in Negro League baseball, winning three straight Eastern Colored League pennants from 1923-25 and the Colored World Series in 1925.
Bolden also founded the Philadelphia Stars in 1933 and led them to the Negro League championships in 1934, their first season.
Hall-of-famers who served under him include Biz Mackey, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston and Pop Lloyd. Other famous players include Slim Jones, Gene Benson, Bill Cash, Malhom Duckett, and Jud Wilson.
The 10,000-person Penmar Field at 44th and Parkside would become a meeting place for Philadelphia’s black society, where men wore suits and women their best dresses to watch pre-game festivities with dignitaries and the O.V. Catto Elks band. Today, a Philadelphia Stars mural marks the location.
After growing up in small town Wampum, Pa., Richard “Dick” Allen’s All-Star career began on the front lines of integration when he was signed by the Phillies in 1960 at the age of 18 for $70,000 — the highest signing bonus ever offered for a Black player at the time.
Two years later, Allen was sent to desegregate the new Phillies Triple-A team, the Arkansas Travelers.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, Allen endured racist threats, attacks, and harassment from fans, and what he later described in his biography as a separate set of rules from team management. However, by season’s end, he was voted the team’s MVP, and by 1963, he was called up to the majors, where he kicked off a 15-year career by winning the 1964 Rookie of the Year award.
Allen and his unique personality forced Philadelphians to confront their own racial stereotypes in the 1960s, with some fans booing and throwing smoke bombs, and others cheering him on. He would go on to also play for the Chicago White Sox, win the American League’s MVP award in 1972. He was elected for the All-Star game seven times before retiring in 1977. ‘
In December 2014, Allen missed being elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by one vote. Over 15 seasons, Dick Allen finished with: 351 home runs, 1,119 RBI, .292 batting average, 58.7 wins-above-replacement.
South Philly native Mo’ne Davis is the latest in the line of Barrier Breakers using baseball to promote social justice and equality.
The 22-year-old summer intern with the Los Angeles Dodgers grew up playing baseball with the Anderson Monarchs youth program — named after singer Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson’s Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs — and competed in the 2014 Little League World Series, where she was the first girl in LLWS history to not only earn a win but also to throw a shutout.
Davis went on to play collegiate softball at Hampton University, and is now pursuing a career in sports media.
Davis follows in the footsteps of Maria Pepe, whose efforts to play for her local New Jersey team in 1972 led to the state Civil Rights Division ruling that it was illegal to deny girls the chance to play in Little League Baseball, and Philly native Connie Morgan, who was the third woman to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues.