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Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player

Recognition of the Negro Leagues as a major league provides a great excuse to examine the best player you’ve never heard of

“Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year, and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since…he was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” —Buck O’Neil

  • He is a Hall-of-Famer.
  • His triple slash line (per was .350/.430/.573 (for an OPS of 1.003) over 26 seasons.
  • Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract ranks him as the fourth-greatest player of all time, behind on Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willie Mays.
  • He also had a career .514 winning percentage as a manager.
  • If there’s an over/under on whether or not you’ve ever heard of him, I’m taking the under.

Great Black ballplayers prior to 1947 (and I’d argue after, too, but that’s a different article) have pretty much gotten the shaft in terms of acknowledgement, fame, and notoriety. For many, still, Black baseball greats started with Jackie Robinson. Before that, there is a foggy shroud in front of names like Buck O’Neal, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell. Some of us can recall the trivia answer: Moses Fleetwood Walker. (Q: Who is generally considered to be the first Black Major League Baseball player?) Beyond that, it takes some research and the desire to undertake it.

Of course, the past 50 years have seen some great strides, with Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball was White, published in 1970 (and still highly recommended), creating an interest in going back to look at all that was missed by MLBs unofficial/official barring of Black players and how Black Americans noted the slight and went ahead and formed their own leagues. Now there is an ever-growing interest in, and acknowledgement of, how many great Negro Leagues players and teams were out there trying to scrape together a living playing the game we all love. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City is just one obvious and wonderful example.

For the average baseball fan, there’s still a lot of foggy shroudedness. And men like Oscar Charleston, perhaps the fourth-greatest player in baseball history, are generally forgotten. Of course, I type with a grin — there weren’t, and aren’t, many men like Oscar Charleston.

Thanks to the efforts of Jeremy Beer, Charleston stands a fighting chance of being remembered and revered. Beer, a longtime writer on sports, society, and culture, has done all of us a service by undertaking the first serious, full-length biography of the man.

Beer takes us through what can be reconstructed of Charleston’s childhood on the once-thriving Black community on the near West Side of Indianapolis, through his military service in WWI, and his early days playing for Negro teams, mostly notably the hometown Indianapolis ABCs. He follows Charleston through his prodigious career as he grows from local phenom to major star and gate attraction to respected elder and manager.

Throughout, Beer gives us as much of a portrait of the man as is possible to reconstruct. The problem with writing about Charleston, which Beer fully admits, is the lack of primary sources. Simply put, there isn’t much available about him personally or privately. He wasn’t much of a letter writer, let alone a journal- or diary-keeper, and by the time Beer started researching, nearly all of Charleston’s living relatives and contemporaries were dead. He had no children, and had been separated from his wife for many years before his death in 1954. The only thing his wife kept was a scrapbook, which she passed on to a niece, who shared it with the author.

Unfortunately, due to their second-class status and precarious financial situations, Negro League records are also somewhat sketchy and incomplete. Generally ignored by the white press and not always closely reported in the Negro press, even newspaper coverage of Charleston’s life and career allow only a partial picture of the man.

Through rigorous and exhaustive research, the author gives us what will likely prove to be, short of the development of time travel, the definitive biography of the man. Beer sorts through the myths and legends surrounding Charleston, correcting as he goes. Long considered to have been a hot-headed, pugnacious man on the field, Beer patiently examines the origins of Charleston’s myth and gently debunks it:

No contemporary sports writer or anyone who knew Charleston personally ever called him a thug, and Charleston emphatically did not have a substantial police record. While he was happy to join fights in progress, he infrequently started them.

Then, too, context matters. In both Black baseball and the majors, violence was vastly more common during the first decades of the 20th Century than it is today. Ballplayers almost routinely got into fights with opposing ballplayers, with their own teammates, with coaches and managers, with umpires, and with fans … it was a time in which fighting and violence were integral to the game — and, arguably, American society as a whole. The drama critic George Jean Nathan, an avid baseball fan, counted 355 physical assaults on umpires by players and fans during the 1909 season alone.

Given the lack of primary sources, the strength of the book is how Beer uses Charleston as a lens through which to view the Negro Leagues. His career as both a player and manager from 1915-54 encompassed the greater part of the Leagues’ existence, and Oscar’s experiences provide a portrait in microcosm. Like most Negro Leaguers, he played all over the place, including several years playing winter ball in Cuba. He played, managed, and player-managed for Indianapolis (the ABCs, and much later, the Clowns), the New York Lincoln Stars, Chicago American Giants, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays, Philadelphia Stars, Hilldale Daisies, Detroit Stars, St. Louis and Harrisburg (Pa.) Giants (there were LOTS of Giants), and Toledo Crawfords. The Cuban teams are even more numerous. Thus were the benefits and perils of loose contracts and no reserve clause.

Charleston played with, for, or against virtually every name associated with the Negro Leagues, including an on-again/off-again relationship with Chicago’s larger-than-life personality Rube Foster, owner of the American Giants and moving force in the Negro Leagues. Charleston’s years with the Homestead Grays in the early 1930s are not coincidently those in which the Grays are considered one of the greatest teams in baseball history, Black or white. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that his teammates there included Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams, Jud Wilson, George Scales, Vic Harris, Ted Page, and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe; some of whom you may not have heard of, either.

Charleston was a baseball lifer and likely would have continued to be one had he not died young, succumbing to a heart attack at age 57, shortly after managing the Indianapolis Clowns to a Negro League championship. Had he lived, it seems to me that there’s every possibility he’d have eventually ended up coaching for a MLB team. He did spend one season managing the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, a minor league team. Not that some official affiliation with MLB would have somehow “legitimized” the man or his career, but it almost certainly would have put more of a spotlight on it.

As it is, it took until 1976 for the Hall of Fame to recognize Charleston’s greatness. Sadly, his and my hometown of Indianapolis has virtually ignored him. There are no Oscar Charleston markers or statues in Indianapolis, no street named after him. There is a small park on the city’s near East Side, formerly known as Oxford Terrace Park, which was renamed Oscar Charleston Park in 1998. The headstone on his grave in Indianapolis’ modest Floral Park Cemetery notes his military service, but makes no mention of baseball.

But thanks to the efforts of Beer and his very readable and valuable biography, you and I might help keep his memory alive.