I’ve been meaning to write about Oscar Charleston because ever since I learned about him, I’ve been obsessed with him. I want everyone to know who Oscar Charleston is, just like you know who Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb are. Just like you know Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige. This seems like as good as time as any to write about him. We’re still a few days away from Spring Training, baseball news is trickling like water from a shallow stream, and Nick Jr. keeps reminding me it is Black History Month.
Oscar McKinley Charleston (1896-1954), the Hoosier Comet, was a left handed centerfielder, and sometimes pitcher, who played in the Negro Leagues from 1915 until 1941. Here’s his line: .339/.401/.545. Buck O’Neil, first African-American scout, described him as “Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” Bill James ranks him as the fourth greatest ball player of all time, behind Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willy Mays. Not just fourth greatest in the Negro Leagues, but greatest to ever wear a mitt and wield a bat. David Schoenfield of ESPN wrote that “he might be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived.” A classic five tool player, he was “Willy Mays before Willy Mays.” That basket catch thing Mays did? Charleston owned that. He played a very shallow centerfield because he knew he could catch anything over his head with his speed and an uncanny ability to know where the ball was.
“At every stop, including Cuba in the winter, Charleston hung great catches as if they were paintings….when he went back for a ball, legend says he performed acrobatics that have eluded everyone else in the position’s history, leaping, spinning, making catches behind his back.”–John Schulian
A teammate of Oscar’s, third-basemen Dave Malarcher said this: “Some people asked me, ‘Why are you playing so close to the left-field foul line?’ What they didn’t know was that Charleston covered all three fields, and my responsibility was to make sure of balls down the line and those in foul territory.”
Imagine a chocolate skinned man, six feet tall, weighing 200 pounds, with hard grey eyes, giant hands, a barrel chest, and gangly legs who feared no man. He was known for playing with a ferocity and a temper on the field–spikes-up–which earned him the comparison to Ty Cobb. Charleston, writes David Bernstein, was not the “black Ty Cobb,” but rather Cobb was the “white Oscar Charleston.”
The comparison was unfair. Accounts say that Oscar hated the comparison that white sportswriters were making of him. “The Black Ty Cobb.” Hmmmph. Ty Cobb was a wealthy man, in comparison. Oscar rode broken down buses. He had little money. Oscar also had another side to him than his bad temper on the field. While Ty Cobb was pretty much just an ornery asshole by all accounts, Oscar could also be charismatic and a show-boater on the field, a crowd-pleaser and a fan favorite. He was well loved by his teammates, especially the younger players, as he took them under his tutelage. Reportedly, he was very protective of them. He was also supposedly a bit shy and reserved off the field, allowing his personality to shine when he played.
Okay, he sounds pretty cool, right? But I know what you’re maybe thinking. What’s so special besides being really good at baseball? Lots of ballplayers are great at baseball and don’t have a movie. Although Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb–the two players he is most compared to besides Mays–do have big screen features. Why does he need a movie? Let’s discuss some more.
Oscar was born in Indianapolis, the son of a construction worker, and all of his brothers were boxers, which probably made him a tough son of a bitch at an early age. At the tender age of 15, when most of us lazy bums were playing video games and fretting about zits, Charleston lied about his age to army recruiters. I’m guessing he thought the Army was easier than the ass-kickings he was getting from his brothers. This earned him a ticket to the Philippines in 1910 with the Negro 24th Infantry, not exactly a cushy assignment. While in the army, he ran track and set a record for the 220 yard dash: 23 seconds. He was also the only black player in the Army’s previously segregated Manila League Baseball Team.
He returned home in 1915, when he decided to try out for the Indianapolis ABCs, a semi-pro barnstorming club, which pre-dated the Negro Leagues by five years. In his rookie season, he got into a shoving match with an umpire during a game against a white team which resulted in assault charges. So, um, he may have punched the umpire during the shoving match. Laid him flat. The brawl that followed involved fans and police. This is just one example of many. Have I mentioned he was a bit of a hot-head?
Cool Papa Bell recalls another story when Charleston faced down some Ku Klux Klansmen who were taunting them after a game. Oscar stood up to them, tore the hood off of one, and then he still wasn’t done. He then “dared him to say something.” They ran. Have I mentioned I really, really like Oscar Charleston? Maybe you can tell.
During the winter, Oscar would go down to Cuba and play in the winter leagues. During one game, Oscar spiked a Cuban second baseman, as was his running style. Unbeknownst to him, that second baseman had a brother in the Cuban army in the stands. Several armed infantry men jumped onto the field to attack Charleston. Charleston knocked them out. I imagine it went something like this.
Charleston was inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
During his playing career, he played for the Indianapolis ABCs (1915-1918, 1920, 1922-1923), New York Lincoln Stars (1915-1916), Bowser’s ABCs (1916), Chicago American Giants (1919), St. Louis Giants (1921), Harrisburg Giants (1924-1927), Hilldale (1928-1929), Homestead Grays (1930-1931), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1932-1938), Toledo Crawfords (1939), Indianapolis Crawfords (1940), and Philadelphia Stars (1941). He also managed several teams and was even an umpire for awhile.
And we’re still not done. Branch Rickey–yes, the Branch Rickey–hired Charleston as a scout and manager of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers because he knew nobody knew the Negro Leagues like him. He is reported to have recommended Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella to Branch Rickey. Charleston was instrumental in the integration of Major League Baseball, even though he knew it would eventually mean the death of his beloved Negro Leagues. According to his niece, he wanted to live to see it happen.
After he retired in 1949, he worked as a baggage handler in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Railway Station. One of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived worked as a baggage handler after he retired. He died five years later at the age of 58 from a stroke followed by a heart attack. His death went virtually unnoticed in the press.
Even his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976 was overshadowed by his fellow inductees.
Have I convinced you yet that this man needs his life story told in a movie? There’s a lot more, but I didn’t come here to write a novel. Hollywood, if you’re looking for a new idea, do this.
I know there are far greater causes in the world, but this is one of my many causes. I want every baseball fan to know Oscar Charleston’s name.
Now I ask you. Who is your favorite unsung baseball player?
The Greatness of Oscar Charleston
The Importance of Oscar Charleston
Was Ty Cobb the White Oscar Charleston
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: Oscar Charleston
American National Biography Online: Oscar Charleston
Baseball Reference: Oscar Charleston