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Charleston, Oscar McKinley ("Charlie")

CHARLESTON, Oscar McKinley ("Charlie")

(b. 14 October 1896 in Indianapolis, Indiana; d. 5 October 1954 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), baseball player who was a superstar in African-American baseball during the era of racial separation.

Charleston was the seventh of eleven children born to Tom Charleston and Mary Jeanette Thomas Charleston. His father was a construction worker, but earlier in life had been a jockey, and his mother was a homemaker. Charleston completed the eighth grade at Public School 23 in Indianapolis before leaving to join the army at the age of fifteen. He enlisted on 7 March 1912 at Columbus Barracks, Ohio, and was honorably discharged from Company B of the Twenty-fourth Infantry on 20 March 1915.

During his army stint Charleston was stationed in the Philippines, where he participated in sporting events, including track and baseball. He won the 220-yard dash with a time of 23 seconds, and ran the 120-yard high hurdles in 15.1 seconds. In baseball he was the only African-American player in the Manila League in 1914. During World War I he was recalled to the army and served from 22 August to 3 December 1918, but did not serve overseas during this second stint. Charleston was married twice, first to Helen Grubbs in 1915; the young couple soon divorced. His second marriage was to Jane Blalock, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Their marriage lasted for twenty years before also ending in divorce. Neither marriage produced children.

Charleston was a baseball player and manager for four decades. He was associated with sixteen different teams during this long career, but he was most closely identified with the Indianapolis ABCs, Harrisburg Giants, Homestead Grays, and Pittsburgh Crawfords. Charleston offered a dynamic blend of speed and power—he was a complete player who could run, field, throw, and hit with power. At the plate, he was analogous to a left-handed Rogers Hornsby, consistently hitting over .300 and topping .400 on occasions, while still exhibiting good power. He was also variously compared to Ty Cobb for his baserunning, Tris Speaker for his fielding, and, later in his career, Babe Ruth for his slugging prowess. Charleston was the Willie Mays of his era, and some former Negro Leaguers who saw both players thought that Charleston was the better of the two. Ben Taylor, a longtime player and manager in the Negro Leagues, stated that Charleston was the "greatest outfielder that ever lived … greatest of all colors" and James "Cool Papa" Bell, who played both with and against Charleston, called him "the best I ever saw."

Charleston had been a batboy for the Indianapolis ABCs before he entered military service and, after his discharge, he returned to that team in 1915 and thrived under the tutelage of C. I. Taylor. Charleston played seven intermittent seasons with the ABCs, including a championship year in 1916, and established himself as a superstar. Following the 1923 season, he signed with Colonel Strothers as the playing manager for the Harrisburg Giants. Charleston had personal success during his four seasons at the helm, but an Eastern Colored League pennant eluded the team.

When the Harrisburg franchise broke up, Charleston detoured through Hilldale for a couple of years before landing with Cum Posey's Homestead Grays in 1930. By this time he had lost a step in the outfield and moved himself to first base. The Grays defeated the Lincoln Giants in a play-off for the eastern championship that season, and fielded an even stronger team in 1931 that featured Josh Gibson. Most observers felt this was one of the greatest teams in the history of African-American baseball.

A feud between the owners Cum Posey and Gus Green-lee led most of the top Grays stars, including Charleston, to sign with Greenlee's Crawfords. For the next five years, with Charleston at the helm, the Crawfords were the premier team of the era, at times fielding five future Hall of Famers. In addition to Charleston, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Judy Johnson were on the team roster for most of these years. The 1935 Crawfords were known as the best team in Negro League history. In 1933 the first annual Negro League East-West All-Star game was played. Although Charleston was a veteran player of almost two decades, he was selected to start the first three games and batted in the third spot in the order the first two years.

Charleston was fearless and well known for his brawls on and off the field. In the heat of action, he frequently fought with umpires and opponents alike. Off-field confrontations included challenging armed Cuban soldiers and snatching the hood off a confrontational Ku Klux Klansman. Yet he was protective of younger players and was idolized by African-American kids everywhere he went. His popularity extended to Cuba, where he played nine winter seasons during his career and compiled a lifetime batting average of .357.

Virtually all of Charleston's adult life was spent in baseball. During World War II he worked as a patrolman in the security and intelligence division of the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot, but he also played on their baseball team and managed the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League. In 1949 Charleston took a sabbatical from the game and worked in the baggage department of the Pennsylvania Railway System in Philadelphia.

Charleston then resumed his career in African-American baseball as a player and manager and pursued it until his death. Later in 1949 he managed the Stars for at least part of the season and continued in that capacity through 1952, when the franchise was disbanded. He then began managing the Indianapolis Clowns in 1954 and had already signed a contract for the impending 1955 season when his heath declined. About a month after checking into Philadelphia General Hospital, Charleston died of a heart attack, nine days short of his fifty-eighth birthday. He is buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Possibly the greatest all-around player in the history of African-American baseball, Charleston received the game's highest honor in 1976 when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. During his career, his performance on the baseball diamond demonstrated that African Americans could play on a Major League level, and throughout his life he openly challenged the sociopolitical practices that denied African Americans their worth and dignity as individuals.

Charleston's entry in the landmark publication James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1994), contains useful information, as does the seminal work Bob Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (1970). See also David Porter, ed., The Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball (1987); John Holway, Blackball Stars (1988); Mike Shatzkin, ed., The Ballplayers (1990); and David Porter, ed., African-American Sports Greats (1995).

James A. Riley

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