Charleston, Oscar 1896–1954
Oscar Charleston 1896–1954
Professional baseball player
Negro League baseball player Oscar Charleston was perhaps the greatest baseball player of his era. Contemporaries compared him to white major leaguers like Ty Cobb who hit for average, Babe Ruth who hit with power, and Tris Speaker who was the greatest center fielder of his time. In reality, these comparisons are unfair to Charleston because he was a combination of all three men. Charleston, who played his best baseball in the 1920s and 1930s, ended his career with a lifetime batting average of over .350 and combined his ability to hit for average with tremendous power in baseball’s dead ball era. Defensively he revolutionized his position as a center-fielder because his tremendous speed allowed him to play so shallow. In his book, Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues, author Donn Rogosin claimed that Charleston’s peers would rate him the greatest player of the Negro Leagues: “Second baseman Dick Seay was once asked whether Charleston was really as great as everybody said he was. Seay responded curtly, ‘He was greater!’ Satchel Paige described Charleston’s fielding as something that had to be seen to be believed. ‘He used to play right in back of second base. He would outrun the ball.’”
Oscar McKinley Charleston was born on October 14, 1896, to construction worker Tom Charleston and Mary Jeannette Thomas in Indianapolis, Indiana. Charleston, who was the seventh of 11 children, loved baseball as a child and served as the batboy for the independent Negro League team, the Indianapolis ABCs. His time as a child was a short one, though, as he ran away from home and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1910. Charleston learned to play baseball in the all-white Manila League in the Philippines playing against men twice his age. He also ran track in the service where he developed his blazing speed. Once he was clocked running the 220-yard dash in 23 seconds.
Charleston was discharged from the Army in 1915 and returned home to Indianapolis to join his hometown ABCs. He immediately won a spot as the team’s center fielder where he won renown as a dominating defensive player who could run down anything hit deep. In addition to having the range to cover the shallow and deep part of centerfield, he also went east and west.
At a Glance…
Born Oscar McKinley Charleston on October 14, 1896, in Indianapolis, IN; died on October 5, 1954, in Indianapolis, IN; married Jane B. Howard, 1923. Military Service: US Army, 1910-15.
Career: Baseball player: Indianapolis ABCs, 1915-18, 1920, 1922-23; Chicago American Giants, 1919; St Louis Giants, 1921; Baseball player/manager: Harris-burg Giants, 1924-27; Philadelphia Hilldales, 1928-29; Homestead Grays, 1930-31; Pittsburgh Crawfords, 1932-38; Toledo Crawfords, 1939; Indianapolis Crawfords, 1940; Baseball manager: Philadelphia Stars, 1941-50; Indianapolis Clowns, 1954.
Awards: Cuban League, batting title, 1920, 1922, 1924; named to the Negro League East-West All Star game, 1933-35; Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, inductee, 1976.
Early teammate Dave Malarcher commented on Charleston’s range as a centerfielder on the True Baseball website, saying “People asked me, ‘Why are you playing so close to the right field foul line?’ What they didn’t know was that Charleston covered all three fields and my responsibility was to make sure of balls hit down the line and those in foul territory.” Charleston eventually led the ABCs to victory in the 1916 Black World Series over the Chicago American Giants. During the ten-game series Charleston, nicknamed the Hoosier Comet for his speed and his Indianapolis roots, batted .360.
The twenty-year-old also got a reputation for having a nasty temper. In his rookie season during a barnstorming tour of Cuba, Charleston was suspended by team owner Tom Bowser and forced to publicly apologize for an altercation with an umpire. ABCs’ second baseman Elwood “Bingo” DeMoss was in an argument with the second base umpire when the center fielder came charging in to the infield and physically attacked the umpire. Charleston had no qualms about challenging the opposition, umpires, and teammates. Legend has it that Charleston pulled the hood from a Ku Klux Klansmen and was willing to take on fans and even Cuban soldiers. Negro League player Ted Page said on the North fay South website regarding Charleston’s prowess as a warrior, “Charley was always ready to fight. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. But he loved a good fight when there was a fight and I was on the opposing team, I made sure I knew where Charleston was. I wanted no part of him. I wasn’t the only one everybody except Josh Gibson was afraid of him.” The city of Indianapolis even banned interracial baseball games after Charleston instigated a brawl during an exhibition game against white ballplayers which were staged during those days—not as highly competitive displays of skill, but purely for the sake of making money.
For all the notoriety he received for being a hard man, Charleston was not without a sense of humor as a ballplayer. In his book, Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues, author John Holway interviewed Crush Holloway, an ex-Negro League player who claimed that the 1922 Indianapolis ABCs were the greatest team in Negro League history. Holloway remembered Charleston’s sense of showmanship, commenting, “He’d turn his back and when he’d turn around, that ball was right there. And he was fast, oh yes, he was a fast man. But if he had time to get under a fly ball, he’d walk—he had it timed, he’d walk fast. And he’d do acrobatics. People used to come out and see him do his stunts in the outfield.” In his later years Charleston was one of the main draws on the traveling barnstorming teams of the era as the sixty-year-old man (though he was in his forties) who could play every position on the field.
In the middle of the 1918 season, Charleston was traded to the Chicago American Giants and then to the St. Louis Giants in 1921. His 1921 season was perhaps the finest season ever for a baseball player, in either the Negro or Major Leagues. Charleston led the league in hitting with a .446 average, ten triples, 34 steals, 137 total bases and 14 home runs. That year Charleston posted a slugging percentage of .774. While in St. Louis Charleston played in many exhibition games against the Major League’s St. Louis Cardinals. On the Negro League Baseball Players Association’s website Cardinal pitching great Dizzy Dean talked about Charleston’s prowess as a hitter: “Charleston could hit the ball a mile. He didn’t have a weakness. When he came up, we just threw it and hoped like hell he wouldn’t get a hold of one and send it out of the park.”
During the 1920s Charleston also began playing winter ball in Cuba. He spent eight seasons in Cuba and established a lifetime batting average of .365 and won batting titles in 1920, 1922, and 1924. In 1923 Charleston stole 31 bases for the Santa Clara club setting a record which would stand up for twenty years. In 1922 Charleston returned to the ABCs to become the highest paid African-American player of his time. Later that year he married Jane B. Howard from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1924 he signed on to manage and play on the Eastern Colored League’s Harrisburg Giants where he stayed for four years before going to the Philadelphia Hilldales in 1928. Then, in 1930, Charleston joined another great baseball team, Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays. The barnstorming team boasted a lineup filled with stars such as Negro League legends Josh Gibson and Judy Johnson. That year the Grays won the ten-game Eastern Championship Series over the New York Lincoln Giants.
In 1932 Charleston was lured from the Grays by Gus Greenlee, who as owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, assembled one of the finest baseball teams ever to grace a diamond. The Crawfords fielded a Negro-League all-star team with five future Hall of Famers—Charleston, Gibson, Johnson, James “Cool Papa” Bell, and Satchel Paige. By this time in his career, Charleston had moved from center field to first base, and though he could not cover the ground he once did, he could still hit with the best players of the Negro Leagues. In Holway’s book Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues, Kansas City Monarchs lefthander Bill Foster talked about the older, wiser ballplayer. “Oscar Charleston—you’re talking about a good hitter. He’s a left-handed hitter and I’m a left-handed pitcher. I just didn’t feel like left-handers ought to hit me; I was awful surprised when left-handers hit me. But Charlie could do that. Charleston would wait for a curve ball, because he knew a left-hander was going to throw that curve ball and he could hit that curve ball. He could hit it a mile. To tell you the truth, he was a tremendously good hitter.”
At the age of 37 Charleston was named to the first three East-West Negro League all-star games from 1933 to 1935. In 1935 the Crawfords were at the top of the Negro League world with Charleston playing first base and now managing. The Crawfords won the Negro National League title over the New York Cubans four games to three with Charleston hitting three home runs in the series. Since the league was so unstable, with players such as Paige playing for many different teams over the course of one season, the Crawfords could not keep that much talent together. In 1937 most of the team’s best players went to play in the Dominican Republic where they could make more money and be treated with more respect. By 1939 the Crawfords left Pittsburgh to play in Toledo for one year and then again relocated to Indianapolis.
By the 1940s Charleston was managing exclusively. From 1941 to 1950 he managed the Philadelphia Stars with a brief stint as a scout with the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers for the United States League—a league formed by Dodgers president Branch Rickey to recruit possible prospects for the Major Leagues from the Negro Leagues. After managing the Stars, Charleston returned to Indianapolis to manage the last Negro League team—the Indianapolis Clowns. During their history the Clowns featured women players and a first baseman named “King Tut.” Though the level of play was far from the standards of the competitive Negro League’s glory days, he was still involved in the sport to which he devoted his life until his final days.
In 1954 Charleston fell down a flight of stairs and had a stroke. He passed away on October 5, 1954, and is buried in Floral Park in Indianapolis. Charleston was enshrined in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976 and in 1998 the city of Indianapolis dedicated a city park to Charleston’s legacy as the city’s first Hall of Fame baseball player.
Holway, John, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975.
Rogosin, Donn, Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues, New York: Atheneum, 1983.
“Charleston, Oscar” Negro League Baseball Players Association, www.nlbpa.com/charleston_oscar.html (April 11, 2003).
“Oscar Charleston,” North By South, www.northby-south.org/20000baseball/Oscar%20Charleston.htm (April 11, 2003).
“Oscar Charleston,” The Home of True Baseball, www.truebaseball.com/oscarc.htm (April 11, 2003).
—Michael J. Watkins
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