Magazine March 23, 2020, Issue

Oscar Charleston: Baseball History’s Invisible Man

From the cover of Oscar Charleston (University of Nebraska Press)
Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player, by Jeremy Beer (University of Nebraska Press, 456 pp., $29.95)

Negro League baseball embarrasses the average fan who fancies himself a student of the national pastime. We may know Major League Baseball well enough. It provides most of the material for the lore that sportswriters have been shaping since Reconstruction and that we tend to think of as the history of baseball proper. Out of the corner of our eye we see the tangle of teams, players, and traditions sprawling outside the foul lines of MLB. We dread the work we would need to do to comprehend the bigger picture, so we exclude from our mental map of the game the Pacific Coast League, for example, and the various leagues that have gone by the name “American Association.” And the rest of the minor leagues, high and low, in podunks from Puget Sound to the Florida Keys? Professional baseball as it’s been played for nearly a century in Japan? Since the 19th century in Latin America? In the Negro Leagues, which were American but neither major nor, with some complicating exceptions, minor? Please. What a lot of ground to cover that would be.

We might try to justify the narrowness of our baseball knowledge by arguing that we focus on the cream of the crop. We assume that the top talent today, at least in the Western Hemisphere, will for the most part manage to register on the radar of MLB scouts and be signed as free agents or drafted. Once ushered into the byzantine network of minor-league clubs here in the United States, players will rise through the ranks if they’re good enough. Only 5 to 10 percent will ascend as far as The Show. Of those, only a fraction will stick around for longer than a cup of coffee. For much of baseball history, though, that cursus honorum was, with few exceptions, closed even to the most talented athletes unless they were white citizens of the United States.

The best player never to play in the major leagues was Oscar Charleston, in the judgment of Bill James, a dean of baseball historians, who ranks him fourth all-time, behind Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner, and no one else. Charleston made his professional debut in 1915, for the ABCs, a black team in Indianapolis, his hometown. He was 18. A five-tool (if you count his arm, said to be merely adequate) left-handed center fielder, he was bouncing around black baseball in the Midwest when the first of the Negro Leagues (there would be seven, all told) was formed in 1920; he was a charter member. The bulk of the approximately 30-year existence of the Negro Leagues overlapped with the bulk of his 26-year playing career, which included nine seasons of winter ball in Cuba. The literary critic Roberto González Echevarría writes that his Cuban uncle and grandfather considered Charleston a baseball god to whom subsequent generations of superstar ballplayers never quite compared.

Charleston in his day was known as the black Ty Cobb, the black Tris Speaker, and the black Ruth. (Ironies: Some researchers think that Cobb and Speaker might have belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, and some of Ruth’s contemporaries thought he must have been part black himself.) A speaker at Charleston’s posthumous induction ceremony into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1976, referred to him as “the Willie Mays of his day.” Buck O’Neil said that Mays was the best major-league player he’d ever seen and that Charleston was better.

In 321 recorded plate appearances for the Harrisburg Giants in 1925, his career year and second season as a player-manager, Charleston batted .427, with 20 home runs; his on-base percentage was .523. His 20-season managerial career includes a Negro National League championship, in 1935. As manager of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers for a few months in 1945, he informally scouted black players for Branch Rickey, who two years later would sign Jackie Robinson to a major-league contract, thereby breaking both “the color barrier” at the highest level of professional baseball and the raison d’être of the Negro Leagues, which by the time of Charleston’s death, in 1954, had for all practical purposes faded away.

The preceding three paragraphs are my attempt at a thumbnail sketch of Oscar Charleston. Jeremy Beer provides as much detail as can be gleaned and organized into a comprehensive big picture of the “life and legend” of “baseball’s greatest forgotten player,” Charleston’s designation in the subtitle of this first book-length biography of him. It’s more a landscape than a portrait, though Beer depicts him to the degree that the extant evidence allows. We have no video or audio of Charleston. Contemporary newspaper coverage of baseball outside the major leagues consisted mostly of game accounts. “Neither Oscar nor his close relatives were ever really interviewed at any length, and neither Oscar nor his family ever wrote anything about his private life,” Beer confirms. Charleston married twice. He and his second wife, Jane, never divorced, but they separated—permanently, it turned out—in the 1930s. He had no children.

So a scrapbook and a photo album become Beer’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Charleston left them behind. They were passed from Jane to his sister Katherine to her niece Anna to Negro Leagues historian Larry Lester. They’re now in the possession of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Mo. They include photos, personal letters, and clippings from American and Cuban newspapers. The material represents the last 40 years of Charleston’s life. From that handful of dust, Beer strives to conjure his personality and character.

Charleston had a reputation for in-game brawling. He “really enjoyed a good fight,” in the words of teammate Ted Page. Bear in mind, though, Beer cautions, that “fighting and violence were integral to the game” back then. He cites Texas League rules that “allowed players who engaged in an on-field fight to finish it; the only ones to be penalized were teammates who interfered.” In Beer’s telling, Charleston was a self-made gentleman with a temper that he subordinated to rigorous self-discipline and unleashed only now and then, on occasions that might be deemed appropriate in the context, competition on the ball field. Imagine Cobb’s pugnacity joined to the fabled good manners and sportsmanship of Walter Johnson. The Good Man possessed both qualities and married the opposites in his soul. It was a theme in the sports culture of the day. Perhaps it’s perennial. We see it in the “band of ferocious gentlemen,” Rickey’s description of the ideal baseball team.

Beer takes pains to correct what he insists is a mischaracterization of his subject. “Barbaric on the basepaths” and “a great big snarling bear of a man with glaring eyes and a temper that periodically drove him beyond the edge of sanity” is how a biographer of Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson, whom Charleston both managed and played alongside, described Charleston more than 40 years after Charleston’s death. Colorful language, but might it be closer to the truth to say that Charleston was button-down and old-school? He neither smoked nor drank, as Beer points out, and was committed to such bourgeois values as punctuality. A disciplined man who as a manager “expected discipline from others,” he immersed himself in “a close study of the game.” He ran a tight ship.

Born in 1896 to parents who had just migrated from Nashville, Charleston grew up on the mean streets of Indianapolis and came to know the inside of a jail cell, as did at least one of his five brothers; another two spent time in reformatories. At 15, Oscar enlisted in the U.S. Army (lying about his age). He played on his regiment’s baseball team in the Philippines, shone, and earned fame in the Manila press. Discharged in 1915, he returned to Indianapolis and tried out for the ABCs, managed by the estimable C. I. Taylor, a pioneer of black baseball.

The Army had taught Charleston discipline; Taylor took him to graduate school in the virtue. College-educated and the son of a southern minister, Taylor “detested rowdiness, drunkenness, and gambling.” He advocated “scientific” baseball. His idea of losing his cool was to stride onto the diamond and say, “Mr. Umpire, I’ve been watching you for the last twelve innings. . . . If I was a cursing man, I’d curse you.”

O’Neil in his autobiography wrote of black baseball as “a tradition of professional men, going back to the 1800s,” adding that “people don’t realize the Negro Leagues were filled with college men, maybe more than were in the white big leagues.” Charleston’s formal education stopped at the eighth grade, but he had aspirations. At 20, he married the daughter of a high-school principal. They soon divorced and he married . . . a schoolteacher. “His scrapbook and photo album make clear that throughout his life Charleston maintained an interest in music and ideas,” Beer reports. “He tended to seek relationships with those who shared these interests and who were striving to rise socially.”

The book is organized chronologically and is more chronicle than story, which is in there, but the reader has to make some effort. Every page is testimony to the heavy, heavy lifting undertaken by the author at archives and libraries. The challenge he faced was not only to discern and then communicate who Charleston was but even to spell out what he did—to talk statistics, the natural language of baseball. Outside the major leagues, they weren’t kept consistently, and so the record that Negro League researchers have patiently, over many years, compiled from newspaper box scores and the like will probably remain forever incomplete. Their work continues. Beer estimates that the statistical record he has compiled for Charleston—the largest yet, 6,757 plate appearances in professional ball at various levels, including exhibition games against major-league teams—represents only about a third of his playing career. We’ll take what we can get: The few pages of statistical appendix at the back of the book are baseball gold.

What we can know of the prodigy that was Oscar Charleston will always be fragmentary, like the writings of some pre-Socratic philosopher. Mourn the irredeemable loss. Celebrate the permanent mystery.

This article appears as “Baseball History’s Invisible Man” in the March 23, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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