One of the Greatest Ever
By: Sarah Langs | @SlangsOnSports
Like many of the Negro Leagues’ greatest players, Oscar Charleston never got the chance to play in the Majors, but he made a strong impression on the sport of baseball that is tangible to this day.
Charleston’s professional career spanned independent league clubs, the founding of the first Negro National League, nine seasons of winter ball in Cuba and more. He was both a player and later a player-manager in his day. His stats page – albeit unofficial – includes numbers from 1915 through 1941, quite the span.
We’ll never know what Charleston could have done playing in the Majors, but his legend lives on through stories, photos, stats and accolades.
Here are some key points to know about Charleston, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
• As with many of baseball’s best characters and stories, Charleston’s connection to the game dates back prior to his first game with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915. The club was his hometown team, and Charleston would serve as the batboy as a child.
He enlisted in the military as a 15-year-old and played baseball overseas while in the Philippines. He returned at age 18 in 1915 and promptly became a star for the ABCs. That was simply the beginning of a career that spanned 40 years in baseball.
• Charleston’s name is frequently dropped when discussing players who may have been the best of all-time – across all eras and leagues. The legendary Buck O’Neil once said, “The greatest MLB player I ever saw was Willie Mays. But, the greatest baseball player I ever saw was Oscar Charleston.”
Indeed, with Mays’ skillset often referred to as the best in Major League history, it’s easy to see how Charleston’s drew similar comparisons and praise. Charleston, too, was a center fielder, and a strong one, at that. Charleston’s Hall of Fame plaque notes his wide range of abilities: “Speed, strong arm and fielding instincts made him standout center fielder.” O’Neil once said he’d never seen a center fielder “who could go back on a ball like Oscar Charleston.” Further to that point, he implied that perhaps on Mays’ famous basket catch in the 1954 World Series, Charleston, with his speed, might not have even needed to turn around after the grab.
Simply put, "Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays before we knew who Willie Mays was,” O’Neil once said.
• But it wasn’t just about defense with Charleston. The Hall of Famer could do it all. We don’t have definitive stats for his career, but in 1921, Charleston was listed with a batting average above .400 and led the Negro National League in all three forms of extra-base hits. Later in the 1920s, he led his league in batting average three more times.
And it wasn’t just in the Negro Leagues. Charleston’s stats during his winter ball seasons in Cuba are believed to have been similar to what he did in the United States. And what’s more, he’s believed to have hit .326 in exhibition games against white Major Leaguers in his career.
With Charleston’s varied skills, including defense, hitting, power and speed, former teammate Satchel Paige once said, “You had to see him to believe him.” Fellow Hall of Famer Dizzy dean was quite complimentary of Charleston’s abilities as well. Charleston’s Hall of Fame plaque also makes reference to the sheer quantity of things he could do well on the baseball field, calling him a “versatile star.”
• Charleston’s personality and raw emotion are key in many stories of his impact, too. A frequent refrain is to note that Charleston had a bat like Babe Ruth’s, along with the aggression and tenacity of Ty Cobb.
Indeed, Charleston had plenty of energy both on and off the field, endowing him with an air that frequently comes with emotional players.
• After he transitioned to being a player-manager, at one point Charleston signed on to manage the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932. The team was, by many measures, a dynasty from ‘32 through ‘36 – with Charleston at the helm while also providing strong offense. Those teams had future Hall of Famers up and down the order, from Charleston to Josh Gibson, Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson.
• Another indelible part of Charleston’s legacy is the role he played in helping Jackie Robinson be selected to break the color barrier. In the 1940’s, Charleston scouted for Branch Rickey, ultimately helping him ascertain which player from the Negro Leagues would and could break that barrier.
Charleston passed away at 57 years old in 1954, just nine days shy of his 58th birthday. He suffered a fatal stroke the offseason after managing the Indianapolis Clowns to the '54 league championship.