“Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player”
The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
Published in November, 2019
The review in 90 feet or less
With the April 15 arrival of Jackie Robinson Day near, did you know that an African-American baseball legend named Oscar McKinley Charleston was employed by the team and wore a Dodgers’ uniform two years before Robinson broke into the MLB color line in 1947?
Read on …
There’s not a lot of documentation to gather about Charleston by fellow Indiana native Beer, a non-profit business warrior whose writing focused on sports, society and culture have been in the Washington Post, National Review and Baseball Research Journal. But if not Beer, then who else is best suited for this task?
He tracked down key relatives, including Charleston’s sister. Found photo albums, scrapbooks and person letters. All helped fill in many blanks that were not so well chronicled by sportswriters, on top of some already sketchy record keeping.
The quick afoot outfielder and worthy slugger is someone Bill James was convinced by the data he collected to be deemed the fourth-best player of all time, behind Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays.
Yet when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976 specifically recognized for his career in the Negro Leagues, there were seven before him: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monty Irvin, Cool Papa Bell and Judy Johnson.
Charleston’s time as a player in the professional game spans from 1915 to 1941, with such teams as the Indianapolis ABCs, Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. Then came managing, scouting, and whatever else the game needed him for.
Beer calls him Tris Speaker but with more home run power. Or Ken Griffey Jr., with more speed. Or:
In terms of today’s game, think of a left-handed, considerably more cantankerous Mike Trout
With Jackie Robinson Day near, there are two dots to connect for Charleston and Robinson.
*What if: Could Charleston have been in his prime in the 1940s as a player, would Branch Rickey have considered him as the best candidate to push aside racial inequality in the game? Would be celebrating his day today?
“On sheer talent, he would have been an obvious choice to carry out the role subsequently championed by Jackie Robinson,” says Branch Rickey III, current president of the Pacific Coast League. “He deserves to be rated among baseball’s true immortals.”
Yet, we see now there are many instances where Charleston had a bit of a temper, and we’re sure Rickey’s research would have uncovered that.
In Volume 46, Issue 1 of the April 1, 2017 Baseball Research Journal from the Society of American Baseball Research, Beer has a cover story called “Oscar Charleston: The 1915 ‘Hothead’ Incident and Posthumous Mythmaking”
*Is is true: Did Charleston, who spent part of the 1940s employed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a scout and was the manager of Branch Rickey’s offshoot Dodgers team in the Negro Leagues, helped sign Robinson to his MLB contract?
There’s no evidence, Beer decides, even though that’s part of the Charleston mythology.
“For Jackie, we didn’t need Oscar,” said Clyde Sukeforth, the scout who did the major lifting in this pursuit. Beer found that quote in Peter Golenbock’s 1984 “Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers
This is yet another Charleston story that isn’t true, but it was believed because it is fitting. Had that happened, it would have been just. It would have served as a concrete link between those who constituted the living tradition of black baseball and the man who would carry that tradition so well into the Majors. In any case, Jackie’s success simply proved beyond doubt what black stars like Charleston had personally demonstrated during the previous three or four decades: the best black players not only could be but already had been as good at the craft of baseball as the best white players. Maybe better. To honest observers of any color, that this might be true in every other area could hardly be denied.
Still: Credit Charleston for helping Rickey land Roy Campanella. There’s also some twisted misunderstanding that indicates Campanella could have been Rickey’s first African-American signing, but Campanella wasn’t sure if Rickey wanted him to play for the MLB team, or Rickey’s alternative Negro League team called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, which Charleston managed in 1945. Campanella was already content with the salary and status he had with other Negro League teams and turned down Rickey’s offer.
Beer’s curiosity led him to this detective work, as he in the intro that until he saw James’ Historical Baseball Abstract reference to Charleston, “I had no idea who Charleston was – even though he was, like me, from Indiana and even though I took pride in knowing something about my home state’s famous personages, especially its athletes. … There are no statues of public monuments honoring Charleston anywhere in Indianapolis, aside from a park named after him in 1998.”
Beer knows why – Charleston, as a black man, was not a great fit in Indianapolis. Just note the gravemarker at Indianapolis’ Floral Park Cemetery with a simple flat military headstone that reads:
“There were no flowers or coins or any other sign of regular visitors,” Beer writes about his visit to the site. “Nor was there any mention of baseball.”
(A beautiful piece that also visits the Charleston grave, by the Indianapolis Star in 2014, is at this link).
So what happened?
Beer credits author John Schulian for compiling “the best piece ever written about the man” for Sports Illustrated in 2005, entitled “A One-Way Ticket to Obscurity: That’s What Being Black in the First Half of the 20th Century Meant for Oscar Charleston, The Greatest Baseball Player You’ve Never Heard Of.” It was included in Schulian’s 2011 University of Nebraska Press book, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.” Schulian shared his research and notes with Beer.
For more research, Beer tracked down Larry Lester, who had decades of research on black baseball history. Beer also found papers and archives at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Branch Rickey Papers at the Library of Congress and scrapbooks at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City – a place where Buck O’Neil is still very much revered and is a key connection to Charleston’s career.
It was Satchel Paige who once said of Charleston: “You had to see him to believe him.”
After this book, we have to believe Charleston will no longer be forgotten, or the best of anything you’ve never heard of.
How it goes in the scorebook
To Beer, we raise a tall lager of Ommegang, the Belgian ale that has a brewery in Cooperstown, for all this.
To SABR, another glass raised as a worthy winner of its annual Larry Ritter book award to go along with this:
And we give it an over-the-shoulder catch in deep center field, like the photo immortalizing Willie Mays in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series – which occurred just six days before Charleston’s death.
The saddest footnote we came across is that when Charleston died in 1954 at the age of 58, right as the Negro Leagues were fading from memory, his legacy was dissipating as well. Beer also notes his death certificate listed his occupation as a baggage handler in the railroad industry.
More to say on the subject
== This quote from George F. Will that’s been attached to the back of this bookjacket:
There is a special place in heaven — or in Cooperstown, which is much the same thing — for the University of Nebraska Press, which continues to enrich our understanding of baseball history. It continues this noble work with Jeremy Beer’s biography of Oscar Charleston.
More, for the sake of history
** The 2014 book, “When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation & Dreams of a National Pastime,” by Ryan A Swanson, has been re-released as a paperback ($19.95 vs. $29.95 original hardcover). As it says on the back of the cover: “The story of Jackie Robinson valiantly breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 is one most Americans know.
But less recognized is the fact that some seventy years earlier, following the Civil War, baseball was tenuously biracial and had the potential for a truly open game. How, then, did the game become so firmly segregated that it required a trailblazer like Robinson?” It draws upon reconstruction of the Reconstruction Era, and how the three largest cities that had large African-American populations and in the baseball business — Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia — evolved from 1865 through the 1870s. “To say … baseball’s racial segregation resulted from a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ is roughly the equivalent of asserting that the Civil War stemmed from a difference of opinion,” Swanson summaries. It’s also interesting to not how Frederick Douglas’ son, Charles, who “had been anointed at birth to play a role in the ongoing struggle for black rights in America,” serving in the Union army, “had little chance of surpassing or even equaling the accomplishments of his famous father,” and gravitated instead to professional baseball, establishing The Alert Club team.
** “The Negro Leagues Were Major Leagues: Historians Reappraise Black Baseball,” by Todd Peterson (McFarland, $49.5, 323 pages, released November, 2019)
** “Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays: A Biography of the Negro Leagues Owner and Hall of Famer,” by James E. Overmyer (McFarland, $35, 285 pages, released January, 2020).