How would Oscar have fared in MLB?

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The copy edited manuscript for Oscar Charleston is back with the publisher, so I have turned my attention to preparing a talk on Oscar for this summer. That has led me to try to figure out how best to communicate Charleston’s greatness to a baseball-literate crowd. Which, in turn, has led naturally to the question of how Oscar would have compared in the (white) majors had he had the opportunity to play in the American or National League.

Let’s start with how Oscar did against top competition in the Negro leagues. Here is his Seamheads page. (As an aside, I note that word about Seamheads does not seem to have spread into the wider sports writing community. Jane Leavy implies in her recent biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella, which I am reviewing for the Washington Examiner, that even half-reliable Negro leagues stats do not exist. Of course they do—and they are at Seamheads!) As you can see, in Negro leagues competition Oscar compiled a .352/.430/.579 slash line in 5,159 plate appearances, good for a 180 OPS+—in other words, he created runs at a rate 80% percent better than league average, not counting what he contributed with his legs on the basepaths.

That’s . . . really good. It’s the fourth-highest career OPS+ in the Seamheads database. Oscar is also fourth all-time in batting average and on-base percentage, and seventh all-time in slugging percentage. And we might note that he is dragged down more than most other players by having debuted very young (age 18) and for having played until he was quite old (until 44, in the Seamheads database). On the other hand, precisely because of the length of his career (and helped a bit, perhaps, by the fact that the years he played are comparatively well represented in the Seamheads database) he is first all-time in total PAs, ABs, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, and walks.

When we fold in baserunning and defense, Oscar looks even better with respect to his blackball peers. He ranks second all-time in offensive Wins Above Replacement per plate appearance (behind Josh Gibson), and thanks to his baserunning and defense he ranks first all-time in overall Wins Above Replacement at 74—second place (51.5) is not even close.

His peak was higher than anyone’s. Charleston has five of the best nine offensive seasons, by OPS+, in the Seamheads database (minimum 300 PAs). In a seven-year span between 1919 and 1925, he posted an OPS+ above 200 five times, compiling a 1.143 OPS over those seven years. Four of these years—1919, 1921, 1924, and 1925—rank among the top five Negro Leagues seasons ever. Gibson is the only other player with 5 OPS+ seasons of 200 or greater in a seven-year window.

So, look, when you take everything into account Gibson is the only Negro Leagues batter whose production rivaled Oscar’s over a lengthy period of time. And when you fold in defensive and base running considerations, as well as longevity, Charleston stands out as having had the best all-around career in black baseball. Just by carefully examining the statistical record, that would be hard to question. And that is saying a lot.

What does that mean with respect to how Charleston would have fared in the majors? There are several facts to keep in mind as we investigate that question:

  1. Negro leagues teams, on the whole, were not as good as Major League teams, primarily because they did not have as much depth. Scott Simkus found, in a sample of 7,402 games, that against all levels of competition—military, AAA, AA, high Class A, low Class A, semipro, and college—Major League teams posted higher winning percentages than did Negro Leagues teams, usually by more than one hundred percentage points. The conclusion to which Simkus’s research points is that the average Major League team was noticeably better than the average Negro Leagues team during this period, but not by a huge margin, and that clearly the Negro Leagues offered the next highest level of competition after the Majors. This was also the subjective judgment of numerous former players, both black and white (although, if anything, both black and white players tended to underestimate the quality of black baseball)
  2. Other top-tier Negro leagues players saw their stat lines diminish when they went to the Majors. Larry Doby and Monte Irvin, to take the two best comps I can think of, saw their OPS+’s decline by 35 to 40 points.
  3. When he did face Major League teams (in exhibition settings, of course), Charleston performed extraordinarily well. The sample size is small, but in 111 PAs he hit .347/.418/.806. Some of those at-bats came against pitchers like Lefty Grove, Jesse Haines, Reb Russell, and Elam Van Gilder, all of them above average (at least) when Charleston faced them. That part of the record would seem to suggest that he would have done just fine against other Major League pitchers.

Let’s start, then, by not dinging Charleston’s numbers at all for having been compiled against a presumably slightly lower level of competition. And, with a little help from Baseball Reference’s Play Index, let’s ask whether there has ever been such a great all-around player.

Has any MLB player ever compiled a career batting average of .350 or higher along with an OPS+ of 180 or greater, stolen bases of 300 or more (Oscar had 335 in fewer than half the career PAs of Willie Mays), and defensive WAR of greater than zero, as Oscar did?

No, not a one.

If we get rid of the batting average criterion altogether, we pick up just one player: Barry Bonds, who had a career BA of .298 (and OPS+ of 182) and who may have had a little special help in obtaining his numbers.

OK, Oscar probably wouldn’t have had a 180 OPS+ playing in the majors. Let’s get serious. Let’s knock his OPS+ down by 40 points, with Doby and Irvin as our comps. I don’t think we need to adjust his defensive value at all–clearly he would have been not only an above-average defender but a premium one, even in the majors. Just as clearly, given more PAs he would have stolen even more bases; there is no question that the speed would have played in the AL or NL. But even there, let’s be very reasonable and limit Charleston to just 500 career SBs. As to total home runs, let’s give him only 300 (he has 187 listed on his Seamheads page–and again, he would have had more than twice as many career PAs had he been allowed to play in the majors, for we have no reason to question his durability or longevity; quite the opposite).

Let’s put it all together to come up with a conservative career line for our alternative Major League Oscar: OPS+=140; HRs=300; SBs=500; dWAR=+10. How many major league players have done that?

No one. Not even if we take the HR threshold down to 250. No one has managed simultaneously to be that good on offense, on the base paths, and in the field.

I feel very, very confident that Oscar would have put up such a career line. In fact, I’d bet on more than 600 stolen bases, more than 350 home runs, and an OPS+ of 150 or greater, but I am admittedly bullish on the man.

Anyway, if we lower the defensive WAR bar to 0 – if we just ask that the player have a career of being average or better on defense, then only Barry Bonds shows up as a comp.

Keep dWAR at 10, but lower the SB threshold to 300, and we pick up Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.

Keep dWAR at 10, keep the SB threshold at 500, keep the OPS+ threshold at 140, but get rid of the home run criterion altogether, and who do we get? Honus Wagner. That’s it.

Remember, we are being conservative in estimating what Charleston’s major league numbers would have looked like. And keep in mind too that we are putting no penalty on the major league players who didn’t have to play against blacks. We’re making it hard on Oscar here!

In short, you can make a good argument that there was never anyone like Oscar Charleston, anywhere. And you can make a near-airtight argument that the only players who were like him were inner-inner-circle guys like Bonds (ahem) and ARod (ahem) and Mays and Wagner. OK—maybe only Mays and Wagner. (We’re conceding the top spot to Ruth here.)

Bill James was right. At least among position players, there is little doubt that Oscar was a top-five-of-all-time sort of performer. And maybe, even probably, the best all-around player who ever lived.

 

Charleston Chronology

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I had intended to include in Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player a chronology of Charleston’s life. I thought it would be particularly helpful in Oscar’s case, given how peripatetic he was, and given the errors floating around in the online ether. But including it would just make the darn book too long, said the University of Nebraska Press, no doubt wisely. So I have now included that chronology here. You can navigate to it using the top menu of the site.

As always, if you spy any errors or have any questions, please let me know.

Charleston bio officially slated for fall 2019 publication

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Apologies for the long absence. Life has a way of getting in the way of important things like website management, but here’s a quick update on the Charleston bio: In January, I finished the manuscript, and after a couple rounds of edits, the University of Nebraska Press today officially slated the book for publication in fall 2019. The title will be Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player.

I’ve been fortunate to collect a few good pre-publication blurbs for the book. Larry Lester, pioneer historian of the Negro Leagues, what say ye?

If you believe what many veterans of the Negro Leagues said—that Oscar Charleston was the greatest all-time all-around player—then you will find Jeremy Beer’s biography to be the unapologetic gospel truth. Beer’s examination of the grand Oscar’s youthful days, his military, his adult life and baseball legacy is the fruit of serious grassroots research. He proves that Charleston was the most divine legend there ever was!

Very nice of you, Larry. Indeed, the book would never have been completed without the incredibly kind and useful help Lester offered at every stage.

We’ll keep rolling out blurbs, photos, updates, and perhaps some excerpts here as publication nears. Stay tuned. . . .

 

Oscar Charleston photo in WSJ

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The Wall Street Journal runs the photo below, not often seen, of our man Oscar in last Saturday’s issue. The photo, taken by Pittsburgh photographer Teenie Harris, depicts Oscar standing in a dark suit outside Gus Greenlee’s Crawford Grill. It comes from the Harris Archive at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and if all goes well will also be included in my Charleston bio.

Charleston at Crawford Grill

The Journal runs the photo along with a review (which doesn’t mention Charleston), by Gerald Early, of Mark Whitaker’s new book Smoketown, which tells the story of the mostly unknown black cultural renaissance that took place in Pittsburgh in the first half of the twentieth century. Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee and Homestead Grays owner Cumberland Posey figure largely in Whitaker’s account, and rightly so. Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige also get a lot of coverage.

Charleston is mentioned a number of times, but I think Whitaker doesn’t quite do him justice with respect to how close he was to the center of this renaissance–certainly more than any other black baseball player was at least until the mid-1930s. That is understandable, given Charleston’s neglect in the secondary literature. At any rate, Whitaker’s book is a wonderful read, and he clearly understands the Negro Leagues’ cultural importance as a symbol of black achievement as well as anyone.

Bio draft finished

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More or less. Many little things still to check and look into, a few archives to examine, a few more calls to make. But in the main, done. 146,000 words of biographical goodness (or OKness, at least).

I wasn’t sure, when I first started this project, whether there was enough primary-source material to sustain a full bio of Charleston. I was an idiot. The man played, coached, scouted, umped, and/or managed for 40 years!

Anyway, also rediscovered this gem last weekend (apologies for the blurriness). Vintage Oscar: a food-focused bet, and some trash talk.

 

 

Oscar, race, and that story about the wrestler

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In 1920, when the first Negro National League was formed, Chicago Defender journalist Dave Wyatt predicted that “in the near future . . . Oscar Charleston will have to run bases protected by agile sons from all climes.” Oscar had taken note of that prophesy, pasting it in his personal scrapbook.[i] Sixteen years later, still waiting for Wyatt’s prediction to come true, he was happy to lend his name to the cause of racial equality.

In August 1936, the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, began an effort to life baseball’s color ban. Given the paper’s (correctly) suspected loyalty to Moscow and the sensitive geopolitics of the time, the Daily Worker was hardly an ideal vehicle for the fight for racial justice in America. Nevertheless, the NAACP, the Chicago Defender, and others, including white sportswriters Dan Parker and Jimmy Powers, rallied to its banner.

The Defender of August 29, 1936, ran head shots of Martin Dihigo and Oscar Charleston with a caption that read, “Charleston, Satchel Paige, and other baseball stars barred from the major leagues have shown by their fine sportsmanship on and off the field that they are well worthy of recognition. That they are barred because of their color has been admitted by the powers that be in baseball and a move is being made to wipe out this practice.”[ii] The Daily Worker’s initiative had been “hailed” by players, said the Defender, including Johnny Taylor, Frank Forbes, Silvi Garcia, Dihigo, and Charleston. Whether all or any of these players knew this effort was associated with communism is an open question. Charleston, after all, was a Republican.

Plus, unlike most revolutionaries, Oscar had a lively sense of humor. Cool Papa Bell recalled a waitress who said the restaurant didn’t “serve niggers” getting the response, “That’s fine, I don’t plan to order one.”[iii] A well-worn line, but significant that Bell attributed it to Oscar. And as frustrated as he must have been by Jim Crow, Charleston retailed the following anecdote to Lewis Dial of the New York Age:

Oscar Charleston, manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, tells a funny story on Clarence Palm, catcher of the Black Yankees. A Colored all-star team was playing a white all-star club down in Mexico; both groups were from the United States. Palm was at bat and a big white Texan named Pipgras was pitching. Pipgras threw a couple of fast ones at Palm’s head which angered the colored boy, who walked out to the mound and beleaguered the white lad. Palm called him a big cracker and told him that he was not in the United States now but down in Mexico, and another pitch like those would cause the cracker to have his head punched. When the Colored team returned to the States, Palm was the first man off the train, and who should be standing on the station platform but Pipgras. The colored boy quickly gathered his wits and realized he was again in Texas. Charleston said Palm went over to the white pitcher, tipping his hat, and said ‘Good morning Mr. Pipgras, how are you this morning? Do you still have that fast bucking curve?[iv]

 

Oscar was himself happy to push back against white men who took liberties, even when he was in the South. But on one occasion, at least, he decided that standing his ground wouldn’t be a wise decision. It has often been repeated over the years, as a way of illustrating his ornery toughness, that Charleston once threatened to throw a professional wrestler from a train. That is true. But the point of the story, as told (probably) by Oscar himself, is that he was a fool for doing so.

It seems that Oscar was traveling by rail to Harrisburg sometime in the early 1930s when he took a seat opposite a burly white man. After Oscar sat down, the man looked up and told him that he would have to move, as he was saving the seat for someone else. Oscar, perhaps sensing racism at play, flatly refused to comply, telling the man that if he didn’t let him have the seat one of them was getting thrown out the window. At that, the man gave a hearty laugh. Before anything else could happen, a railroad employee leaned in and asked Oscar if he knew who the man was. When Oscar said no, the employee told him it was Jim Londos, one of the most popular—and chiseled—professional wrestlers in the country. Oscar, taking another look at The Golden Greek, decided to find a different seat.[v]

 

 

[i] Dave Wyatt, “Sweeping Educational Campaign in Baseball.” Article in ocs.

[ii] Chicago Defender, August 29, 1936, 13.

[iii] Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords, 58.

[iv] Lewis R. Dial, “The Sport Dial,” New York Age, September 12, 1936, 9.

[v] Chester Washington, “Ches’ Sez: Rap’s Homer Beats Grays,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 3, 1935, A4. Harry Beale told the same story, at less length, in the same issue of the Courier (PAGE), so he and Washington must have gotten it at the same time.

So, that fight with a Cuban soldier (or soldiers) . . .

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The 1923–24 Santa Clara Leopardos have become an integral part of the Oscar Charleston legend, in part because of a truly spectacular fight that Oscar ignited on January 19 at Almendares Park in Havana, during the first game of the Gran Premio Invernal season.

I have been researching this incident for the book, and here is what I think happened:

It all started when Oscar, sliding with typical fury into third base, spiked Manuel Cueto, the third baseman, cutting him badly. As Cueto lay there in pain, his brother, a soldier, leaped out of the stands behind third base and charged Charleston. Soon, both Cuetos were taking swings at Oscar, and before long several other soldiers, or perhaps policemen, had run onto the field—either to join the fray, as the later legend has it, or to break it up, as is much more likely. (Contemporary Cuban news accounts refer to Oscar getting into a fight with just one soldier.) Oscar defended himself as best he could, and by all accounts acquitted himself well. A post-fight newspaper photo in his scrapbook shows him standing calmly next to a policeman, no worse for the wear. Manuel Cueto was not as fortunate; he was carried off the field by teammates and taken to the emergency room. Charleston was hauled off to the police station.

At first, Oscar suffered badly in the Havana press, which published a number of articles accusing him of dirty play (Charleston proudly pasted some of these pieces in his scrapbook). The cartoonists had a field day, illustrating in comic fashion Oscar’s slide into third, the chaotic fight that followed, and the punishment Oscar was to receive; one ends by showing him hanging from a noose labeled Liga—League. Rumors spread among fans that Charleston had it out for native Cuban players and, indeed, that he had hoped to seriously injure one of them before he left the island that winter. Many citizens were outraged at the thought of a Cuban soldier being assaulted by an American player.

Yet Oscar had not only a legion of fans by this time, but also numerous well-placed friends. Both groups were quick to spring to Oscar’s defense. A telegram reached him the next day, assuring him that all Santa Clara stood behind him. A friend named Salvador Castillo y León wrote Oscar a personal letter encouraging him to ignore the criticism being heaped upon him in the papers. Oscar had always been known for his “gentlemanly conduct.” The injury was an accident—and in any case was part of the game when a fielder chose to block a base. The soldier, meanwhile, had “dishonored the uniform” and would be appropriately punished in a court of law. Castillo y León enclosed a flyer that fans were circulating in support of Oscar. It repeated the claim that Charleston, who was well-known for his gentlemanliness, was being ill-used by the Havana press for his role in the incident at Almendares Park, and it called for fans to boycott the two newspapers—El Pais and El Sol—that were most strident in their criticisms of Charleston’s play.

Another of Oscar’s friends, Hilario Franquiz, wrote to La Prensa on January 24 that Oscar was a “perfect gentleman” too “decent” and “cultured” to be legitimately suspected of intentionally trying to hurt someone. He conveyed with his letter one from Oscar, in which Charleston said (in Spanish) that if he wanted “to hurt a man, I would do it nobly,” not by using his spikes. (Anyone who knew Oscar would have known that much, at least, to be true.) Nor was he prejudiced against Cubans. “I esteem a man as what he is, as a man, as a human being, without taking into account” ethnicity or other extraneous matters. After all, Oscar and his fellow Negro leaguers knew all too well what it meant to be judged in such a manner. Finally, Oscar met with representatives of the Cuban military, explained that he was only acting in self-defense, and insisted that he meant no disrespect to the uniform of the Cuban Army, for which, as a veteran himself, he had only admiration. In this meeting, Oscar’s charm and sterling social reputation once again served him well. His explanation was well received. The Army even announced that it would discipline Cueto the soldier for his role in the incident.

The fight was a big deal, but Oscar was hardly scarred by the event. Indeed, besides memorializing it extensively in his scrapbook, he seems to have laughingly retailed it far and wide once he returned stateside. The day Charleston got into a melee with a bevy of soldiers and spent the night in jail became a tale that would often be told, in various exaggerated forms, down through the years. Webster McDonald, who wasn’t there, told Negro leagues historian John Holway decades later that Oscar had whipped three men that day. “Grabbed one and swung him around and knocked the others down,” said McDonald. Ted Page, who wasn’t there either, told Holway, “There were a dozen or more soldiers, and he stretched them all over the park, just laying them out.” Oscar must have really enjoyed spinning this yarn. “He told us about how he was down in Latin America and there was one fight that they put him in jail overnight,” said Wilmer Harris, recalling a conversation with Oscar that must have taken place in the late 1940s. “Said he rattled the cage all the time he was in there, scared ’em to death.”

That was Oscar: always entertaining himself by rattling the cage.

Jane Charleston’s connection to the Harlem Renaissance

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Greetings, and apologies for the hiatus here. Everything, I am pleased to report, is proceeding apace with the Charleston bio, which, if I have not announced it before, is to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019. I am on track to deliver the manuscript next spring, God willing, and had two occasions to present on Oscar this summer: first at the Midwestern History Association meeting in Grand Rapids, and next at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference in Harrisburg.

Thanks to the offices of city historian Calobe Jackson Jr., the trip to Harrisburg provided me the delightful opportunity to meet Mrs. Elizabeth Overton, Jane Charleston’s great-niece. Mrs. Overton was extremely close to Janie, living with her for many years and caring for her at the end of her life. She is also the family historian, so Janie entrusted her with numerous documents, photos, and stories about the Blalock family. Not, alas, with all that many stories about Oscar–but some.

My interviews with Mrs. Overton and her daughter, Dr. Miriam Phields, have given me a much better handle on who Janie was, what she was like, what she believed, and how she lived. All utterly invaluable, of course. I am deeply in the debt of Mrs. Overton and Dr. Phields, and will doubtless be leaning on them more as this project advances. (They have been warned.)

Anyway, I took a lot of photos of photos while visiting Mrs. Overton, and I think this charmer may be my favorite.

Click on the photo, and you can see the basketball reads “Philander A.C., 11-14-15.” That’s Janie in the second row, second from the left, sitting next to this cheerful basketball team’s male coach (I assume that’s who he is). And in the front row, sitting in the middle, is Esther Popel, a good friend of Janie and her sisters. Who was Esther Popel? A Harrisburg girl and Dickinson College graduate who as Esther Popel Shaw went on to become a significant poet and author associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

That was the sort of impressive crowd Janie ran with. Oscar surely took pride in that. Maybe he even read Esther’s poetry, sometimes.

Charlie White

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Here is a clip from the New York Age, dated June 26, 1954–63 years ago today–in which catcher Charlie White of the 1954 Milwaukee Braves credits Oscar Charleston with coaching him up for the big leagues (click on the image to get a larger version; White talks about Charleston toward the bottom of the third column). White had several black teammates on that Braves team, including, as we see here, one who was quickly becoming well known in the young Henry Aaron.

Aaron played only for a few weeks on the 1952 Indianapolis Clowns, if I’m not mistaken, before being sold to the Braves. Charleston never managed him, but he may have managed against him, since he was managing the Philadelphia Stars in 1952. I haven’t yet researched the matter.

Anyway, White, who played for the Braves in both 1954 and 1955 before his brief major-league career came to an end, was one of those young men in whom Oscar could take pride in helping get to the majors before he died in October 1954. The individual mentoring role seems to be one in which Oscar particularly excelled as a manager (as opposed, say, to strategy).

 

Honus Wagner on Charleston, and Charleston on the color line

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Just came across this testimony on Oscar Charleston’s abilities from Honus Wagner, as quoted (or remembered by) Wendell Smith, crusading sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier.

The quote from Wagner is wonderful. But more wonderful is the direct, contemporary quote from Oscar about not getting the chance to play in the majors. This is the only place I have seen where he addresses the issue personally and directly.

(August 21, 1954, Pittsburgh Courier, p. 12)

I believe Oscar played against Wagner’s “All-Stars” in an exhibition game in 1929 or 1930, when Oscar was with the Homestead Grays. Wagner was, of course, long retired by then. But presumably he knew an elite ballplayer when he saw one. And he may well have seen or played against Charleston before then, although I have not come across such a game.

Within four months after Smith published this column, Charleston was dead. Wagner died the next year, in December 1955.