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.

Oscar in the Baseball Research Journal

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My piece on Oscar’s rookie season with the Indianapolis ABCs, including a detailed account of the brawl he helped spark in an October 1915 contest versus the Donie Bush All-Stars, is now out in the Baseball Research Journal‘s print edition.

It’s not online yet, but I suspect it will be before long.

If you just can’t wait, looks like you can buy the issue here.

And if you also just can’t wait for the bio to be published…well, the manuscript is coming along. The University of Nebraska Press will be the publisher.

A little more on Oscar and Jane Charleston

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Thanks to the help of Ted Knorr and the research of Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson Jr., I now know a couple more important facts about Oscar Charleston and his second wife, Jane.

  1. They were married in November 1922–but not in Jane’s hometown of Harrisburg, as I had assumed. The first paragraph of a newspaper clipping in Oscar’s scrapbook reads as follows:

    Miss Jane B. Howard of Harrisburg, Pa., was quietly married to Oscar Charleston Thursday noon, at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Percy Richards, 3305 Lawton Ave. Rev. C. A. Williams, pastor of St. Paul A. M. E. Church, performed the ceremony.

    Calobe discovered that Rev. Williams pastored St. Paul’s in St. Louis, Missouri, and that the 3305 Lawton Ave. address is found there, as well. Percy Richards was living there and working as a bartender at the time of the 1920 census. My assumption is that Oscar became friends with Percy during the 1921 season, when he played for the St. Louis Stars.

    My guess is that the Charlestons eloped because Jane’s family–prominent and proper as it was–did not approve of her marriage to the ballplaying Oscar, which seems to have come within just a few months of their meeting. But why St. Louis rather than, say, Atlantic City or some other place nearer to Harrisburg? I have no idea.

  2. Oscar filed for divorce from Jane on or about July 24, 1941 (see clipping below, found by Calobe, from the July 25, 1941, Indianapolis Star). I do not yet know whether this divorce went through, but the Marion County Clerk’s Office will surely let me know shortly. If it did go through, that didn’t prevent Oscar from leaving Jane his estate when he died in October 1954.

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Charleston and McGraw

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The great John McGraw allegedly said that Oscar Charleston was the best player he had ever seen. To my knowledge, no one has ever produced a good source for that quote, but if McGraw did believe that, he may have come to that conclusion in the winter of 1924.

McGraw and his wife Blanche were regularly spending a few weeks in Cuba every winter by that point. One assumes they took in some ballgames, at least whenever Mac got tired of the racetrack. In the winter of 1923-24, Charleston was playing center field for the Santa Clara Leopardos, now commonly considered the best team in Cuban baseball history. McGraw would have been aware of how that team was demolishing the competition.

Anyway, it seems that the two men may have had occasion to discuss baseball together. A couple days ago I was looking more closely at this passenger list of the SS Cuba, which arrived in Key West on March 1, 1924 (apologies if you have to zoom in to read the names). Oscar and Jane Charleston are in rows 19 and 20. Who is listed in rows 29 and 30? None other than John J. and Blanche McGraw. I wonder if the two couples spoke during the passage? Indeed, could they have, or was seating on these ships segregated?

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Charleston’s first appearance in the papers

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On February 28, 1914, the all-black 24th Infantry baseball team played its first game in the Philippines’ semi-professional Manila League. The club included two future Hall of Famers in Bullet Joe Rogan and Oscar Charleston.

That was the official start of Charleston’s professional baseball career. But the 24th actually began to play Manila League teams several weeks earlier, as part of the city’s Carnival celebration. Their first game against a Manila League team came on February 8. Here is the story from the next day’s Manila Times.

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Neither Rogan nor Charleston had a hit, but Rogan did strike out ten batters. Not a bad way to announce yourself. (By the way, the paper routinely referred to the All-Filipinos team as the “Brownies”–referring to their skin color, of course.)

Charleston–who was only seventeen and a half years old at the time–started slow at the plate, but he did go Rogan one better on the mound a few weeks later, after official league play had begun. I think the following game of March 15, 1914, may have been his first professional appearance as a pitcher (but I’m not sure about that). If so, how many pitchers can say they struck out four men in the first inning of their first game?

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Fistfuls of money

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I am working my way through Oscar Charleston’s 1920 season right now. It was Oscar’s sixth season in the Negro leagues, as well as the first season of the new Negro National League. Oscar was 23, and although he was one of the league’s best two or three hitters, what stands out is how crazy the press and fans went over his defense.

Against the Dayton Marcos on May 23, “Charleston made a sensational one-handed catch of a fly ball after a long run which seemed to take the ‘heart’ out of the visitors.” A few days later, “Charleston’s sensational fielding was the outstanding feature” in a contest versus the Monarchs in Kansas City. The Kansas City Sun’s correspondent reported that Charleston had “demonstrated the fact that he could possibly cover all three of the [outfield] positions at once.” In late July against the Chicago Giants, “Charleston’s running catch of a hard hit drive, directly over his head, was the big feature of the afternoon. It was truly one of the best catches ever made by at outfielder at Washington Park.” Folks came not just from Indianapolis but from outlying towns like Muncie, Kokomo, Anderson, and Logansport in the hope of seeing Charleston do something spectacular in center field.

Then there is this clip from the May 10, 1920, Indianapolis Star. I’ve never before read about any player, white or black, being congratulated on the field with fistfuls of money like this. But that’s how impressed the fans were with Oscar’s glove.

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Midway through the season, the Star started calling Oscar the “Black Tris Speaker” instead of the “Black Ty Cobb.” I suspect the change was made because Speaker was considered a much better defender than Cobb.

Oscar Charleston, the man

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Over the last two days, while doing research in the Pittsburgh Courier files of the mid-1920s, I came across two wonderful nuggets. Each helps to reveal something about the personality and habits of Oscar Charleston, and about how others viewed him. This was during the peak of his career, while he was playing, managing, and essentially acting as the general manager of the Harrisburg Giants.

First, this June 20, 1925, excerpt from William Dunn’s column.

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So: Oscar could sing! And take your money at billiards! And seemed, at least, to be happily married and well-liked by those who knew him, even as he remained somewhat hard to get to know.

Second, an April 3, 1926, anti-liquor article in the Courier that uses Oscar as its main example of how avoiding drink leads to success:

One of the outstanding characters of the diamond who shuns liquor is that great and colorful king of the diamond, Oscar Charleston, fielder supreme, the peer of whom is yet to be located. Year after year Oscar has gone on piling up achievements which make him a place in the hall of fame of Negro baseball for all time, aiding the game by his clean and sane method of living and playing the game. The answer is plain. Oscar could not have maintained such a remarkable record of performance if he had been a drinker, and this, we think, is one of the greatest factors of his success.

Dizzy Dismukes, too, we are told, also is a non-drinker. By contrast, the author argues, alcoholism drove former Charleston teammates Specs Clark and Jimmy Lyons out of baseball.

Dismukes and Charleston seem to have been friends. Charleston’s photo album contains a number of photos of his wife Jane with Dizzy’s wife in Cuba. Teetotaling may have been one thing that bonded the two men.