Alex Rodriguez, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Baseball Reference, Bill James, Honus Wagner, Jane Leavy, Josh Gibson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Oscar Charleston, Play Index, Scott Simkus, Seamheads, University of Nebraska Press, Washington Examiner, Willie Mays
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:
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.