Negro Leagues veteran Oscar McKinley Charleston–born 1896, deceased 1954–was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1976. His legendary playing, scouting, and managerial career stretched from 1915 to 1954. Most people, including most baseball fans, have never heard of him.
That’s not so strange, in and of itself. Lots of Hall of Famers from that area are unknown to the majority of baseball followers. But Charleston is different. Were they better known and understood, his accomplishments as a player alone would make him an inner-inner-circle Hall of Famer–someone worthy of standing with Ruth and Mays and Cobb and a handful of others as a first-team all-timer.
My evidence for this claim? Bill James, than whom no one has ever more carefully or impartially considered the historical evidence. In his New Bill James Baseball Historical Abstract, James ranks Charleston the fourth-greatest baseball player of all time.
Only Ruth, Wagner, and Mays were greater. Cobb, Mantle, Musial, Aaron, Williams, and other elite members of the tiny, last-names-only club don’t quite measure up.
Think about it. Bill James said that. Not a random fan or family member. Not a sportswriter ginning up a story. Not a basement-dweller blogger at Bleacher Report. Not an attention-seeking talking head. Not a revisionist historian with a social or political agenda. Bill James. The father of sabermetrics. The man who brought a new level of rigor in our thinking about baseball—indeed, about sports generally. The man who launched the analytics revolution. A walking baseball encyclopedia. A man who prides himself on not giving a damn what other people think.
He is the one who said that Oscar Charleston was the fourth-greatest player of all time, which of course makes Charleston one of the greatest athletes in American history.
Surely that makes Charleston worth getting to know.