I had the privilege of interviewing former Brooklyn Dodgers star Carl Erskine this fall. Mr. Erskine was generous with his time and had many fascinating stories about Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and others.
I contacted Mr. Erskine because I wanted to know whether he had ever run across Oscar Charleston in person. Mr. Erskine was signed by the Dodgers in 1946, when Oscar may still have been working as a scout for Branch Rickey, and debuted for them in 1948. In addition, Mr. Erskine is from Indiana, having been born in Anderson in 1926, so I thought perhaps he might somehow, some way have crossed paths with Oscar locally.
Alas, he never met Charleston. But he had played against some all-black teams before he was signed by the Dodgers.
“I saw some really good black baseball teams,” he told me, referring to his semipro days in Indiana. “The Indianapolis Clowns had some terrific players, great athletes.” Mr. Erskine couldn’t recall whether he had played against them, but he had seen the Clowns when he was in high school. “I was pitching at 15 or 16 for a local semipro team. They’d give us $10 gas money and we’d drive and go play in Kokomo or Muncie or whatever.” This would have been in the early 1940s, well before Charleston was managing the team (which didn’t happen until 1954).
What was the quality of play in the Negro Leagues? Mr. Erskine estimated that it was “better than AAA. They would have fared very well against AAA, but not so well against the majors. It’s an awful hard thing to guess.” I would say that that, in fact, is probably the consensus judgment of former Negro Leagues players themselves.