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.
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.