, , , , ,

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.