And avoid giving quite all of your money to Jeff Bezos.
Just use code 6AS19 at the University of Nebraska Press website when you check out.
and not only could it be worse, it’s actually quite good. Whew!
Obviously I’ll be ignoring all negative reviews.
Beer’s evenhanded narrative makes a convincing case for Charleston as the greatest baseball player who never played in the majors. This is a solid hit for baseball historians and fans alike.
. . . or almost no one, at any rate. And with exactly seven weeks to go until Oscar Charleston is released, it seems appropriate to share it here.
The photo was shown to me by Elizabeth Overton, great-niece of Oscar’s wife Jane, just months before she (Elizabeth) died in March 2018–far too young, I might add. Elizabeth and her daughter Dr. Miriam Phields were incredibly helpful to me. I owe them both a great deal.
In summer 2017, I paid Elizabeth a visit in her Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, home to talk to her about Janie and collect some photos. We had a lovely conversation, and I learned much about Janie and her family, but other than this photo of Oscar pasted onto a wooden statue, a gift he had once given Janie, Elizabeth had no pictures of Oscar.
Then, a day or two later, Elizabeth gave me a ring. She had found another of Janie’s photo albums, and this one included two pictures of my subject.
I soon dropped in on Elizabeth to see these images. One (below), of Oscar standing with Pittsburgh Crawfords secretary John Clark, a man who would go on to become an astute political journalist, I had seen before.
But the other was completely new. Here it is:
We have here, it seems, a young, Jazz Age Oscar, probably right around the time at which he met Janie (that is, 1922 or thereabouts). As you can see, he is leaning against a porch post and dressed casually in driving cap, sweater, tie, and pinstriped pants.
It’s like no other photo of Oscar I’ve ever seen. I especially love the way Oscar gazes straight into the camera with a steady, cool, piercing stare. You can see why few people ever dared mess with this man.
Page proofs from Nebraska arrived. Review of proofs completed.
Let’s all just agree that no errors will remain, OK?
Most of my changes had to do with updating Oscar’s statistics. There have been some changes to the Seamheads.com database lately. Instead of owning four of the top five seasons by OPS+ in Negro Leagues history, Oscar now only owns four of the top eight.
He is trending in the wrong direction!
But four of the top eight is still pretty good.
and over at (and in) National Review I explain why, by way of reviewing two new Banks biographies. The opening paragraph:
Ernie Banks was weird. Mister Cub was beloved for his perpetual “Let’s play two!” cheerfulness and his easygoing acceptance of whatever storms life and baseball offered. He also was married four times, adopted a child when he was in his late seventies, made it a goal to attend more weddings each year than in the year previous, often broke into song during press conferences, conducted faux interviews with himself for the entertainment of no one in particular, and once thought seriously about attending clown school. In his later years he greeted every man he met, whether he knew him or not, with the question “How’s your wife?” He also developed a troubling case of kleptomania.
I am pleased to be speaking on Oscar Charleston on Thursday, June 27, at SABR 49 in San Diego. The talk will consist of a brief precis of the book, due out on November 1, of course. Hoping that the many real experts in the audience won’t find too many errors in my work!
Registration is here if you are interested.
My review of Jane Leavy’s The Big Fella and Paul Dickson’s Leo Durocher is now online at the Washington Examiner. Actually, it’s been online for a while–and ran in the March 19 print edition, as I found out today. Lesson: it pays to follow up one’s submissions.
The first paragraph…
In 1920, Babe Ruth changed baseball by hitting a then unthinkable 54 home runs. Thanks mainly to the advent of tabloid newspapers, that feat made him a national celebrity. Over the next 15 seasons, 611 more Babe Ruth fly balls would drop to Earth beyond the American League’s outfield fences. No one had ever seen anything like it. No one had ever seen anything like him.
I could never understand the appeal of Durocher–as a person, as a manager, as a husband or son, as anything. Having read not only Dickson’s bio, but as two new Ernie Banks bios (reviewed for National Review, forthcoming), Leo’s charm continues to elude me. In this review, it was fun to vent my spleen a little.
and now available for pre-order on Amazon. As they say, buy early and buy often!
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:
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.