Thomas Boswell was pissed. It was the spring of 1999, and the Sporting News had just released its list of the top 100 baseball players of all time.
Boswell, who at the time was considered one of the nation’s leading baseball writers, griped that contemporary players were criminally underrated. The list represented nothing but baseball’s typical “ancestor worship.” Hanging his arguments with stunning cluelessness on the inflated counting stats produced by the hyper-offensive era of the 1990s–and ignoring the inflated hat sizes and biceps of its stars–Boswell even made a case that the 29-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. was a better player than Willie Mays.
That’s when he really got angry. Mays was ranked #2 by TSN, Boswell noted, whereas Griffey “is ranked 26 spots behind Oscar Charleston,” who came in #67 on the TSN list.
Who the hell was Oscar freaking Charleston? Boswell had no idea. “I’m truly tempted to research Oscar Charleston,” he warned, as if in doing so he might dig up some kind of scandalous hoax. Now, I was a young man in 1999. As I recall, they had books then. Libraries full of them. Even had the Internet. A little research may not have been a bad idea.
But Boswell forged blindly ahead. The absurdly high ranking of Oscar had him in a contemptuous rage.
Was he a 19th century player? A Negro Leagues star? A legend in Antarctic sandlot ball? Who knows? But you know he’s got to be 20 or 30 spots ‘greater’ than such players as [Eddie] Murray, Kirby Puckett, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Wade Boggs, Dennis Eckersley, or Paul Molitor. . . .
Some of Boswell’s ignorance is understandable. Oscar Charleston has never been a household name, so we might forgive him his lack of familiarity there. And perhaps we can forgive him for not knowing that many of the 1990s stars were making ample use of advances in chemistry unavailable to the stars of previous eras.
But it’s that four-sentence question quoted above that gets me: “A Negro Leagues star?” Paired as it is with Boswell’s other two rhetorical queries, the clear implication is that the quality of black baseball was laughably inferior to today’s. To include a mere “Negro Leagues star” in a top-100 list such as TSN’s was silly, apparently, to a Modern Baseball Observer like Thomas Boswell.
Of course, Boswell got it completely wrong. The TSN list included just five players who made their careers in the Negro Leagues. That’s way too low, as is Oscar’s ranking. As Bill James would point out two years later, in the late 1940s and early 1950s the Negro Leagues produced Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Mays, Henry Aaron, and Ernie Banks in a span of just seven years. “If those leagues could produce five players like that in seven years, what about the previous forty?”
So was Oscar “20 or 30 spots” greater than guys like Eckersley and Molitor? Nah. The gap between the is a hell of a lot bigger than that. But Boswell was too busy fawning over Eddie Murray’s RBI totals to look into the matter.
Hey, when you’re a with-it, progressive sportswriter, you gotta stay away from that “ancestor worship” stuff.