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In 1920, when the first Negro National League was formed, Chicago Defender journalist Dave Wyatt predicted that “in the near future . . . Oscar Charleston will have to run bases protected by agile sons from all climes.” Oscar had taken note of that prophesy, pasting it in his personal scrapbook.[i] Sixteen years later, still waiting for Wyatt’s prediction to come true, he was happy to lend his name to the cause of racial equality.
In August 1936, the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, began an effort to life baseball’s color ban. Given the paper’s (correctly) suspected loyalty to Moscow and the sensitive geopolitics of the time, the Daily Worker was hardly an ideal vehicle for the fight for racial justice in America. Nevertheless, the NAACP, the Chicago Defender, and others, including white sportswriters Dan Parker and Jimmy Powers, rallied to its banner.
The Defender of August 29, 1936, ran head shots of Martin Dihigo and Oscar Charleston with a caption that read, “Charleston, Satchel Paige, and other baseball stars barred from the major leagues have shown by their fine sportsmanship on and off the field that they are well worthy of recognition. That they are barred because of their color has been admitted by the powers that be in baseball and a move is being made to wipe out this practice.”[ii] The Daily Worker’s initiative had been “hailed” by players, said the Defender, including Johnny Taylor, Frank Forbes, Silvi Garcia, Dihigo, and Charleston. Whether all or any of these players knew this effort was associated with communism is an open question. Charleston, after all, was a Republican.
Plus, unlike most revolutionaries, Oscar had a lively sense of humor. Cool Papa Bell recalled a waitress who said the restaurant didn’t “serve niggers” getting the response, “That’s fine, I don’t plan to order one.”[iii] A well-worn line, but significant that Bell attributed it to Oscar. And as frustrated as he must have been by Jim Crow, Charleston retailed the following anecdote to Lewis Dial of the New York Age:
Oscar Charleston, manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, tells a funny story on Clarence Palm, catcher of the Black Yankees. A Colored all-star team was playing a white all-star club down in Mexico; both groups were from the United States. Palm was at bat and a big white Texan named Pipgras was pitching. Pipgras threw a couple of fast ones at Palm’s head which angered the colored boy, who walked out to the mound and beleaguered the white lad. Palm called him a big cracker and told him that he was not in the United States now but down in Mexico, and another pitch like those would cause the cracker to have his head punched. When the Colored team returned to the States, Palm was the first man off the train, and who should be standing on the station platform but Pipgras. The colored boy quickly gathered his wits and realized he was again in Texas. Charleston said Palm went over to the white pitcher, tipping his hat, and said ‘Good morning Mr. Pipgras, how are you this morning? Do you still have that fast bucking curve?[iv]
Oscar was himself happy to push back against white men who took liberties, even when he was in the South. But on one occasion, at least, he decided that standing his ground wouldn’t be a wise decision. It has often been repeated over the years, as a way of illustrating his ornery toughness, that Charleston once threatened to throw a professional wrestler from a train. That is true. But the point of the story, as told (probably) by Oscar himself, is that he was a fool for doing so.
It seems that Oscar was traveling by rail to Harrisburg sometime in the early 1930s when he took a seat opposite a burly white man. After Oscar sat down, the man looked up and told him that he would have to move, as he was saving the seat for someone else. Oscar, perhaps sensing racism at play, flatly refused to comply, telling the man that if he didn’t let him have the seat one of them was getting thrown out the window. At that, the man gave a hearty laugh. Before anything else could happen, a railroad employee leaned in and asked Oscar if he knew who the man was. When Oscar said no, the employee told him it was Jim Londos, one of the most popular—and chiseled—professional wrestlers in the country. Oscar, taking another look at The Golden Greek, decided to find a different seat.[v]
[i] Dave Wyatt, “Sweeping Educational Campaign in Baseball.” Article in ocs.
[ii] Chicago Defender, August 29, 1936, 13.
[iii] Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords, 58.
[iv] Lewis R. Dial, “The Sport Dial,” New York Age, September 12, 1936, 9.
[v] Chester Washington, “Ches’ Sez: Rap’s Homer Beats Grays,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 3, 1935, A4. Harry Beale told the same story, at less length, in the same issue of the Courier (PAGE), so he and Washington must have gotten it at the same time.
Jackie Robinson Day is five days from now. On April 15, 1947, Jackie played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Needless to say, this was a very good thing for baseball and for America.
But as is often the case with good things, there were ironic consequences. Almost overnight, once Jackie was donning a Dodgers uniform everyday black baseball became a source of embarrassment rather than pride for the African American community.
“When Jackie Robinson began playing with the Dodgers, everybody forgot about us,” wrote Buck Leonard, a former star for the Homestead Grays and one of the greatest Negro League hitters of all time. “Some of us got good salaries right on to ‘49 and ‘50, but most of them ended after the war in 1945. Salaries wasn’t the only thing that went down. So did attendance at black baseball games. We couldn’t draw flies. Then, when they started taking blacks into organized baseball, that was just the end of it.”
What happened? Prior to integration, especially when such a thing seemed impossible, black baseball was a symbol of black self-help, excellence, and professionalism. But after integration, it was simply a painful reminder of all that blacks had to endure under segregation. It became a symbol and reminder of blacks’ purported inferiority. Who wouldn’t want to forget about all that?
The historian Jules Tygiel concluded in Baseball’s Great Experiment, the best book about Robinson and the breaking of baseball’s color line, “The side effects of integration included the destruction of a significant cultural entity and way of life. At one time the Negro Leagues had constituted one of the largest primarily black-owned and operated enterprises in the nation. With its demise, as Charles Epstein notes, ‘The possibility is strong that fewer blacks make their living from professional baseball than at any previous time in this century.’”
That certainly wasn’t what anyone had intended. It’s an open question whether it was inevitable.
The Indianapolis of Oscar Charleston’s youth was notable for its dirt. In the early 1900s soot would become so integral to the city’s landscape that it served as a literary device in the books written by Indianapolis native Booth Tarkington about the era, especially his Growth-trilogy novels: The Magnificent Ambersons, The Turmoil, and National Avenue. Black soot streaks the city’s statues and residents’ curtains in The Magnificent Ambersons. At times it is so thick it can be shoveled.
True to the booster spirit, the city’s new-rich industrialists take great pride in the dirt. The Turmoil’s capitalist protagonist, Dan Oliphant,
was the city incarnate. He loved it, calling it God’s country, as he called the some Prosperity, breathing the dingy cloud with relish. And when soot fell upon his cuff he chuckled; he could have kissed it. “It’s good! It’s good!” he said, and smacked his lips in gusto. “Good, clean soot: it’s our life-blood, God bless it!” The smoke was one of his great enthusiasms; he laughed at a committee of plaintive housewives who called to beg his aid against it. “Smoke’s what brings your husbands’ money home on Saturday night,” he told them, jovially. . . . “You go home and ask your husbands what smoke puts in their pockets out o’ the pay-roll—and you’ll come around next time to get me to turn out more smoke instead o’ chokin’ it off!”
Oliphant’s words were no mere fictional fancy. In Indianapolis as elsewhere smoke was often regarded as a tangible symbol of progress—and Indianapolis had progress in spades. As one resident recalled, smoke fell from the sky so thickly that “if you rocked on the back porch all morning and then went in for lunch, when you went out again after lunch you had to clean the chair thoroughly again.” Anti-smoke ordinances passed in the late 1890s and early 1900s provided little if any abatement of the nuisance.
The city’s ubiquitous smoke signified an obsession with growth. In Tarkington’s portrayal, turn-of-the-century Indianapolis was fairly frenzied by a “profound longing for size” such as that which drove Dan Oliphant. “Year by year the longing increased until it became an accumulated force: We must Grow! We must be Big! We must be Bigger! Bigness means Money! And the thing began to happen.” The factories and, just a bit later, the automobile were the primary instruments by which the “thing began to happen,” argued Tarkington. Together they brought “Death [to] the God of Things as They Are.”