Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player is now available from the University of Nebraska Press. If you aren’t ready to read the whole thing, here’s a thumbnail bio.
Oscar McKinley Charleston was born on October 14, 1896, in Indianapolis, to Thomas and Mary Charleston. His was a big, poor family only recently arrived from Tennessee. One family source has claimed that Thomas was at least partly of Sioux heritage.
At 15, Oscar lied about his age and joined the Army. He served in the 24th Infantry in the Philippines, where he made his professional debut as a baseball player in the Manila League. Discharged in 1915, he returned to Indianapolis and latched on with the Indianapolis ABCs, one of the more established black teams. His talent was recognized immediately, and by 1919 he had established himself as one of the best players in black baseball.
From 1915 until his death in 1954, Charleston played, coached, scouted, and managed more or less continuously. The primary teams for which he played were the ABCs, the Harrisburg Giants, the Hilldale Daisies (based in Darby, Pennsylvania), the Homestead Grays, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, although there were also shorter stints with other outfits (e.g., the Chicago American Giants). In the offseason, he barnstormed with ad hoc black all-star outfits, including against white teams, and he played winter ball regularly in California and Cuba. In Cuba, especially, he was a superstar who made a lasting reputation among the country’s passionate fans.
What kind of player was the left-handed-hitting Charleston? Mike Trout (although right-handed) is probably a good comp. Like Trout, he played center field (moving to first base later in his career). And like Trout, his arm was his weakest tool, but it was certainly adequate, and he excelled at the four other fundamental baseball tools–hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning, and fielding. The statistical record, such as it is, suggests that he has as good a claim as anyone to being the best all-around player in black baseball history, including Josh Gibson. The testimonials of those who played against him–even those who saw him when he was in his late thirties–support the claim. Bill James ranks Charleston the fourth greatest player of all time, behind only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Honus Wagner.
Charleston had a deserved reputation as a fiery player who was quick to fight with anyone who crossed him or his teammates. It is sometimes implied by historians who know little about Charleston that he was a nasty person or some kind of psychotic berserker. This isn’t true. He rarely started fights; but once they got going, he was happy to get involved, and he often ended them. (It’s also good to keep in mind that fights, brawls, and riots in the Negro Leagues, and baseball generally, were far from uncommon during Oscar’s era.) Charleston was a powerful, tough man. And while he may have been feared, he was also universally respected.
Oscar was, in fact, a born leader who by his mid-twenties usually also managed any team he played for, as was the style at the time (including in the Major Leagues). As his playing career wound down, he continued to manage, leading the Crawfords as they wandered from Pittsburgh to Toledo to Indianapolis; the Philadelphia Stars; and the Indianapolis Clowns. He had just led the Clowns to a championship season, and signed up to manage them again in 1955, when he died in October 1954. The Negro Leagues themselves died soon thereafter.
In 1945, Branch Rickey brought Charleston on board to manage the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, his entry in the newly formed black United States League. By that time, Rickey had embarked on his plan to sign black players for the Dodgers system, and he and his staff leaned on Charleston for advice and information. Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth reported in 1951 that the Dodgers were inclined to pass on signing Roy Campanella until they called in Charleston, who convinced them to change their minds. In fact, as far as I can tell Oscar was the first black man to work as a scout for a Major League Baseball team.
Married twice, Charleston nevertheless left no descendants. His sister Katherine Horsley represented him in Cooperstown when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976. Charleston is buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Indianapolis. The simple military headstone makes no mention of his achievements in baseball.