Honus Wagner on Charleston, and Charleston on the color line


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Just came across this testimony on Oscar Charleston’s abilities from Honus Wagner, as quoted (or remembered by) Wendell Smith, crusading sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier.

The quote from Wagner is wonderful. But more wonderful is the direct, contemporary quote from Oscar about not getting the chance to play in the majors. This is the only place I have seen where he addresses the issue personally and directly.

(August 21, 1954, Pittsburgh Courier, p. 12)

I believe Oscar played against Wagner’s “All-Stars” in an exhibition game in 1929 or 1930, when Oscar was with the Homestead Grays. Wagner was, of course, long retired by then. But presumably he knew an elite ballplayer when he saw one. And he may well have seen or played against Charleston before then, although I have not come across such a game.

Within four months after Smith published this column, Charleston was dead. Wagner died the next year, in December 1955.

Oscar in the Baseball Research Journal


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My piece on Oscar’s rookie season with the Indianapolis ABCs, including a detailed account of the brawl he helped spark in an October 1915 contest versus the Donie Bush All-Stars, is now out in the Baseball Research Journal‘s print edition.

It’s not online yet, but I suspect it will be before long.

If you just can’t wait, looks like you can buy the issue here.

And if you also just can’t wait for the bio to be published…well, the manuscript is coming along. The University of Nebraska Press will be the publisher.

A little more on Oscar and Jane Charleston


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Thanks to the help of Ted Knorr and the research of Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson Jr., I now know a couple more important facts about Oscar Charleston and his second wife, Jane.

  1. They were married in November 1922–but not in Jane’s hometown of Harrisburg, as I had assumed. The first paragraph of a newspaper clipping in Oscar’s scrapbook reads as follows:

    Miss Jane B. Howard of Harrisburg, Pa., was quietly married to Oscar Charleston Thursday noon, at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Percy Richards, 3305 Lawton Ave. Rev. C. A. Williams, pastor of St. Paul A. M. E. Church, performed the ceremony.

    Calobe discovered that Rev. Williams pastored St. Paul’s in St. Louis, Missouri, and that the 3305 Lawton Ave. address is found there, as well. Percy Richards was living there and working as a bartender at the time of the 1920 census. My assumption is that Oscar became friends with Percy during the 1921 season, when he played for the St. Louis Stars.

    My guess is that the Charlestons eloped because Jane’s family–prominent and proper as it was–did not approve of her marriage to the ballplaying Oscar, which seems to have come within just a few months of their meeting. But why St. Louis rather than, say, Atlantic City or some other place nearer to Harrisburg? I have no idea.

  2. Oscar filed for divorce from Jane on or about July 24, 1941 (see clipping below, found by Calobe, from the July 25, 1941, Indianapolis Star). I do not yet know whether this divorce went through, but the Marion County Clerk’s Office will surely let me know shortly. If it did go through, that didn’t prevent Oscar from leaving Jane his estate when he died in October 1954.


Charleston and McGraw


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The great John McGraw allegedly said that Oscar Charleston was the best player he had ever seen. To my knowledge, no one has ever produced a good source for that quote, but if McGraw did believe that, he may have come to that conclusion in the winter of 1924.

McGraw and his wife Blanche were regularly spending a few weeks in Cuba every winter by that point. One assumes they took in some ballgames, at least whenever Mac got tired of the racetrack. In the winter of 1923-24, Charleston was playing center field for the Santa Clara Leopardos, now commonly considered the best team in Cuban baseball history. McGraw would have been aware of how that team was demolishing the competition.

Anyway, it seems that the two men may have had occasion to discuss baseball together. A couple days ago I was looking more closely at this passenger list of the SS Cuba, which arrived in Key West on March 1, 1924 (apologies if you have to zoom in to read the names). Oscar and Jane Charleston are in rows 19 and 20. Who is listed in rows 29 and 30? None other than John J. and Blanche McGraw. I wonder if the two couples spoke during the passage? Indeed, could they have, or was seating on these ships segregated?


Charleston’s first appearance in the papers


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On February 28, 1914, the all-black 24th Infantry baseball team played its first game in the Philippines’ semi-professional Manila League. The club included two future Hall of Famers in Bullet Joe Rogan and Oscar Charleston.

That was the official start of Charleston’s professional baseball career. But the 24th actually began to play Manila League teams several weeks earlier, as part of the city’s Carnival celebration. Their first game against a Manila League team came on February 8. Here is the story from the next day’s Manila Times.


Neither Rogan nor Charleston had a hit, but Rogan did strike out ten batters. Not a bad way to announce yourself. (By the way, the paper routinely referred to the All-Filipinos team as the “Brownies”–referring to their skin color, of course.)

Charleston–who was only seventeen and a half years old at the time–started slow at the plate, but he did go Rogan one better on the mound a few weeks later, after official league play had begun. I think the following game of March 15, 1914, may have been his first professional appearance as a pitcher (but I’m not sure about that). If so, how many pitchers can say they struck out four men in the first inning of their first game?



Fistfuls of money


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I am working my way through Oscar Charleston’s 1920 season right now. It was Oscar’s sixth season in the Negro leagues, as well as the first season of the new Negro National League. Oscar was 23, and although he was one of the league’s best two or three hitters, what stands out is how crazy the press and fans went over his defense.

Against the Dayton Marcos on May 23, “Charleston made a sensational one-handed catch of a fly ball after a long run which seemed to take the ‘heart’ out of the visitors.” A few days later, “Charleston’s sensational fielding was the outstanding feature” in a contest versus the Monarchs in Kansas City. The Kansas City Sun’s correspondent reported that Charleston had “demonstrated the fact that he could possibly cover all three of the [outfield] positions at once.” In late July against the Chicago Giants, “Charleston’s running catch of a hard hit drive, directly over his head, was the big feature of the afternoon. It was truly one of the best catches ever made by at outfielder at Washington Park.” Folks came not just from Indianapolis but from outlying towns like Muncie, Kokomo, Anderson, and Logansport in the hope of seeing Charleston do something spectacular in center field.

Then there is this clip from the May 10, 1920, Indianapolis Star. I’ve never before read about any player, white or black, being congratulated on the field with fistfuls of money like this. But that’s how impressed the fans were with Oscar’s glove.


Midway through the season, the Star started calling Oscar the “Black Tris Speaker” instead of the “Black Ty Cobb.” I suspect the change was made because Speaker was considered a much better defender than Cobb.

Oscar Charleston, the man


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Over the last two days, while doing research in the Pittsburgh Courier files of the mid-1920s, I came across two wonderful nuggets. Each helps to reveal something about the personality and habits of Oscar Charleston, and about how others viewed him. This was during the peak of his career, while he was playing, managing, and essentially acting as the general manager of the Harrisburg Giants.

First, this June 20, 1925, excerpt from William Dunn’s column.


So: Oscar could sing! And take your money at billiards! And seemed, at least, to be happily married and well-liked by those who knew him, even as he remained somewhat hard to get to know.

Second, an April 3, 1926, anti-liquor article in the Courier that uses Oscar as its main example of how avoiding drink leads to success:

One of the outstanding characters of the diamond who shuns liquor is that great and colorful king of the diamond, Oscar Charleston, fielder supreme, the peer of whom is yet to be located. Year after year Oscar has gone on piling up achievements which make him a place in the hall of fame of Negro baseball for all time, aiding the game by his clean and sane method of living and playing the game. The answer is plain. Oscar could not have maintained such a remarkable record of performance if he had been a drinker, and this, we think, is one of the greatest factors of his success.

Dizzy Dismukes, too, we are told, also is a non-drinker. By contrast, the author argues, alcoholism drove former Charleston teammates Specs Clark and Jimmy Lyons out of baseball.

Dismukes and Charleston seem to have been friends. Charleston’s photo album contains a number of photos of his wife Jane with Dizzy’s wife in Cuba. Teetotaling may have been one thing that bonded the two men.

One hundred years ago the Indianapolis ABCs won it all


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One hundred years ago this month, the Indianapolis ABCs defeated their rivals, the Chicago American Giants, for the mythical championship of black baseball–mythical because this was four years before the advent of the Negro National League, and what made one series rather than another be for the “colored championship of the world” was popular acclamation and media hype more than anything.

Regardless, the ABCs claimed the title. Has any Indianapolis institution this year taken notice of the centenary? Not to my knowledge.

The ABCs championship was a big deal back in 1916, Oscar Charleston’s second year in the Negro leagues. Everyone who followed black baseball knew it would be an intense and emotional matchup. Serious money was laid down, with the favored American Giants getting 2 to 1 or 5 to 3 odds. The Giants’ lineup featured Pete Hill in center field, Bruce Petway at catcher, John Henry Lloyd at shortstop, Frank Duncan in right field, Leroy Grant at first base, and Jesse Barber at center field. The first three hitters in this list would become legends, and in 1916 all were in their prime.

Indiana’s changeable October weather did not cooperate. The opening Sunday doubleheader at Federal Park on October 22 took place in “football weather conditions.” Only 2,300 fans saw the American Giants win 5–3. The second game was called after three and a half innings on account of darkness, with the American Giants up 3-0; that game therefore did not count. The next day, the ABCs won 1-0 behind the reliable sidearmer and future Buck O’Neil mentor Dizzy Dismukes.

It was in the third game, on October 24, when the fun started.

Starter Dicta Johnson had the ABCs up 1–0 in the seventh inning when Giants’ manager Rube Foster objected to a call. He argued with the umpires for some time, and when they finally ordered him back into the dugout he refused to leave the field. Finally, when the police were called down from the stands, he pulled his team off the field. The umps then forfeited the game to the ABCs.

The fourth game was won 8–2 by the ABCs. Oscar Charleston led the charge, going 4 for 4 at the plate. The series now stood at 3–1 in favor of the ABCs. The doubleheader scheduled for Sunday, October 29, would decide things–unless the American Giants won both ends.

In game one of the scheduled doubleheader, the American Giants jumped off to a quick 3–1 lead against Dismukes, but the ABCs roared back with three in the third, which featured a Charleston triple, and seven in the sixth. They led 12–3 before Foster’s club scored five in the last two innings to make the final score 12-8.

Charleston went 2 for 5 in the decisive contest. With hits in first two plate appearances, he had six straight hits in the series, and went 7 for 18 in total. The Indianapolis ABCs were the champions of black baseball, and Oscar was on his way to becoming a legend.

Charleston’s first wife: Hazel Grubbs


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One hundred years ago, in all likelihood, Oscar Charleston met the young woman who would be his first wife. She had the unpromising name of Hazel Grubbs, but her family was one of black Indianapolis’s best.

Her father was William E. Grubbs, highly respected principal at Public School No. 42. William was called “professor” by those who knew him. He had a bachelor’s degree from Butler University and taught mathematics for a while at Tuskegee Institute, where he attracted the notice of Booker T. Washington. Like Washington, William believed in self-help, education, and civil society. He played the viola, among other instruments. Director of the Boys Club Orchestra of North Indianapolis, leader of YMCA membership and war-bond drives, active member of the First Baptist Church, he was not only a civic leader but a good-humored man, too, possessing “the ready capacity to shunt aside for a time the cares of work in favor of a good laugh.”

Hazel’s mother, Alberta, was just as energetic and highly respected as William. Her life centered around music. She taught piano out of the Grubbs’s home on 25th Street (it’s gone now, by the way, and I think it’s safe to say that the neighborhood no longer is home to ambitious bourgeois families), often directed musical performances around the city, and served as the organist at her church. She also sang and acted. The papers made frequent mention of her advanced musical abilities. In August 1918, she played before a Chautauqua audience of 5,000 in Rush County. This was a very talented woman.

By 1916, Hazel had followed in her mother’s footsteps. She often played piano for her father’s boys’ orchestra and took part in other performances as both a pianist and vocalist—at banquets given by the Ethical Culture Society, for example, and for the Shiloh Baptist Church’s Booker T. Washington Musicale.

Hazel was clearly no cleat-chaser. So how did she meet Oscar? The Grubbses didn’t live too far away from the Charlestons, but their home was a mile or so north of the Charlestons’ immediate neighborhood. They were clearly of a different social class. And at a time when baseball was still considered mildly disreputable, it would be somewhat surprising to learn that they were big fans. I suppose the Indianapolis black community wasn’t all that big. Oscar could have run into Hazel or her parents in any number of ways. Still…

Oscar and Hazel were married on January 9, 1917. So much silence surrounds the event that one wonders about the circumstances. The black press didn’t mention the marriage at all (although I haven’t yet been able to check the Freeman). Hazel was seventeen or eighteen at most—a young age for a bride even at that time, and especially young for an upwardly mobile, socially prominent family like the Grubbses. The eighth-grade-educated, ballplaying, grocery-clerking (that was his offseason job after the close of the 1916 season) Oscar couldn’t have fit William and Alberta’s preconception of what Hazel’s husband ought to be.

How and why these two people got together is a mystery.


Thomas Boswell’s ignorance


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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.