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.

It was the hands

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I had the pleasure of interviewing former Negro leagues player Harold Hair last month. That statement ought to be qualified immediately. Hair was a good hitter for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Kansas City Monarchs, hitting (according to him) .355 in 1958, but he isn’t just a former ballplayer. An alumnus of North Carolina A&T, he’s a former high school basketball coach, athletic director, construction superintendent, and pastor, among other things. He is also the subject of this recent Florida newspaper profile. Eighty-four years old, he lives in Jacksonville, Florida, today.

Hair told me that he met Oscar Charleston in 1953. He couldn’t remember where. It might have been the East-West all-star game in Chicago, he thought. Oscar was out of the game, formally, in 1953, but it strikes me as quite possible that he came to the game, where he had long been a fixture, anyway.

Hair recalled that Oscar was a “big guy” and a “nice guy.”

While Hair was sitting around with Oscar and some other players, Oscar, then 56, decided to show off how strong he was. He took a baseball in his hands, twisted it, and tore the cover right off.

Hair insisted that this really happened. I had read somewhere that Oscar could perform this feat, and I told Harold I thought it might have been a legend. “That was no legend,” he replied.

I think I’ll take his word for it.

Hank Greenberg on Charleston

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In the literature of the Negro Leagues, it’s common to come across claims that so-and-so prominent white baseball player or manager said such-and-such about not-so-prominent black baseball player or manager. In the case of Oscar Charleston, Dizzy Dean and John McGraw are often said to have offered high praise for his abilities.

Usually, it’s really hard to find original, first-hand quotes from these white figures about the black player in question. The quotes are simply repeated, and inevitably garbled, by writer after writer, memoirist after memoirist. McGraw, especially, commented on about every Negro Leaguer there was, at one point or another, if the literature is to be believed.

I’ve hunted for years for a good McGraw-on-Charleston source, without success. But here, at least, is a pretty good, if second-hand, source providing the great Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg‘s thoughts on Charleston. It’s from 1940, when Charleston’s playing career was all but over and Greenberg was at his peak (he won the AL MVP in 1940). The source is Al Moses, a respected African American columnist.

Greenberg on Charleston

Just when Greenberg would have seen Charleston at the plate is unclear; he could have played against him in an exhibition, or he could have seen him play in New York, where Hank grew up.

Note the pairing of Oscar with Paige. Today we are often led to believe that during the Negro Leagues’ heyday Paige and Gibson towered over everyone else in the popular mind. This simply wasn’t the case. Paige was a uniquely powerful drawing card because of his charisma and theatrics, not to mention his ability, but Charleston was as popular and highly regarded among African American fans and sportswriters as anyone.

Oscar Charleston’s Birth Site

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From time to time it has been reported that when Oscar Charleston was born his family was living at 1636 Bundy Place (then called Guffin Street) in Indianapolis, or even that he “grew up” at that address. That is not the case. Newspaper announcements of Charleston’s birth make clear that the Charlestons were living on the 200 block of Yandes Street when he was born. This address was on the northeast side of the city in the Martindale neighborhood. The Charlestons then went on to live in no fewer than 12 separate houses before Oscar joined the Army. Oscar grew up first in the Martindale neighborhood, and later in the Indiana Avenue neighborhood.

Today, what was in 1896 the 200 block of Yandes is, I am fairly certain, the 1200 block of Yandes. Here is what that street looks like now.

1289 Yandes c

Where the trailer is sitting is where the street was. Obviously this is no longer really a street, and all the houses are long gone. The street sign is still there, though, although no one is delivering any pizzas down here.

sign at Yandes intersection

For context, here is 1287 Yandes located on a Google map.

Virtually no one lives in the immediate vicinity today, although a quarter-mile or so up the street one finds a few residences. Needless to say, there is no mention of Charleston anywhere. I’d like to say that Indianapolis ought to erect a plaque of some kind, but no one except semi-truck drivers and folks up to no good would ever see it.

Charleston’s birth on October 14, 1896, provided the first occasion for mention of his family in the papers. In the October 21 issue of the Indianapolis News, under “Birth Returns,” it was reported that to Thomas and Mary Charleston, 287 Yandes, had been born a boy. No name was reported, but Thomas and Mary let it be known where their sympathies in the forthcoming election by giving Oscar the middle name of McKinley.

The address given for the Charlestons by the News, 287 Yandes, is different from the one given by the Indianapolis Journal on the same date, which was 299 Yandes. And both are different from the address given for Thomas Charleston in the 1897 Indianapolis city directory, which was 289 Yandes.

To further the confusion, an 1895 city ordinance ordered some of Indianapolis’s streets to be renumbered, but the address of 287 (or 289, or 299) Yandes seems to have been given under the old system, as the north-south Yandes then had its southern terminus right about where the east-west 2nd street would have come through had it been extended from the west. This same part of Yandes appears to be numbered 1200–1299 today.

By the way, the 1600 block of Bundy Place (old Guffin Street) is an alley today. The only home that remains on the alley that might have stood when the Charlestons lived there is this one:

house near 1636 Bundy Place -- could've been like

The home where the Charlestons lived appears to be completely gone, as does every other house he lived in before joining the military.

Roy and the drugstore

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As I drove around Indianapolis looking up old Charleston-related addresses last week, I came across a ghost sign on Bellefontaine that rang a bell. The painted words “F. X. Erath” were faintly visible on the side of an old brick corner building. Frank Erath, I remembered, was the grocer who discovered and held Oscar’s oldest brother Roy in July 1900 after Roy had broken into the drugstore next door–apparently in order to steal a baseball, among other things. Here was the Indianapolis News’s story of July 24.

 

Ind News 072400 Roy C crop

Roy was only 11, but he was booked for burglary and petit larceny. In November, after a grand jury returned an indictment, he was committed to the Indiana Reform School for Boys. Things turned out alright for Roy, fortunately. He became a champion prizefighter (locally) and a beloved father.

Today, the Erath grocery is being redeveloped by Cannon Ball Brewing Company. I believe the building across the street, which is being redeveloped by the brewery owners into a restaurant, is the drugstore that Roy robbed.

Exterior FX Erath c

Clipping of the week

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From the May 6, 1916, Poughkeepsie Eagle-News:

P Cubans v. LS 0516 crop

A rather typical ad for a ballgame in the newspapers of the time, showcasing typical prices. In this pre-league era (and heck, sometimes even after the Negro National League was formed in 1920) it was common for a club to call itself, on the slimmest of evidential bases, the “champion of the world,” as the New York Lincoln Stars do here.

Charleston went to the Lincoln Stars at the beginning of the 1916 season, having at the end of the 1915 season, while playing for the Indianapolis ABCs, started one of the most chaotic brawls in baseball history by cold-cocking a white umpire in an exhibition game against white all-stars. Jimmy Scanlon had called Donie Bush, star shortstop for the Tigers, safe at second, even though the ball had clearly beat him. ABCs 2B Bingo DeMoss pushed Scanlon, who put up his fists, and the two may or may not have been grappling when Oscar charged in from centerfield and slugged Scanlon. Things went downhill from there.

Anyway, Charleston was arrested and the police put a temporary halt to interracial games in the city. A few weeks later Oscar was kicked off his team. It probably seemed wise to get out of town. The 1916 Lincoln Stars, in fact, were not good at all, and Charleston ended up leaving them to go back to the ABCs by August.

I don’t know much about the Poughkeepsie Cubans at this point, except that they were really Cubans.

Clipping of the week

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From the May 24, 1915, Indianapolis Star.

Nicknames, for both individuals and teams, were better a century ago. I give you what I believe to be the finest team name in the history of baseball: the Terre Haute Champagne Velvets.

ABCs v Champagne Velvets 1915 crop

Nothing of particular interest here with respect to Charleston. But do note how box scores were done then: At-Bats, Hits, Outs (as in putouts), Assists, and Errors. It makes sense that in the deadball era, and in an era where fielding was much less reliable, there was a greater focus on defensive performance.

Clipping of the week

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Oscar Charleston had a sense of humor, as this week’s clipping indicates. He evidently also knew that in his youth he had been too hotheaded.

Negro Leagues umpire Bob Motley wrote in his memoir that Oscar was always respectful toward him when he was managing late in his career — more respectful than anyone else. Everyone mellows.

By the way, this is one of any number of anecdotes from baseball history about umpires (and others) carrying guns onto the field (and in the clubhouse, on team buses, etc.). The subject is worth an article in and of itself.

Charleston New York Age 070325 rev

 

Clipping of the Week

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Going to try to make this a regular feature.

In this clipping (click to enlarge), from January 1, 1916, the Indianapolis Freeman reprints a short piece from the Manila Times informing Philippines readers about Charleston’s whereabouts. Oscar had left the islands in March 1915, when he was 18 years old. Apparently he was not too young to have left quite an impression on the local baseball fans.

Also, no one is naming their kids Nimrod anymore. Pity.

Freeman 010116

 

Charleston’s personal scrapbook and photo album

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In Kansas City on Friday I had the great pleasures of, first, having breakfast with pioneering Negro Leagues historian Larry Lester and profiting from his insight and wisdom; and, second, inspecting the Oscar Charleston scrapbook, photo album, and other items that Lester obtained from Oscar’s niece Anna Charleston Bradley some years ago.

The items–which I am fairly certain passed from Oscar to his sister Katherine before being given to Anna–are at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Dr. Raymond Doswell, below, made them available for me, added his own insights while I looked them over and took photos, and then took me to lunch at Chappell’s.

Thanks so much to Larry and Ray. These items are pure gold for the Charleston researcher–or really anyone researching the Negro Leagues. They provide a window into Charleston’s interior world and contain his personal photos of other players and life in Cuba in the 1920s.

Doswell and Beer