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.

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