It’s Black History Month. One of these days perhaps Oscar Charleston will be one of the figures routinely remembered and celebrated in February. That’s surely not the case now–but it’s no fault of Bill James, whose ranking of Oscar Charleston as the fourth greatest player of all time in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract first brought Charleston to my—and I suspect quite a few others’—attention.
When he created it at the beginning of this millennium, James knew that his list of the top 100 players of all time would be controversial for having included twelve Negro League players. Of the six other top-100 lists he consulted, five excluded Negro Leaguers entirely. The sixth, produced by The Sporting News in 1998, included only five Negro Leaguers, and of these five—Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and Charleston—Charleston was ranked last, 67th on the entire list.
Was James wrong to include more than twice as many Negro Leaguers on his list as had The Sporting News? Had he succumbed to sentimental muddleheadedness? It seemed unlikely, he argued. After all, thirty-four of his white players were born during the same time frame, 1867—1918, as his twelve Negro Leaguers. If anything, he reasoned, he was being too hard on the Negro League veterans. Consider: over the course of five years (1947—51), the Negro Leagues produced Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks. “If those leagues could produce five players like that in seven years, what about the previous forty?” asked James.
We might add that it’s not as if the Negro Leagues were competing against other sports for the best black athletic talent. Other than boxing and possibly track and field, which didn’t employ many athletes to begin with, baseball was often literally the only game in town for the aspiring black athlete of the 1900s through the 1940s.
But what about Charleston, specifically? After all, The Sporting News had ranked him 67th, behind four other Negro Leaguers. James chalked this up to ignorance; Charleston simply didn’t get any ink. There were no biographies of Charleston when James made his list, and there still aren’t—versus a dozen or so of Paige and a handful of Gibson. Charleston, to James’s knowledge, had never appeared on a single magazine cover. His anonymity accounted for why he was rated lower or not at all by other sources, not a considered, informed process whereby the other listmakers had simply come to a different opinion of Charleston’s accomplishments and abilities.
Besides, wrote James,
It’s not like one person saw Oscar Charleston play and said that he was the greatest player ever. Lots of people said he was the greatest player they ever saw. John McGraw, who knew something about baseball, reportedly said that. . . . His statistical record, such as it is, would not discourage you from believing that this was true. I don’t think I’m a soft touch or easily persuaded; I believe I’m fairly skeptical. I just don’t see any reason not to believe that this man was as good as anybody who ever played the game.