Why should anyone care about Oscar Charleston? Seven reasons:
First, Charleston achieved the highest level of excellence within his field. For black Americans in the pre-integration era, a transcendent star like Charleston served as an exemplar, if not the exemplar, of what virtue and excellence looked like with respect to the practices of baseball. Charleston’s mastery of those practices represented the apex of the black baseball tradition’s development. It revealed what was possible for the black player to achieve, and by extension what was possible for black flourishing more generally. To powerfully influence the black imagination, Charleston didn’t have to fight for black liberation or play in the white major leagues. He simply had to symbolize black equality, if not superiority, through his achievements on the diamond. And that is precisely what he did.
Second, Charleston was a great manager. One poll of former Negro Leaguers ranked him as the best, and virtually all black baseball historians agree he was one of a handful of truly great managers in the game. He not only managed after his career was over, he was a manager while he played, as was the style at the time. Among the teams he led were the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the greatest teams of all time, black or white.
Third—and no one that I know of has ever made this point before—Charleston was probably the first black scout to work for a major league team. The Dodgers’ Branch Rickey hired Charleston sometime in 1945 or 1946 to help him identify and research black players who might be good prospects for breaking major league baseball’s color line. And (as historian Neil Lanctot pointed out to me) it was Charleston who convinced the Dodgers to sign future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella.
Fourth, Charleston was allegedly part Sioux Indian. If true, this makes him one of the three greatest Native American athletes in history, along with Jim Thorpe and Tiger Woods. And honestly, I’m not certain that Thorpe and Woods were greater.
Fifth, Charleston managed and mentored two of the three women to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. This was one of the Indianapolis’s Clowns’ tactics for getting fans to the park in the post-Jackie Robinson era. Charleston took his job seriously, putting Connie Morgan and Mamie Johnson through drills in winter-time Philadelphia to prepare them for the season. Mamie Johnson recalled to me on the phone that Charleston was “a beautiful person.”
Sixth, Charleston was perhaps the most respected man in the Negro Leagues because of his fierce commitment to his craft. He played hard—and, earlier, in his career, with a terrifying mean streak. In a word, he was a badass (but not a berserker). Charleston illustrated for the black community the toughness necessary to make it in an unjust world.
And finally, seventh, Charleston served a critical imaginative need within the black community by being more representative than either the theatrical Satchel Paige or the college-educated Jackie Robinson. To other Negro Leaguers and to black America at large, the temperamentally flawed blue-collar Charleston was much more clearly an everyman, one of them. That was worth a lot.