Why has Oscar Charleston remained so obscure, even among hardcore baseball fans?
That is probably the first question someone who claims that Charleston is baseball’s greatest forgotten player must answer.
There are several reasons.
First, Charleston died relatively young, at the age of 57. Within black baseball circles, he had been regarded as a living legend for years, but within those same circles the Negro Leagues, in which Charleston was still active at the end of his life, had become regarded as an embarrassing reminder of the ugly, segregated past. In the postwar years, almost no one, black writers included, was in a mood to celebrate yesterday’s Negro League stars. Quite understandably, they were focused on today’s heroes of integration—Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe—and on the injustices and obstacles that remained.
It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that historians trained their sights on the Negro Leagues. By the time the history of black baseball took off with seminal works such as Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White (1970) and Donn Rogosin’s Invisible Men (1983) were published, Charleston was long gone. Most of the Negro League veterans whom researchers interviewed had encountered Charleston only at the very end of his playing and managerial career. He stands larger than life in these reflections, many of them second-hand, but also shrouded in the mist of a fast-receding history.
Similarly, by the 1990s, when a new generation of statistics-savvy baseball scholars arose to show beyond doubt just how competitive and deep was the talent in black prewar baseball, Charleston had been dead for decades. Buck O’Neill, who played and managed against Charleston, was “right on time” in the 1990s and 2000s as the conscientious, compelling voice of black baseball, but Charleston never had his media moment.
Second, Charleston left behind little in the way of a paper trail. He could read and write, but there is no Charleston memoir—unlike, say, those of Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Quincy Trouppe, and Buck Leonard. There are no Charleston diaries, and so far as I can tell only a couple of known extant letters. He was quoted in the papers from time to time, and he gave a few radio interviews, but the interviews seem to be lost to history, and he wasn’t quotable like Paige. The record is such that in some cases we can probably have as much historical confidence in attributing words to Jesus as we can Charleston.
Finally, though he was twice married, Charleston seems to have left no descendants (I’d be so happy to be corrected about this!). No family members have publicly tended his flame. There has been no obvious person for sportswriters or historians to approach for the Oscar Charleston Story. And so that story has rarely been told. Legends and anecdotes—some contradictory, some dubious, some probably true—have risen up in that story’s stead. Few have bothered to subject these scattered fragments of memory to the test of sober historical analysis or to integrate them into a larger narrative.
And so Charleston remains unknown to most baseball fans, let alone most sports fans, and let alone students of black or American history. He is a ghost who resists historical enfleshment.