And avoid giving quite all of your money to Jeff Bezos.
Just use code 6AS19 at the University of Nebraska Press website when you check out.
Page proofs from Nebraska arrived. Review of proofs completed.
Let’s all just agree that no errors will remain, OK?
Most of my changes had to do with updating Oscar’s statistics. There have been some changes to the Seamheads.com database lately. Instead of owning four of the top five seasons by OPS+ in Negro Leagues history, Oscar now only owns four of the top eight.
He is trending in the wrong direction!
But four of the top eight is still pretty good.
Alex Rodriguez, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Baseball Reference, Bill James, Honus Wagner, Jane Leavy, Josh Gibson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Oscar Charleston, Play Index, Scott Simkus, Seamheads, University of Nebraska Press, Washington Examiner, Willie Mays
The copy edited manuscript for Oscar Charleston is back with the publisher, so I have turned my attention to preparing a talk on Oscar for this summer. That has led me to try to figure out how best to communicate Charleston’s greatness to a baseball-literate crowd. Which, in turn, has led naturally to the question of how Oscar would have compared in the (white) majors had he had the opportunity to play in the American or National League.
Let’s start with how Oscar did against top competition in the Negro leagues. Here is his Seamheads page. (As an aside, I note that word about Seamheads does not seem to have spread into the wider sports writing community. Jane Leavy implies in her recent biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella, which I am reviewing for the Washington Examiner, that even half-reliable Negro leagues stats do not exist. Of course they do—and they are at Seamheads!) As you can see, in Negro leagues competition Oscar compiled a .352/.430/.579 slash line in 5,159 plate appearances, good for a 180 OPS+—in other words, he created runs at a rate 80% percent better than league average, not counting what he contributed with his legs on the basepaths.
That’s . . . really good. It’s the fourth-highest career OPS+ in the Seamheads database. Oscar is also fourth all-time in batting average and on-base percentage, and seventh all-time in slugging percentage. And we might note that he is dragged down more than most other players by having debuted very young (age 18) and for having played until he was quite old (until 44, in the Seamheads database). On the other hand, precisely because of the length of his career (and helped a bit, perhaps, by the fact that the years he played are comparatively well represented in the Seamheads database) he is first all-time in total PAs, ABs, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, and walks.
When we fold in baserunning and defense, Oscar looks even better with respect to his blackball peers. He ranks second all-time in offensive Wins Above Replacement per plate appearance (behind Josh Gibson), and thanks to his baserunning and defense he ranks first all-time in overall Wins Above Replacement at 74—second place (51.5) is not even close.
His peak was higher than anyone’s. Charleston has five of the best nine offensive seasons, by OPS+, in the Seamheads database (minimum 300 PAs). In a seven-year span between 1919 and 1925, he posted an OPS+ above 200 five times, compiling a 1.143 OPS over those seven years. Four of these years—1919, 1921, 1924, and 1925—rank among the top five Negro Leagues seasons ever. Gibson is the only other player with 5 OPS+ seasons of 200 or greater in a seven-year window.
So, look, when you take everything into account Gibson is the only Negro Leagues batter whose production rivaled Oscar’s over a lengthy period of time. And when you fold in defensive and base running considerations, as well as longevity, Charleston stands out as having had the best all-around career in black baseball. Just by carefully examining the statistical record, that would be hard to question. And that is saying a lot.
What does that mean with respect to how Charleston would have fared in the majors? There are several facts to keep in mind as we investigate that question:
Let’s start, then, by not dinging Charleston’s numbers at all for having been compiled against a presumably slightly lower level of competition. And, with a little help from Baseball Reference’s Play Index, let’s ask whether there has ever been such a great all-around player.
Has any MLB player ever compiled a career batting average of .350 or higher along with an OPS+ of 180 or greater, stolen bases of 300 or more (Oscar had 335 in fewer than half the career PAs of Willie Mays), and defensive WAR of greater than zero, as Oscar did?
No, not a one.
If we get rid of the batting average criterion altogether, we pick up just one player: Barry Bonds, who had a career BA of .298 (and OPS+ of 182) and who may have had a little special help in obtaining his numbers.
OK, Oscar probably wouldn’t have had a 180 OPS+ playing in the majors. Let’s get serious. Let’s knock his OPS+ down by 40 points, with Doby and Irvin as our comps. I don’t think we need to adjust his defensive value at all–clearly he would have been not only an above-average defender but a premium one, even in the majors. Just as clearly, given more PAs he would have stolen even more bases; there is no question that the speed would have played in the AL or NL. But even there, let’s be very reasonable and limit Charleston to just 500 career SBs. As to total home runs, let’s give him only 300 (he has 187 listed on his Seamheads page–and again, he would have had more than twice as many career PAs had he been allowed to play in the majors, for we have no reason to question his durability or longevity; quite the opposite).
Let’s put it all together to come up with a conservative career line for our alternative Major League Oscar: OPS+=140; HRs=300; SBs=500; dWAR=+10. How many major league players have done that?
No one. Not even if we take the HR threshold down to 250. No one has managed simultaneously to be that good on offense, on the base paths, and in the field.
I feel very, very confident that Oscar would have put up such a career line. In fact, I’d bet on more than 600 stolen bases, more than 350 home runs, and an OPS+ of 150 or greater, but I am admittedly bullish on the man.
Anyway, if we lower the defensive WAR bar to 0 – if we just ask that the player have a career of being average or better on defense, then only Barry Bonds shows up as a comp.
Keep dWAR at 10, but lower the SB threshold to 300, and we pick up Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez.
Keep dWAR at 10, keep the SB threshold at 500, keep the OPS+ threshold at 140, but get rid of the home run criterion altogether, and who do we get? Honus Wagner. That’s it.
Remember, we are being conservative in estimating what Charleston’s major league numbers would have looked like. And keep in mind too that we are putting no penalty on the major league players who didn’t have to play against blacks. We’re making it hard on Oscar here!
In short, you can make a good argument that there was never anyone like Oscar Charleston, anywhere. And you can make a near-airtight argument that the only players who were like him were inner-inner-circle guys like Bonds (ahem) and ARod (ahem) and Mays and Wagner. OK—maybe only Mays and Wagner. (We’re conceding the top spot to Ruth here.)
Bill James was right. At least among position players, there is little doubt that Oscar was a top-five-of-all-time sort of performer. And maybe, even probably, the best all-around player who ever lived.
Apologies for the long absence. Life has a way of getting in the way of important things like website management, but here’s a quick update on the Charleston bio: In January, I finished the manuscript, and after a couple rounds of edits, the University of Nebraska Press today officially slated the book for publication in fall 2019. The title will be Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player.
I’ve been fortunate to collect a few good pre-publication blurbs for the book. Larry Lester, pioneer historian of the Negro Leagues, what say ye?
If you believe what many veterans of the Negro Leagues said—that Oscar Charleston was the greatest all-time all-around player—then you will find Jeremy Beer’s biography to be the unapologetic gospel truth. Beer’s examination of the grand Oscar’s youthful days, his military, his adult life and baseball legacy is the fruit of serious grassroots research. He proves that Charleston was the most divine legend there ever was!
Very nice of you, Larry. Indeed, the book would never have been completed without the incredibly kind and useful help Lester offered at every stage.
We’ll keep rolling out blurbs, photos, updates, and perhaps some excerpts here as publication nears. Stay tuned. . . .
Greetings, and apologies for the hiatus here. Everything, I am pleased to report, is proceeding apace with the Charleston bio, which, if I have not announced it before, is to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019. I am on track to deliver the manuscript next spring, God willing, and had two occasions to present on Oscar this summer: first at the Midwestern History Association meeting in Grand Rapids, and next at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference in Harrisburg.
Thanks to the offices of city historian Calobe Jackson Jr., the trip to Harrisburg provided me the delightful opportunity to meet Mrs. Elizabeth Overton, Jane Charleston’s great-niece. Mrs. Overton was extremely close to Janie, living with her for many years and caring for her at the end of her life. She is also the family historian, so Janie entrusted her with numerous documents, photos, and stories about the Blalock family. Not, alas, with all that many stories about Oscar–but some.
My interviews with Mrs. Overton and her daughter, Dr. Miriam Phields, have given me a much better handle on who Janie was, what she was like, what she believed, and how she lived. All utterly invaluable, of course. I am deeply in the debt of Mrs. Overton and Dr. Phields, and will doubtless be leaning on them more as this project advances. (They have been warned.)
Anyway, I took a lot of photos of photos while visiting Mrs. Overton, and I think this charmer may be my favorite.
Click on the photo, and you can see the basketball reads “Philander A.C., 11-14-15.” That’s Janie in the second row, second from the left, sitting next to this cheerful basketball team’s male coach (I assume that’s who he is). And in the front row, sitting in the middle, is Esther Popel, a good friend of Janie and her sisters. Who was Esther Popel? A Harrisburg girl and Dickinson College graduate who as Esther Popel Shaw went on to become a significant poet and author associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
That was the sort of impressive crowd Janie ran with. Oscar surely took pride in that. Maybe he even read Esther’s poetry, sometimes.