Oscar McKinley Charleston
- Bats Left, Throws Left
- Height 6' 0", Weight 200 lb.
- Negro Leagues Debut Year:1915
- Negro Leagues Final Year:1941
- Born:October 14,1896 in Indianapolis, IN
- Died: October 5, 1954 Philadelphia, PA
- Hall of Fame: 1976
Perhaps the finest all-around player in Negro League history, Oscar Charleston rivaled Josh Gibson as black baseball's premier slugger and Cool Papa Bell as its top centerfielder during his 28-year playing career that began in 1915 and ended in 1942. An extraordinarily-gifted five-tool player, Charleston drew favorable comparisons to major league baseball's Tris Speaker as a fielder, Ty Cobb as a baserunner, and Babe Ruth as a hitter during his playing days. Many people who saw Charleston play insisted there was never anyone better.
The seventh of eleven children, Oscar McKinley Charleston was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on October 14, 1896. After serving as batboy for the local ABCs ballclub as a youngster, Charleston left home at the age of 15 to join the Army. While stationed in the Philippines, the underage runaway competed in the otherwise all-white Manila League, where he displayed for the first time his incredible athletic ability. Not only did Charleston star in the outfield for his team, but he also excelled in track and field, running the 220-yard dash in a mere 23 seconds.
Upon returning home to the United States, Charleston began his professional baseball career with the Indianapolis ABCs at the tender age of 18 in 1915. Playing centerfield and also occasionally pitching for the ABCs, Charleston helped lead his team to victory in the 1916 Black World Series, batting .360 during the 10-game series played between Indianapolis and the Chicago American Giants. Charleston joined the Giants in 1919 but returned to the ABCs the following year when they joined the newly formed Negro National League. After jumping to the St. Louis Giants in 1921, Charleston displayed his all-around brilliance for all to see. In perhaps his finest season, the lefthanded hitting slugger compiled a .434 batting average and led the league with 35 stolen bases, 14 doubles, 11 triples, and 15 home runs in only 60 league games. Charleston again topped the circuit in home runs and stolen bases the following year, while also posting a .370 batting average.
Charleston continued his exceptional play with several other teams throughout the remainder of the decade, while also frequently serving as his team's manager. However, as his legend grew, he also developed a reputation for being a habitual brawler. Hot-headed and short-tempered, Charleston fought at different times with umpires, Cuban soldiers, and even a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite his many battles, though, Charleston remained arguably the greatest player in black baseball. An outstanding contact hitter who also possessed tremendous power at the plate, the barrel-chested Charleston utilized the entire ballpark, driving the ball for distance to all fields. His combination of power and speed usually enabled him to finish near the top of the league rankings in both home runs and stolen bases.
More than just a great hitter and baserunner, Charleston was also considered to be one of the finest defensive centerfielders in the game. He had a powerful and accurate throwing arm, superb range, and excellent judgment in the outfield. Hall of Fame Negro League first baseman Ben Taylor, a former teammate of Charleston, once proclaimed that Charleston was the "greatest outfielder that ever lived...greatest of all colors. He can cover more ground than any man I have ever seen. His judging of fly balls borders on the uncanny."
Rightfielder Dave Malarchar, who played alongside Charleston, said, "He could play all the outfield. I just caught foul balls. I stayed on the lines."
After spending the previous two years with Hilldale, Charleston joined the Homestead Grays in 1930. The centerfielder helped the Grays capture two consecutive Eastern League championships, combining with other legendary Negro League stars such as Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams, and Jud Wilson to form the nucleus of a squad still considered to be among the greatest baseball teams ever assembled.
Charleston and Gibson both joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932, and, with the simultaneous arrivals of fellow future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Judy Johnson, the Crawfords established themselves as black baseball's most dominant team the next few years. Charleston served as Pittsburgh's player/manager until 1940, gradually shifting himself to first base as age and a gain in weight made it increasingly difficult for him to patrol the outfield. He ended his playing career with the Philadelphia Stars in 1942, with a lifetime batting average in Negro League play of either .348 or .357, depending on the source. He posted a batting average of .318 and hit 11 home runs in 53 exhibition games against white major leaguers.
His playing days over, Charleston took over the managerial reins of numerous teams, including a brief stint with Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Brown Dodgers in 1945. While working under Rickey, Charleston helped the Brooklyn GM scout the Negro Leagues for talented players he believed were capable of breaking organized baseball's color barrier.
Charleston later managed the Indianapolis Clowns to the Negro World Championship in 1954, before dying shortly thereafter from a heart attack at age 58. He was elected posthumously to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.
One of the most talented players in baseball history, Oscar Charleston is considered by many baseball historians to be among the very greatest players to ever take the field. Negro League legend, the late Buck O'Neill, played and managed against Charleston in the Negro Leagues. O'Neill expressed his admiration for the former centerfielder when he said, "Willie Mays was the best major league player I ever saw, but Oscar Charleston was the best baseball player I ever saw".
Negro Leagues Career Statistics
|1921||St. Louis Giants||NNL||44||163||50||71||7||8||6||24||21||21||.436||.687|
|1938||did not play|
|Averages||per 162 g||5.02||162||602||139||210||37||12||25||102||36||81||.348||.576|
- source: Shades of Glory, Hogan et al, ppg. 384-385
- 1976 Hall of Fame, Chicago American Giants, Homestead Grays, Indianapolis Clowns, Negro League, Oscar Charleston, Philadelphia Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords