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Oscar Charleston

Oscar McKinley Charleston
Nickname: Charlie

Career: 1915-1941
Positions: cf, 1b, manager (1942-1954)
Teams: Indianapolis ABCs (1915 1918, 1920, 1922-1923), New York Lincoln Stars (1915-1916), Bowser's ABCs (1916), Chicago American Giants (1919), St. Louis Giants (1921), Harrisburg Giants (1924-1927), Hilldale Daisies (1928-1929), Homestead Grays (1930-1931), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1932-1938), Toledo Crawfords (1939), Indianapolis Crawfords (1940) Philadelphia Stars (1941, 1942-1944, 1946-1950); Brooklyn Brown Dodgers (1945), Indianapolis Clowns (1954)
Bats: Left
Throws: Left
Height: 6' 0''   Weight: 190
Born: October 14, 1896, Indianapolis, Indiana
Died: October 6, 1954, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (1976)

As a hitter, the popular barrel chested, spindly legged slugger par excellence was often compared to Babe Ruth. Earlier in his career, his speedy, slashing style on the basepaths earned him comparison with Ty Cobb, and defensively his superb play from a shallow centerfield position was reminiscent of Tris Speaker. Jocko Conlon, a Hall of Fame umpire, made this comparison, calling him "the great Negro player of that time" and concurring that he was a beautiful center fielder, comparable to Speaker, and a great hitter. After the 1924 season, Former Charleston teammate Ben Taylor, a longtime star first baseman and manager, declared 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 flyballs borders on the uncanny."

Much to the delight of the fans, Charleston sometimes injected "showboating" into his diamond performances. A complete ballplayer who excelled in every facet of the game, Oscar Charleston epitomized the spirit of black baseball. Temperamentally he presented a bit of a contradiction. He was a fearless, steely-eyed brawler who could not be intimidated and whose fights both on and off the field are as legendary as are his playing skills. And yet he was protective of younger players and idolized by kids who were mesmerized by his charisma.

In his prime, the well-honed blend of power and speed was unparalleled by any player in black baseball. One of the fastest men in the game and an instinctive, aggressive base runner, he was rough and tumble, sliding hard with spikes high. At bat he had few equals and, as an excellent drag bunter, he also used his tremendous speed to bunt his way on base. In the field his combination of great range, good hands, powerful arm, and superior baseball instincts was unsurpassed, allowing him always to get a good jump, robbing batters of "sure" hits.

His father was a construction worker and his mother's father was a carpenter who had been employed in the construction of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Oscar was the seventh of eleven children and, as a youngster in Indianapolis, he was batboy for the local ABCs ballclub. At age fifteen, he left home and served a stint in the Army, where he ran track (23 seconds for the 220-yard dash) and played baseball while stationed in the Philippines with the 24th Infantry. In 1914 he was the only black baseball player in the Manila League.

Returning home, the young athlete joined the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915 as a pitcher-outfielder and made a strong showing in his rookie season. His aggressive play on the diamond was evident even in his first year in top competition, when he and Bingo DeMoss were arrested for assaulting an umpire and causing a riot. Later in his career Charleston was known for engaging in fights at various times with a member of the Ku Klux Klan and several Cuban soldiers. His fearlessness was an attribute that helped the team win a championship the following year, with Charleston contributing a .360 average in the playoff series over Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants.

A fastball hitter, the sharp-eyed Charleston it for both average and distance and utilized the entire ballpark, hitting to all fields. The left handed swinger was always a dangerous hitter but was at his best in the clutch. The 1921 season seems best to exemplify the range and depth of his exceptional talent as he compiled a .434 batting average, and led the league in stolen bases (35), doubles (14), triples (11), and home runs (15) in only 60 league games. In an effort at a repeat performance the following season, he again led the league in home runs and stolen bases while slamming out a .370 batting average.

Joining Harrisburg as playing manager in the newly formed Eastern Colored League, Charleston had superlative back to back performances in 1924-1925, batting .411 and .445, while leading the league each year in home runs with 14 and 20. The latter season he also topped the league in doubles and hits. In 1926 he continued his offensive bombardment, and in late June he homered twice in a double-header against the New York Lincoln Giants, bringing his total to 19 for the young season. He finished the season with a .344 batting average, followed in 1927 with .384, while again leading the league in home runs.

That was his last year in Harrisburg, leaving to join Hilldale for the beginning of the 1928 season, which was highlighted by the early-season demise of the Eastern Colored League. After a .363 average the first year with Hilldale, he hit .396 the following year when the club joined the American Negro League in its only year of existence. With the collapse of the second eastern league in two years, he joined the independent Homestead Grays for the 1930-1931 seasons. In 1930 the Grays defeated the strong New York Lincoln Giants in a ten-game series for the eastern championship, and the 1931 Grays are considered to be among the greatest teams of all time. In addition to Charleston, who hit .380, the team boasted such greats as Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams, Jud Wilson, George Scales, Vic Harris, Ted Page, and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe.

He left the Grays to assume the managerial reins of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and talked Josh Gibson into going with him. After leaving the Grays, Charleston's age and weight gain prompted a move to first base, where he continued to star as playing manager for the outstanding Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1932-1936. The 1935 champion Crawfords team, boasting five Hall of Famers in the lineup, are generally conceded to be the best black team of all time.

Although approaching his fortieth birthday and well past his prime, Charleston hit for averages of .363, .450, .310, .304, and .356 with the Crawfords and was selected to the first three East- West All Star games as a first baseman. Although records are incomplete, the hard-hitting slugger ended his twenty-seven year career credited with a .357 lifetime batting average and 151 home runs. He also fashioned a .326 batting average in exhibitions against major league opposition and .361 batting average for nine Cuban winter seasons, including a .405 mark in 1921-1922.

After his days as a playing manager ended, he continued as a bench manager with the Philadelphia Stars through 1950, taking a year off in 1945 to take the helm of Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. He returned to the managerial ranks in 1954, guiding the Indianapolis Clowns to a championship in his last season before falling victim to a heart attack. During his thirty- nine year career he was associated with fourteen different teams, as player and manager. He also assisted Branch Rickey in scouting the Negro Leagues to find the player to break baseball's color line. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, a fitting tribute to a man who might well have been the greatest all-around ballplayer in black baseball history.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Oscar Charleston photo

Oscar Charleston