Oscar Charleston is the best baseball player you’ve never heard of. Don’t believe me? Bill James, the father of baseball analytics, rated Charleston as not only the greatest Negro Leagues player of them all, but as the fourth greatest baseball player of all time. According to the stats that James uses to rank player value from different eras, only Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willie Mays were greater than Charleston, who was slotted just above Ty Cobb.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
Jeremy Beer writes in his fascinating 2019 biography Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player that Charleston was not only an outstanding player, but a fascinating individual.
Charleston put together an other-worldly career in the Negro and Cuban leagues decades before white major league baseball decided to integrate.* A centerfielder with the range and smarts of Willie Mays, a hitter with as fearsome a stroke as Babe Ruth, and a baserunner built like a linebacker with the fast fearlessness of Ty Cobb, Charleston was the whole package. Yet in the era when he was at his best, from the late-1910s to the mid-1930s, the Negro Leagues were little noticed outside the Black community and seldom appreciated by those who ran the white leagues. That didn’t, however, keep Charleston’s fame from growing.
Negro Leagues players and sportswriters from Satchel Paige to Buck O’Neil to Turkey Stearnes said he was the best player they had ever seen. Former white baseball commissioner Happy Chandler said that Charleston and Cobb were the “greatest ballplayers he had ever laid eyes on.” Dizzy Dean said of Oscar, “He could hit a ball a mile….he didn’t have a weakness. We just threw and hoped like hell he didn’t send it out of the park.” And the great Honus Wagner, two months before Charleston’s death, said, “I’ve seen all the great players in the many years I’ve been around, and have yet to see one any greater than Charleston.” Oscar Charleston was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1976, and yet his reputation was still largely hidden due to his race, the era he played in, and the lack of biographical material written about him as compared with other Negro Leagues players.
Oscar Charleston played for and managed what many consider to be one of the top Negro Leagues teams of all time, the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the early 1930s. He also played for the other great team of that era, the Homestead Grays. Besides Charleston, those two teams featured Hall-of-Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Willie Foster, Judy Johnson, Smokey Joe Williams, and Jud “Boojum” Wilson. As his playing days drew to a close, he built a reputation as a talented manager. Branch Rickey — who broke baseball’s color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson — hired Charleston as the first African American scout for major league baseball.
All of this and much more comes out in Beer’s fascinating book. Using previously unknown sources, he has brought forward the forgotten history of a man who, although he was the best known player of the Negro Leagues, was identified by the occupation “baggage handler” on his death certificate. Beer’s work helps illuminate the history of this important American, who deserved so much more in life and death.
Kevin Blackistone, writing in the Washington Post, also addresses the delegitimization of Negro Leagues baseball in Shohei Ohtani and the Negro Leagues’ two-way stars. In writing of how two-way phenom Ohtani is often compared to Babe Ruth, who pitched early in his career, Blackistone makes the case that the better comparison is Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. It was New York baseball columnist Damon Runyon who gave Radcliffe that name.
During a 1932 doubleheader that pitted Radcliffe’s Pittsburgh Crawfords against the New York Black Yankees at Yankee Stadium, Runyon witnessed Radcliffe hit a grand slam and catch Satchel Paige’s shutout in the twi-night opener, only to turn around and throw a shutout of his own in the second game.“
Radcliffe did double duty as a pitcher and catcher from 1930 to 1946. Only he did them in the Negro Leagues.
“But that Ohtani would be compared reflexively by most of us in the media to Ruth — skipping over the career not only of Radcliffe but of other Negro Leagues stars who routinely pitched and played the field, such as Hall of Famer “Bullet” Joe Rogan — reminds how baked-in the continued delegitimization of Negro Leaguers’ accomplishments is. An asterisk still hovers over their achievements, while none does for White players who also played only among themselves and not against all of the best players of their time….Negro Leagues ballplayers continue to deserve better.“
Blackistone could have called out his fellow Washington Post columnist, the recently retired Tom Boswell, over the same issue. I love Boswell’s work and encourage you to read Thomas Boswell’s best Washington Post sportswriting. However, as Beer points out, Boswell criticized the Sporting News in 1999 for listing Charleston as the sixty-seventh best player of all time, pouring on sarcasm (Was he a nineteenth-century player? A Negro Leagues star? A legend in Antarctic sandlot ball?) that makes one cringe at the white privilege and ignorance of his statements. Even the great ones swing and miss on occasion.
And check out Are You Allowed to Criticize Simone Biles?: A Decision Tree from McSweeney’s before you make your opinion known.
More to come.
Image: Oscar Charleston
*Charleston’s slash line over 27 years was .350/.430/.573. His OPS was 1.003 and his OPS+ was 173. As a comparison, Babe Ruth’s career slash line was .342/.474/.690 with an OPS + of 197.