By Glen Sparks
Oscar Charleston didn’t back down.
He hit a pitcher’s best stuff and stole bases off cannon-armed catchers. He played a shallow centerfield, almost like a fifth infielder, and dared batters to knock one safely over his head. They rarely did.
Charleston, one of the greatest players in baseball history, toiled in the Negro leagues. He reportedly hit a robust .446 in 1921 and led everyone in batting average, doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases. He retired as a lifetime .348 batter and ranks in the top five among hitters in just about every important category in the Negro league record book.
The Hoosier Comet, born in Indianapolis on Oct. 14, 1896, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on this date in 1976. Noted sabermetrician Bill James has rated Charleston the fourth best player in the game’s history, behind just Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays.
Charleston’s teams often matched up against major-league squads during exhibitions. Opponents came away duly impressed with the Comet. Dizzy Dean, the eccentric and Hall of Fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, said, “Charleston could hit the ball a mile. He didn’t have a weakness. When he came up, we just threw it and hoped he wouldn’t get a hold of one and send it out of the park.”
John McGraw, esteemed manager of the New York Giants, said this to reporters: “If Oscar Charleston isn’t the greatest baseball player in the world, then I’m no judge of baseball talent.”
Charleston, a lefty all the way, grew up barrel-chested and spindly-legged, much like Babe Ruth. He made his Negro league debut in 1915 with the hometown Indianapolis ABCs. Through the years, he also played for the Chicago American Giants, the Harrisburg, Pa., Giants, the Homestead Grays, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and a host of other squads.
And, as mentioned, he never backed down. Charleston had a temper. He brawled with managers, teammates and umpires. He played the game tough. Charles, as many people called him, slid hard.
The fierceness of Oscar Charleston did not simply extend to the baseball field. The Hall of Famer served his country in three conflicts. At 15, he fudged his age to Army recruiters and left for Manilla as part of the Philippines occupation. There, he fought off some insurgents. The insurgents wielded knives. Charleston wielded his fists.
Charleston also served as an Army corporal during World War I and, later in life, helped with logistical troop support in World War II as part of the Pennsylvania Quartermaster’s Department.
Toward the end of his playing career, Charleston got into managing. The tough guy was beloved for his honesty and devotion. He helped develop greats like Satchell Paige and Cool Papa Bell. Charleston also worked for Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey. He did some coaching and scouting for Rickey and even recommended Negro league players Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella for the majors.
Charleston died Oct. 6, 1954, following a heart attack. He was 57 years old and had just led the Indianapolis Clowns to a Negro league championship.
He is not as famous as he should be. Fortunately, his legacy as a great player and competitor remains intact. Paige said, “You had to see him to believe him.”
He once ripped the hood off a Ku Klux Klansman who dared to confront him. Oscar McKinley Charleston, the man who didn’t back down.
“Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year, and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since. He was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” — Buck O’Neil