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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Oscar Charleston


Review by Budd Bailey


Oscar Charleston might be the best baseball player that you know nothing about.

That sort of sentence assumes a lot. The amount of baseball knowledge that "you" carry around in your head at a given moment certainly varies from person to person. Still, for those wishing to compile a list of reasons why someone had been somewhat forgotten, Charleston checks a lot of boxes.

He played about a century ago, in leagues that weren't too organized and not particularly well publicized at the time. Some of his best work was done in relatively small cities. Throw in the fact that Charleston played in the Negro Leagues, which were quickly written off by some of the people at the time who were so-called experts on the game (often for racist reasons), and you've got a good head start toward obscurity.


Luckily, baseball has a devoted group of researchers who have spent uncounted hours trying to put together information and statistics on those days. Then there are authors like Jeremy Beer, who did a ton of other research in order to come up with his solid biography, "Oscar Charleston."


Charleston was born in 1896; his middle name was McKinley, which probably shows where the political sympathies of his parents were at the time. The family was in Indianapolis at the time. After lying about his age to get into the Army, and played a little baseball with the grown-ups until he returned to civilian life in 1915. Then it was back to Indianapolis, where he played with the city's ABCs - an independent team. By the age of 22, Charleston was an unquestioned star. He hit .390 with a .437 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .604. In other words, he put up stats as if he were a man among boys in a professional league.

Oscar kept it up through the 1920s, no matter where he was playing. Sometimes he wore the uniform for St. Louis in the Negro National League, sometimes he suited up for a Cuban team in the offseason, sometimes he stayed close to the home of his wife while playing for the Harrisburg Giants of the Eastern Colored League. Charleston almost always produced, although it was difficult to gain attention from anyone but his immediate baseball family in those days.


By the 1930s, he played with a host of future Hall of Famers, such as Satchel Page and Josh Gibson, with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Charleston had started to slow down by that stage, which means the spectacular plays in the field and stolen bases were coming less frequently. Still, he contributed enough with the bat to find work as a first baseman throughout the decade. Charleston finally gave in to Father Time by playing his last organized game in 1941. He had already done some managing, and he continued to do that in Philadelphia from 1948 to 1952. Oscar also skippered the Indianapolis Clowns in 1954, the last year of his life.


So how good was Charleston? It's hard to know, of course, because he was forced to play at a lower level than the players we know at that level. By the time we started to pay attention to Negro League play, Charleston was a memory to the shrinking number of baseball people who saw him. But his contemporaries at the time, as Beer shows, put him in the same breath as players like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. Oscar had more power than both of them, and probably was in the argument with Speaker as the best defensive center fielder as the era. That sounds like a superstar to most. He could be something of a hothead when it came to fighting on the field every once in a while, but he also comes off as somewhat surprisingly cultured in other ways.

Beer did his homework here. His best find probably was a scrapbook that Charleston kept about his life. That gives some insight into his life as well as what he valued over the course of his career. Research helps fill in the gaps in his life, although admittedly the lack of quotes and a surplus of numbers does make the story a bit more fact-filled than fascinating at times. An interest in the subject helps quite a bit.

Still, "Oscar Charleston" fulfills its primary goal in bringing its subject to life. It's the go-to source information on someone who probably should be in the top ten of all-time best players in baseball history ... even if "you" don't know it.


(Follow Budd on X.com via @WDX2BB)

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