Oscar Charleston by Jeremy Beer

This one was easy. The Ted Williams Co. created a set in 1993 that included a Negro Leagues subset of 19 cards. Among those featured were Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard. And Oscar Charleston.

It is not surprising that Ted Williams championed the Negro League legends in his set. Ted Williams is often credited with heavily influencing Cooperstown to begin enshrining the overlooked and occasionally forgotten players of the Negro Leagues. During his induction speech in 1966, Williams championed the quality of players he faced barnstorming in the early 1940’s, saying “I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can… be added to the symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given a chance.” Three years later the Baseball Writers’ Association of America formed a committee to begin inducting the Negro League greats into the Hall of Fame.

Ted Williams was right that the players weren’t fully appreciated. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked the 100 greatest baseball players of all time. Journalist Thomas Boswell wrote after seeing “Charlie” ranked 67th on the list, “I’m truly tempted to research Oscar Charleston. Was he a 19th-century player? A Negro Leagues star? A legend in Antarctic sandlot ball? Who knows.” Imagine his consternation when Joe Posnanski ranked Oscar as the 5th greatest of all time? Or when Bill James ranked him 4th?

As Jeremy Beer notes, apparently Boswell couldn’t be bothered to research Charleston. Well Beer did, and as Posnanski points out, the work is as much about how little we will ever know about Oscar’s career as much as what we do know.

Many of the stories written about Oscar Charleston before this book mention Charlie being a hot head, quick to fight, aggressive. I can’t help but wonder how much of that comes from Oscar being Black. Baseball was a different experience in its earlier days; fights were not uncommon; umpires were often threatened, feared for their safety, or were physically attacked. Ty Cobb went into the stands to attack a heckler. Hank Greenberg was called every anti-Semitic slur in the book, and when Joe Kuhel reached first base and was incited by his teammates to spike Hank, Greenberg socked him in the jaw, sparking a riot.

So, yes, Oscar was in some fights. But, also, every description of the man later in life portrays Charleston as a calming, gentle, dignified presence. How much of the fixation on his brawling ways is because he was Black? How much is not allowing the man to evolve as we sometimes allow others?

How good, then, was Oscar Charleston? Joe Posnanski puts Willie Mays atop his list of greatest players. But, as he wrote, Buck O’Neil told Willie Mays that Oscar Charleston “was you before you.”

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