BOOK REVIEW: Oscar Charleston

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player
Jeremy Beer
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright 2019 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska

Thanks to so many people, from Buck O’Neil to the researchers at Seamheads, we know a lot about the Negro Leagues – the players and the business and life in general as a Negro League player. But there are still huge oversights. Josh Gibson (on the basis of his legend) and Satchel Paige (thanks to having actually played in the Major Leagues) are rather widely known among baseball fans. Oscar Charleston, however….

Jeremy Beer has done a remarkable service in correcting this oversight. He has written a truly comprehensive biography of the Hall of Famer, from his childhood in Indianapolis to his death at an age too young to have been part of the Negro League “rediscovery” in the 1970s. He has dug through the archives, and even paged through a scrapbook kept by Charleston over the course of his life and career. This is as good a work on baseball in the Negro Leagues as you are likely to find.

Part of the difficulty here is that Charleston came from a modest family, and although he married twice, had no children. He divorced his first wife early, and was separated from his second wife. Neither of them was going to be interested in keeping, much less promoting, his legacy. And it seems that he wasn’t the sort of player to make friends easily. He was not the “fighter” that some claimed he was, but his professionalism made getting close to him difficult. There are no lengthy interviews or profiles, just mountains of statistics and newspaper reports in the “black press”. And those dry accounts, as impressive as the numbers may be, do not lend themselves to the creation of legends.

Beer is also careful to note that all the career numbers for Negro League players must be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, there were more than a few All Time Greats that could hold their own with any white Hall of Famer, but there were still plenty of players who would struggle to make it on the roster of a AAA team. The quality of the opposition faced by a “Bullet” Joe Rogan would vary widely – and don’t forget the quality of the actual playing fields….

Occasionally I read comments about how Great Players like Babe Ruth or Lefty Grove couldn’t have been that great, because they never faced any Negro League players. I’d like to suggest a true “fantasy draft”. Create a draft pool of every Negro League player you can think of (heck, I’ll even let you include Cuban greats like Cristobal Torriente) who did not have a significant career in the majors after integration. Now, pick a year – let’s say 1935, when the Negro Leagues were at their peak. Take the sixteen major league teams from that year, and have them draft the players in your Negro League pool. How many “all time greats” will wind up on each team? How many stars? How many average players? Which white players will get bumped off the team to make room for them? While the overall level of talent would go up a tick, I really doubt there would be any significant change in the career stats of an individual player. Jimmie Foxx would not be facing Satchel Paige every time he came to the plate….

Charleston’s life spanned pretty much the entire era of the Negro Leagues. He started playing professionally in the late 1910s when the leagues were getting organized, and was in uniform all the way into the late 1940s as a manager, coach, and scout. Along the way, everyone who knew him and got to see him play knew he was one of the greatest ever, regardless of skin color.

Perhaps Beer’s biography will help others feel the same way.

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