Charleston, Oscar McKinley (12 Oct. 1896-6 Oct. 1954), African-American baseball player and manager, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Tom Charleston, a construction worker, and Mary Thomas. The seventh of 11 children, Charleston served as a batboy for a local professional team before enlisting in the army at age 15. While stationed in the Philippines with the black 24th Infantry, Charleston honed his athletic skills in track and baseball, becoming the only African-American player in the Manila baseball league in 1914. Following his army discharge a year later, he joined the Indianapolis ABCs at a salary of $50 per month. The American Brewing Company sponsored the ABCs, but C. I. Taylor, Negro League pioneer, directed day-to-day operations.
Charleston, nicknamed Charlie, was a 5'11" 185-pound center fielder who batted and threw left-handed. Described as barrel-chested, he would have difficulty maintaining his weight as his career progressed. He played a very shallow center field in his fielding heyday and counted on his speed to reach balls hit over his head. During his first year with the ABCs, he married Helen Grubbs from Indianapolis, but the marriage ended in an early divorce. Although described by his peers as basically a quiet man off the field, he displayed a fiery competitive temper as a player. He fought umpires, opponents, and fans, contesting calls, sliding hard into bases, and battling spectators for balls hit into the stands. Likened to contemporary Ty Cobb for his baseball skills and competitiveness, Charleston, for some sportswriters, was not the "black Ty Cobb," but rather Cobb was the "white Oscar Charleston."
After three years with the ABCs, Charleston in 1919 joined the Chicago American Giants run by Negro National League entrepreneur Rube Foster. It was common "blackball" practice for players, lured by better money offers, to change teams. Contracts were either poorly written or ignored, and barnstorming teams often made the most money. In 1921 Charleston moved to the St. Louis Giants and apparently gained superstar status, reportedly batting .434 in the 60-game season, including 14 doubles and league-leading 11 triples, 15 home runs, and 34 stolen bases. Although box score statistics for the Negro leagues are fragmentary, available numbers give Charleston a career hitting average of .350 in the Negro leagues from 1919 through 1937, .365 in Cuban League winter ball, which he played annually from 1919 through 1928, and .318 versus white major leaguers in 53 exhibition games from 1915 through 1936.
Charleston began the 1922 season in St. Louis but returned mid-year to Indianapolis, earning $325 per month, $125 above any teammate and one of the highest salaries in black baseball. In 1924 he jumped to the Harrisburg Giants of the Eastern Colored League for four years as player-manager, batting .391 in 1924, .418 in 1925 with a league-leading 15 doubles and 16 home runs, and .335 in 1927 with 18 doubles and 12 home runs. In Harrisburg he married Jane Blaylock, daughter of a Methodist bishop. The couple had no children and divorced after about 20 years. In 1928 and 1929 Charleston was on the roster of the Philadelphia Hilldales and hit .360 and .339, respectively.
As the depression made the financial life of teams in the Negro leagues especially precarious, independent, barnstorming clubs raided their ranks. The Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh, owned by Cum Posey, signed Charleston and other top players from failing franchises for the 1930 season. Because added weight had reduced his outstanding skills as a center fielder, Charleston moved to first base. Yet during the 1930 and 1931 seasons he hit a combined .371. In time, Posey and his successor,Gus Greenlee, who bought out Posey in 1932 to stock up his Pittsburgh Crawfords, accumulated the best black team in history, including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Judy Johnson, and Charleston, who was player-manager for the "Craws" from 1932 through 1937. As his skills began to diminish, Charleston batted .376 in 1933, .333 in 1934, and .288 in 1935. When the Dominican Republic Summer League in 1937 enticed many of the Crawford stars to move south, the team collapsed. Charleston moved to the Toledo Crawfords in 1938, but that franchise folded in mid-season 1939; the manager-first baseman joined the Philadelphia Stars, remaining for five seasons.
During World War II Charleston worked at the Philadelphia quartermaster depot. In 1945 he managed the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, Branch Rickey's cover team set up to scout Jackie Robinson and other African-American players. As the Negro leagues faded away, Charleston's career ended with managing stints with the Philadelphia Stars (1946) and the Indianapolis Clowns (1947-1948). In 1949 he retired and worked in the baggage department of Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Railway Station. He died in Philadelphia following a heart attack and stroke. Charleston's election in 1976 to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown New York, as the seventh Negro league player, finally brought recognition to his career and supported sportswriter Grantland Rice's earlier observation, "It's impossible for anyone to be a better ball player than Oscar Charleston."