Summary

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Charleston joined the Army at 15 and served in the Philippines. After returning to the United States, he immediately began his baseball career with the Indianapolis ABC's in 1915. He served as a player and/or manager for the ABCs,[1] Chicago American Giants, Lincoln Stars, St. Louis Giants, Harrisburg Giants, Philadelphia Hilldales, Homestead Grays, and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

Conflict Period:
World War I 1
Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Corporal 1
Birth:
14 Oct 1896 1
Indianapolis, Indiana 1
Death:
06 Oct 1954 1
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Oscar McKinley Charleston 1
Also known as:
Oscar Charleston 1
Birth:
14 Oct 1896 1
Indianapolis, Indiana 1
Death:
06 Oct 1954 1
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1
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World War I 1

Branch:
Army 1
Rank:
Corporal 1
Service Start Date:
1917 1
Service End Date:
1919 1
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Quote:
Some people asked me, 'Why are you playing so close to the right-field foul line?' What they didn't know was that Charle 1
Occupation:
Baeseball 1
Race or Ethnicity:
African American 1

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Stories

Oscar McKinley Charleston

 

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 PaigeJosh GibsonJames "Cool Papa" BellJudy 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."

  

Oscar McKinley Charleston

Oscar McKinley Charleston
Nickname: Charlie

Career: 1915-1941
Positions: cf, 1b, manager (1942-1954)
Teams: Indianapolis ABCs (1915 1918, 1920, 1922-1923), New York Lincoln Stars (1915-1916), Bowser's ABCs (1916), Chicago American Giants (1919), St. Louis Giants (1921), Harrisburg Giants (1924-1927),Hilldale Daisies (1928-1929), Homestead Grays(1930-1931), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1932-1938), Toledo Crawfords (1939), Indianapolis Crawfords (1940) Philadelphia Stars (1941, 1942-1944, 1946-1950); Brooklyn Brown Dodgers (1945),Indianapolis Clowns (1954)
Bats: Left
Throws: Left
Height: 6' 0''   Weight: 190
Born: October 14, 1896, Indianapolis, Indiana
Died: October 6, 1954, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (1976)

As a hitter, the popular barrel chested, spindly legged slugger par excellence was often compared to Babe Ruth. Earlier in his career, his speedy, slashing style on the basepaths earned him comparison with Ty Cobb, and defensively his superb play from a shallow centerfield position was reminiscent of Tris Speaker. Jocko Conlon, a Hall of Fame umpire, made this comparison, calling him "the great Negro player of that time" and concurring that he was a beautiful center fielder, comparable to Speaker, and a great hitter. After the 1924 season, Former Charleston teammateBen Taylor, a longtime star first baseman and manager, declared that Charleston was the "greatest outfielder that ever lived ... greatest of all colors. He can cover more ground than any man I have ever seen. His judging of flyballs borders on the uncanny."

Much to the delight of the fans, Charleston sometimes injected "showboating" into his diamond performances. A complete ballplayer who excelled in every facet of the game, Oscar Charleston epitomized the spirit of black baseball. Temperamentally he presented a bit of a contradiction. He was a fearless, steely-eyed brawler who could not be intimidated and whose fights both on and off the field are as legendary as are his playing skills. And yet he was protective of younger players and idolized by kids who were mesmerized by his charisma.

In his prime, the well-honed blend of power and speed was unparalleled by any player in black baseball. One of the fastest men in the game and an instinctive, aggressive base runner, he was rough and tumble, sliding hard with spikes high. At bat he had few equals and, as an excellent drag bunter, he also used his tremendous speed to bunt his way on base. In the field his combination of great range, good hands, powerful arm, and superior baseball instincts was unsurpassed, allowing him always to get a good jump, robbing batters of "sure" hits.

His father was a construction worker and his mother's father was a carpenter who had been employed in the construction of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Oscar was the seventh of eleven children and, as a youngster in Indianapolis, he was batboy for the local ABCs ballclub. At age fifteen, he left home and served a stint in the Army, where he ran track (23 seconds for the 220-yard dash) and played baseball while stationed in the Philippines with the 24th Infantry. In 1914 he was the only black baseball player in the Manila League.

Returning home, the young athlete joined the Indianapolis ABCsin 1915 as a pitcher-outfielder and made a strong showing in his rookie season. His aggressive play on the diamond was evident even in his first year in top competition, when he and Bingo DeMoss were arrested for assaulting an umpire and causing a riot. Later in his career Charleston was known for engaging in fights at various times with a member of the Ku Klux Klan and several Cuban soldiers. His fearlessness was an attribute that helped the team win a championship the following year, with Charleston contributing a .360 average in the playoff series over Rube Foster'sChicago American Giants.

A fastball hitter, the sharp-eyed Charleston it for both average and distance and utilized the entire ballpark, hitting to all fields. The left handed swinger was always a dangerous hitter but was at his best in the clutch. The 1921 season seems best to exemplify the range and depth of his exceptional talent as he compiled a .434 batting average, and led the league in stolen bases (35), doubles (14), triples (11), and home runs (15) in only 60 league games. In an effort at a repeat performance the following season, he again led the league in home runs and stolen bases while slamming out a .370 batting average.

Joining Harrisburg as playing manager in the newly formed Eastern Colored League, Charleston had superlative back to back performances in 1924-1925, batting .411 and .445, while leading the league each year in home runs with 14 and 20. The latter season he also topped the league in doubles and hits. In 1926 he continued his offensive bombardment, and in late June he homered twice in a double-header against the New York Lincoln Giants, bringing his total to 19 for the young season. He finished the season with a .344 batting average, followed in 1927 with .384, while again leading the league in home runs.

That was his last year in Harrisburg, leaving to join Hilldale for the beginning of the 1928 season, which was highlighted by the early-season demise of the Eastern Colored League. After a .363 average the first year with Hilldale, he hit .396 the following year when the club joined the American Negro League in its only year of existence. With the collapse of the second eastern league in two years, he joined the independent Homestead Grays for the 1930-1931 seasons. In 1930 the Grays defeated the strong New York Lincoln Giants in a ten-game series for the eastern championship, and the 1931 Grays are considered to be among the greatest teams of all time. In addition to Charleston, who hit .380, the team boasted such greats as Josh GibsonSmokey Joe WilliamsJud WilsonGeorge ScalesVic HarrisTed Page, and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe.

He left the Grays to assume the managerial reins of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and talked Josh Gibson into going with him. After leaving the Grays, Charleston's age and weight gain prompted a move to first base, where he continued to star as playing manager for the outstanding Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1932-1936. The 1935 champion Crawfords team, boasting five Hall of Famers in the lineup, are generally conceded to be the best black team of all time.

Although approaching his fortieth birthday and well past his prime, Charleston hit for averages of .363, .450, .310, .304, and .356 with the Crawfords and was selected to the first three East- West All Star games as a first baseman. Although records are incomplete, the hard-hitting slugger ended his twenty-seven year career credited with a .357 lifetime batting average and 151 home runs. He also fashioned a .326 batting average in exhibitions against major league opposition and .361 batting average for nine Cuban winter seasons, including a .405 mark in 1921-1922.

After his days as a playing manager ended, he continued as a bench manager with the Philadelphia Stars through 1950, taking a year off in 1945 to take the helm of Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. He returned to the managerial ranks in 1954, guiding the Indianapolis Clowns to a championship in his last season before falling victim to a heart attack. During his thirty- nine year career he was associated with fourteen different teams, as player and manager. He also assisted Branch Rickey in scouting the Negro Leagues to find the player to break baseball's color line. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, a fitting tribute to a man who might well have been the greatest all-around ballplayer in black baseball history.

Oscar in the military

Outfielder, Oscar Charleston (Army): Unlike others on this list, Charleston didn't begin his Hall of Fame baseball career until after his military career ended. He was 15 when he joined the Army. His four-year stint included time in the Philippines before he returned to a civilian's life in 1915. It was then that Charleston, a five-tool combination of Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth, began one of the most storied careers in the history of the game. Many baseball historians, including Kendrick, Dixon and Riley, consider the temperamental, fearless Charleston the best black ballplayer of all time. Bill James ranked Charleston as the fourth-best ballplayer in baseball history.

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