Oscar Charleston

Pittsburgh Crawford player and manager Oscar Charleston had many great accomplishments over the course of his career which spanned almost four decades. Having a unique and diverse range of baseball abilities (or strengths), Charleston has been regarded as possibly the best all-around player in the history of black baseball. Jocko Conlon, a Hall of Fame umpire, once compared Charleston's hitting ability to Babe Ruth's, his style of stealing bases to Ty Cobb, and his play as a center fielder to Tris Speaker. Born in Indianapolis in 1896, as the seventh of 11 children, his first experience with baseball occurred when he served as a batboy for the local professional team, the Indianapolis ABC's. Despite only being in his early teens, he held his own with the players, occasionally practicing with the team. Shortly thereafter, at age fifteen, he ran away from home and joined the Army, where he played baseball and ran track while serving in the Phillipines. His baseball career officially began in 1915, five years before the formation of the first Negro National League, when he signed with his hometown team, the ABC's

After a summer season as a rookie, he played his first official game in the fall of 1915 against a white barnstorming team comprised of major league players. During this game, Charleston's hot temper, which would become legendary in black baseball, erupted when an umpire and another ABC player began skirmishing over a call. Charleston proceeded to run onto the field and knock the umpire cold, and was shortly thereafter arrested. However, he then jumped bail and left for the Cuban winter baseball season . Similar clashes occurred in Cuba, where Charleston occasionally had to depend on the police for protection when angry Cuban fans would sometimes charge onto the field after him after a clash with a local player. Charleston's intimidating physical presence at 5'11 and 200 pounds reinforced his reputation as a fighter and a tough ball player. However, this reputation did not take away from his strength as a player. Over the course of eight seasons of winter ball in Cuba, Charleston compiled a batting average of .365, winning batting titles in 1920, 1922 and 1924 . During his 1923 season with the Santa Clara club team, regarded as the best team in Cuban history, Charleston stole a record-setting 31 bases, a record which remained for the next twenty years.

Having played for both the Crawfords and the Grays in their heydays, Charleston is certainly an important player in Pittsburgh's baseball history.

Charleston's baseball career also progressed during his time in the United States. He continued to play for the ABC's from 1915 until 1920, described as "the cornerstone" of the team when they entered Rube Foster's Negro National League in 1920. Charleston then played a year with the Chicago American Giants before moving to the St. Louis Giants in 1921. His 1921 season was perhaps his best, demonstrating a .434 batting average, stealing 34 bases, and leading the league in doubles, triples, and home runs. He returned to the ABC's for the 1922 and 1923 seasons as one of the highest paid black baseball players at that time. In 1924, Charleston moved to the Harrisburg (Penn) Giants as a playing manager, and then joined the Philadephia Hilldale club for the 1928 and 1929 seasons. In 1930, perhaps the most financially difficult year thus far for black baseball, Charleston joined the team belonging to Cum Posey, an independent barnstorming team,the Homestead Grays. Over the course of his career with these three teams, he had 9 consecutive seasons in which he hit for a better than .350 average. He played for the Grays until 1932 when Gus Greenlee recruited him for the young Pittsburgh Crawfords squad. He played and managed under Greenlee from 1932 to 1936, playing a central leadership role in the 1935 championship season.
Charleston's great speed was central to his ability to be a top player during his younger days. Charleston continued to be great at base-stealing even when he grew older and lost his footspeed, because he compensated for his lessened speed with his incredible baseball intelligence. According to teammate Jimmie Crutchfield, he did so by "getting a great jump, knowing what pitch to run on, and by using his great sliding ability to avoid the tags" (Bankes, 75). However, being older, heavier, and slightly slower by 1930 when he joined the Grays, his field position adjusted accordingly and he began playing first base, a position for which he was later selected to the first three East-West all-star games.

Charleston maintained his reputation as a fighter in his older years as well. According to Ted Page, "Charley was always ready to fight. He didn't smoke. He didn't drink. But he loved a good fight… when there was a fight and I was on the opposing team, I made sure I knew where Charleston was. I wanted no part of him. I wasn't the only one…. everybody except Josh Gibson was afraid of him" (Bankes, 73). Despite his reputation for fighting and showboating, Charleston had an intensely competitive style of playing ball, as demonstrated by his attitude and success on the field. Charleston has been described as Negro League baseball's "most successful manager since Rube Foster", a reputation that is reinforced by the words of those men who played under him. His managing career began in 1932 when he was recruited to the Crawfords. According to Ted Page, Gus Greenlee was lucky in having "a good man" in Oscar Charleston, who had an "ability to recognize players and their potentials". After leaving the Crawfords in 1941, Charleston played for the Philadelphia Stars, managed for the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and finally ended up with the Indianapolis Clowns, the team with whom he remained until his death in 1954.

"Charleston was a complete ballplayer in that he could hit, hit for power, run, throw and field. He realized the importance of all of these things and managed accordingly.... Charleston was a master of tricky baseball and I liked that. I was sorry I had to leave the Crawfords."

-Cool Papa Bell

Although Charleston became one of the first Negro League veterans to be selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he really never fully received the respect and fame he deserved. As As a star hitter, fielder, first-baseman, base-stealer and manager, Charleston was one of the strongest all-around baseball players in the history of the Negro Leagues. But according to author and researcher James Bankes, despite Charleston being "perhaps the greatest of them all, Oscar never escaped from the shadows" (79).