Who was the greatest Negro Leaguer of all-time? That question can spark an entertaining debate, though the vote often comes down to Oscar Charleston, a man some liked to call the “black Ty Cobb.” Those who saw the multi-talented black outfielder play, including Cobb’s teammate, George Moriarty, loved to reverse the image. “Ty Cobb,” they’d insist, “was the white Oscar Charleston.”
Charleston was born October 14, 1896, in Indianapolis, where he launched his pro career in 1915. He subsequently played on or managed a host of teams, though in the early days of the Negro National League he was best known as the temperamental but brilliant long-ball-hitting center fielder for his hometown ABCs. Dave Malarcher of the Chicago American Giants described the 6-foot-1, 185-pound left-hander in his prime: “He was all muscle and bone, no fat, no stomach, perfect broad shoulders, fine strong legs, strong muscular arms, and powerful hands and fingers. He was fast and he was strong.” Another Negro Leaguer remembered Charleston flagging down a deep outfield drive with his bare hand. Admiring major leaguers once saw him smash a 450-foot home run over the center-field fence at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, a spot then untouched by any white hitter.
Charleston played the 1921 season with the St. Louis Giants, batting .434 and leading the league with 15 home runs and 34 stolen bases. The following summer he was back with the Indianapolis ABCs, where he continued to showcase his versatility by again winning the home run and stolen base titles. He won a third straight stolen base crown in 1923 before jumping to Harrisburg in the rival Eastern Colored League, where topped the circuit in round-trippers three out of four years. He then played two seasons with Hilldale (where he concluded one argument by punching the owner in the nose) before moving on to the Homestead Grays in 1930. Two years later he became the playing manager of the mightiest black nine ever assembled, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, who were bankrolled by a local black racketeer, Gus Greenlee. Charleston stayed six seasons with the Crawfords.
By now considerably heavier and stationed at first base, Charleston still “loved to play baseball,” recalled outfielder Ted Page. “There was nothing he liked to do better, unless it was fight. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, but he enjoyed a good fight—with the opposition.”
Charleston also had several superb seasons in Cuba and was dynamite against major-league pitching. In a 1922 exhibition series against the Detroit Tigers, he collected three singles, a double, and a home run in just nine at-bats. In a 1930 series, he pounded Tigers ace Earl Whitehill for four hits in seven at-bats. All told, in 53 exhibitions he solved big-league pitching for a .318 average.
In the late 1930s, Charleston moved on to manage black teams in Toledo and Philadelphia, where he frequently took his turn in the field and at bat. When he was 53 years old, he found a job in the baggage department of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station. There, wrote James Bankes, the man who was arguably the greatest Negro Leaguer of all-time “became an object of ridicule as the typical old man who fantasized about his athletic past.”
On October 5, 1954, a week before his 58th birthday, Charleston suffered a heart attack at his Philadelphia home. His death and subsequent burial in Indianapolis went largely unnoticed by the white mainstream press. However, as the story of the Negro Leagues began to unfold, Charleston’s accomplishments underwent a scrutiny they never did during his playing days. In 1976, the “black Ty Cobb” posthumously joined the “white Oscar Charleston” and other baseball greats at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.