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Dec 26 2010

Oscar Charleston

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Oscar Charleston
(1896-1954)

As a hitter, the popular barrel-chested 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 center field position was reminiscent of Tris Speaker. Jocko Conlon, a Hall of Fame umpire, made this comparison, calling him “The great negro league player of that time.” and concurring that the was a beautiful center fielder–comparable to Speaker–and a great hitter. Former Charleston teammate Ben Taylor declared that Charleston was the “greatest outfielder that ever lived.”

Much to the delight of the fans, Charleston sometimes injected “show-boating” into his diamond performances. A complete ballplayer who excelled in every facet of the game, Oscar Charleston epitomized the spirit of black baseball.

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 sleek blend of power and speed was unparalleled by any player in black baseball. A fast, instinctive, aggressive baserunner, he was rough and tumble, sliding hard with spikes high. 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.

After a stint in the army where he played ball in the Phillipines, the young athlete joined the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915 as a pitcher-outfielder. The team quickly won a championship the following year. The sharp-eyed Charleston hit for both average and distance and, while always dangerous, he was at his best in the clutch. The 1921 season serves to best exemplify his exceptional talent. Hitting to allfields, the left-handed swinger compiled a .430 batting average, stole 35 bases, and led the league in doubles, triples and home runs.

Joining Harrisburg as a playing manager in the newly formed Eastern Colored League, Oscar won back-to-back batting titles in 1924-25, also leading the league in doubles and home runs the latter year. After the breakup of the Eastern Colored League, Oscar played with Hilldale in the American Negro League prior to joining the great Homestead Grays for the 1930-31 seasons. The 1931 Grays are considered to be among the greatest teams of all time.

After leaving the Grays, Oscar’s age and weight gain prompted a move to first base, where he continued to star as playing manager for the great Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1932-36. Although well past his prime, Charleston was selected to the first three East-West All-Star games as a first baseman.

The hard-hitting slugger ended his long career credited with a .376 lifetime batting average, and 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.

Years played: 1915-41

Positions played: outfield, first base, manager

Teams: Indanapolis ABC’s, Lincoln Stars, Chicago American Giants, Harrisburg Giants, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Philadelphia Stars, Indianapolis Clowns (mgr.)

Comparable Players: Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb

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