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Negro Leagues

100 years after the Negro Leagues’ inaugural season, its brightest star is honored

Oscar Charleston’s headstone is replaced with one that recognizes his contribution to the league

The original headstone of Oscar Charleston didn’t say a word about his long Hall of Fame career in the Negro Leagues. It didn’t mention his power as a left-handed hitter. It didn’t include a quote honoring his legacy. In death, he got no more acclaim than he did in life.

“You mention Oscar Charleston,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, “and people say, ‘Who?’ ”

Kendrick aimed to change that, though.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, Kendrick created a campaign to give Charleston, the brightest star from that inaugural season, his due. The museum and the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians raised enough money to buy a “proper” headstone and put it on Charleston’s grave at the Floral Park Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Kendrick had planned a formal ceremony on May 2 to memorialize Charleston, but the pandemic spoiled his plans. This season was supposed to be a yearlong celebration of the Negro Leagues, but without baseball in full swing, many plans had to be adjusted or abandoned. The goal of the celebration of the first Negro League season was to highlight the contributions of Black baseball and highlight the stories of those like Charleston, who died in 1954 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Even without a formal memorial for Charleston, Kendrick remained steadfast in his belief that no ballplayer in the history of “Black baseball” or the major leagues had more talent than Charleston, whose Negro League career began in 1920 with the Indianapolis ABCs. Perhaps no one who played pro baseball proved as complex a character as Charleston, either.

An Army veteran of World War I, Charleston didn’t mind a brawl now and again. In the States, he fought Ku Klux Klansmen and umpires, and one winter while playing baseball in Cuba, he fought ballplayers and Cuban soldiers.

The stories of the charismatic Charleston live in newspaper stories, biographical material and a scrapbook, which his estranged wife Janie Charleston kept to freshen his legacy.

In the celebration of the first Negro League season, some fans are trying to learn about Charleston’s career in the same way they are recounting stories about pitcher Satchel Paige, center fielder Cool Papa Bell and catcher Josh Gibson, three of the biggest stars in Black baseball, the catchall phrase for segregated baseball.

“Oscar was the most popular player clearly — numerous players would say — in the ’20s and until Paige and Gibson in, like, 1934,” said Jeremy Beer, who wrote the 2019 biography Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player. “A good 15 years, he was the most popular.”

Charleston’s star has gotten lost in the afterglow of Paige’s and Gibson’s, and during his research, Beer found no satisfying answer why. It could have been, he said, that Charleston left no close heirs, wrote no memoir and died before TV crews and sports journalists could interview him about his stories, which don’t stand as tall as the tales Paige told.

Men and women who research the history of Black baseball still mine the fields for more bits and pieces that hint at how gifted a ballplayer Charleston was. Beer said he thought it might be impossible to separate the fiction about Charleston from the facts about him.

Sports historians and articles in the Black and mainstream media described him as a combination of major league stars Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth. Charleston, who played the game with skills not seen in Black baseball or in the bigs, was a five-tool ballplayer, which neither Bell, Gibson nor Buck Leonard was. Even stars such as Monte Irvin, Leon Day and the legendary Jackie Robinson, who crossed baseball’s color line April 15, 1947, couldn’t lay claim to comparable skills.

Kendrick said sports writers who covered the game over the first 50 years of the 20th century, ballplayers from the era and fans, too, compared Ruth with Charleston, not the other way around.

Those who saw baseball through a more recent lens compared Charleston with Willie Mays, high praise indeed. They raved about Charleston’s ability to chase fly balls.

Nobody did it better, Kendrick said.

Always playing a shallow center field, Charleston rarely let a blooper drop in front of him, and he could catch balls driven over his head.

Take the catch Mays made in the ’54 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. With Game 1 in the balance, Mays saved the Giants. He made an over-the-shoulder, on-the-run basket catch, tracking Vic Wertz’s liner into the deepest reaches of the Polo Grounds in Brooklyn, New York.

“People will always remember that catch,” Kendrick said. “Man, all the old-timers in the Negro Leagues say, ‘Had that been Oscar Charleston, he’d have been waiting for it to come down.’ ”

Kendrick regrets that more of the old-timers aren’t around to fill in blanks on Charleston and his career, which suffered from incomplete statistics. Mays and Hank Aaron, who both got their start with a Negro League ballclub, were too young to follow Charleston and his exploits, so the scrapbook Janie Charleston kept told more about the man than the oral histories did.

Beer, a lecturer, an editor and a principal partner at American Philanthropic, combed through her scrapbook, a gift a historian gave the museum, and pulled most of the significant stories about Charleston and wove them into the biography.

Relying on other secondary sources in crafting the bio, Beer uncovered story after story about Charleston’s talents, temperament and ambitions. Charleston might rightly be referred to as the Jack Johnson, a Black heavyweight boxing champ, of Black baseball.

“Oscar Charleston, it turns out, isn’t just one of the greatest athletes in American history,” Beer wrote in the preface of his biography. “He is also one of the most fascinating.”

No doubt, Charleston was an uncommon talent, a man unafraid of hard work, of discipline and of a fistfight. Having made baseball his year-round occupation, Charleston had one memorable fight while playing in 1924 for the Santa Clara Leopardos in the Cuban League.

According to news articles, oral and apocryphal accounts, the fight started when Charleston spiked Manuel Cueto on a hard slide into third. Cueto fell to the dirt in agony, and his brother and a Cuban soldier jumped from the stands and rushed Charleston. Punches flew.

Soldiers had to step in and break up the brawl. Cueto went to the hospital, Charleston, the police station.

Cubans forgave Charleston, who never met a fastball he couldn’t hit or a fight he would walk away from. He was revered in Cuba, where he learned Spanish, more than he was among people in his Jim Crow homeland.

Paige, Bell and Gibson transitioned to the mainstream, Kendrick said. Charleston never did.

Charleston’s death on Oct. 5, 1954, proved this true. For it came with none of the funereal trappings of an athlete worth a person’s while to remember. His earlier headstone ignored Charleston’s greatness.

The new one, installed in late April, didn’t. It read:

OSCAR MCKINLEY CHARLESTON

NEGRO LEAGUES NATIONAL BASEBALL

LEGEND HALL OF FAME
OCTOBER 14 OCTOBER 5

1896 1954

“I’ve seen all the great players in the many years I’ve been around and have yet to see anyone greater than Charleston.” – Honus Wagner

The greatest player I have ever seen … and one of the greatest men. – Buck O’Neil

Played, coached, managed, and umpired in the Negro Leagues, 1915-52. Played professional baseball in Cuba, 1915, 1920, 1922-1930. Managed and played for racially integrated semipro team in Philadelphia, 1942-44. Scouted for Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers, 1945. Ranked as the fourth greatest baseball player of all time by Bill James, 2003

Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Installed without solemnity, Charleston’s new headstone highlights the brilliance of his career.

“Charleston was a big star of the inaugural season, and he should not be buried in anonymity,” said Kendrick, who plans an official ceremony at some point. “So many Negro League players played in anonymity, but they should not be buried in anonymity.

“People should know who Oscar Charleston is.”

Justice B. Hill, an Ohio State University alum, is a long-time sportswriter/sports editor who taught journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University until May 2019. His work has appeared on MLB.com, SBNation.com, Ebony.com and BET.com.