“Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays before we knew who Willie Mays was,” Buck O’Neil, the great player, manager, and scout, once said of a man who spent his entire life on a baseball field but was never allowed to play in MLB. Charleston is less-commonly known among baseball fans who never got to see him play even in comparison to his peers: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell, but according to those who witnessed him, Charleston was greater than any of them.
The seventh of 11 children, Charleston was only able to finish school through the eighth grade. Instead, the Indianapolis-native worked as a batboy for the local ABCs. As a child, Charleston watched first-hand as the ABCs battled with Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants for supremacy in the independent Black baseball scene which existed prior to the founding of the Negro National League in 1920. As a young adult, Charleston helped defeat the American Giants in the 1916 black baseball championship.
In between, Charleston lied about his age so he could serve in the United States army. At 15, Charleston was stationed in the Philippines where he pitched for the regimental team. Charleston was honorably discharged in 1915 and returned to Indianapolis to play for the ABCs.
Charleston bounced between the various independent Black teams, playing stints with the Lincoln Stars and the Chicago American Giants. In the inaugural season of the Negro National League, Rube Foster, who was often criticized for stacking rosters in his favor, allowed his star to re-sign with the ABCs for the sake of competitive balance. Before the 1923 season, Charleston was traded to the American Giants, but once again, Foster recognized that it would be better for the league if Charleston remained in Indianapolis. Instead, Foster allowed for Olivia Taylor’s ABCs to receive a subsidy for the 1923 season if Charleston went to the American Giants in 1924.
Charleston, though, didn’t go to Rube Foster’s team in 1924. He became the player-manager for the Harrisburg Giants of the Eastern Colored League where he remained until the league and the team dissolved in 1927. Charleston never returned to Foster’s iteration of the Negro National League, and played with the Hilldale Club before joining the Homestead Grays of the American Negro League in 1929.
With the Grays, Charleston played alongside five other future Hall of Famers: Gibson, Paige, Jud Wilson, Smokey Joe Williams, and Willie Foster. The team won consecutive Negro League championships in 1930 and 1931. Per the Seamheads Negro League Database, Charleston hit .326/.385/.549 in his four years with the Grays. That was good for a 141 OPS+, but his production with the Grays was actually lower than his career average.
In all Negro and Latin Leagues, Charleston’s 162-game average slash line was .350/.430/.573 which was 73 percent better than his peers. Only six players had a better OPS+ than Charleston, but none of those six—Gibson, Buck Leonard, Charlie Smith, Willard Brown, Julián Castillo, and Cristóbal Torríente—had nearly as many documented plate appearances. Charleston leads all players in the Seamheads Negro League Database with 6,802 plate appearances. Of the six with a higher OPS+ than Charleston, only Torríente came close with 5,131 plate appearances.
Charleston, who was already 32 by the time he suited up for the Grays for the first time in 1929, kept playing until 1941 spending most of the remainder of his career with Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords were an independent team who became charter members of the second Negro National League which was founded in 1933, two years after the first league folded due to financial troubles brought on by the Great Depression.
As player-manager of the Crawfords, Charleston helped recruit Gibson, Paige, and Cool Papa Bell leading them to be the dominant team in the league’s first four years. From 1933 to 1936, the Crawfords went 187-108 (.634 winning percentage) against Negro National League competition.
In 1937, however, Paige and Gibson left the Crawfords. Charleston, who had posted a 158 OPS+ the year before in limited playing time, was entering his age-40 season and only put himself into 15 games. The Crawfords went from first-to-worst, finishing the year at 18-35, 22 games back of Gibson’s Homestead Grays.
Charleston’s professional playing career came to an end in 1941, but he continued playing in semi-pro leagues until 1945 when Branch Rickey hired him to scout Black players who could play in Major League Baseball. As manager of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, Charleston advised Rickey to sign future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella.
Charleston stayed in baseball until the year of his death. After managing the Indianapolis Clowns to the Negro American League championship, Charleston suffered a stroke in October of 1954. Shortly thereafter, Charleston died at the age of 57. Though thousands attended his funeral Philadelphia, his grave in Indianapolis remained unadorned until November of 2020.
Charleston was one of first Negro Leagues players to gain induction to the Hall of Fame, finally receiving his deserved plaque in 1976. In 2001, Bill James ranked Charleston as the fourth-best player of all-time behind only Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willie Mays. There’s an argument to be made that Charleston was the best to ever play the game when factoring in his hitting, superb defense, and baserunning. That a player as great as Charleston could be so relatively unknown is shameful, and it underscores how much more work needs to be done to ensure the legacy of the Negro Leagues is properly recognized.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.