Dec 16, 2019
Baseball biographer Jeremy Beer (Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player) joins the podcast this week to discuss the life and career of one of baseball’s greatest, though largely unsung, players – and provide us a convenient excuse for a deeper dive into the endlessly fascinating vagaries of the sport’s legendary Negro Leagues.
Buck O’Neil once
described Oscar Charleston as “Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Tris Speaker
rolled into one,” while baseball historian Bill James ranked him as
the fourth-best player of all time – inclusive of the
Major Leagues, in which he never played. During his prime, he
became a legend in Cuba as well one of black America’s most popular
celebrities. Yet even among serious sports fans, Charleston
is virtually unknown today.
In a lengthy career spanning 1915-54, Charleston played against, managed, befriended, and occasionally brawled with baseball greats like Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Jesse Owens, Roy Campanella, and Branch Rickey – with a competitive “hothead” reputation that sometimes brought him trouble – but more often delivered victories, championships, and profound respect.
Charleston played for 11 clubs across at least five different Negro Leagues, and doubled as manager for a number of them – including the 1935 Negro National League pennant-winning Pittsburgh Crawfords – considered by many baseball scholars to be the best black baseball team of all time.
Though he never got the chance to play in the bigs, Charleston was still a trailblazer – becoming the first African-American to work as a Major League scout, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey hired him for to oversee his fledgling United Baseball League “Brown Dodgers” feeder club.
A National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 1976, Charleston’s combined record as a player, manager, and scout makes him the most accomplished figure in black baseball history – and, without question, beyond.