When the subject involves evaluating the greatest baseball players of all time, there are certain standard arguments that make me want to cringe. Perhaps the worst of these goes something like this: no Major League ballplayer that played before 1947 can be considered to be the greatest at his position because he never had to face any ballplayer from the Negro Leagues. Because no African Americans were allowed to play in the Major Leagues, the quality of ball was diluted, and therefore the competition was inferior to that faced after the sport was integrated. At some point in a future article I hope to go into a lengthy discussion of this fallacy; however, the only thing that I will point out for now is that if you use this as a frame of logic, then you must also say the same about the converse – no player from the Negro Leagues could be considered to be an all-time great; for if the Major League talent base was diluted by 10% (the percentage of African American’s in the U.S.), then the dilution would be 90% in the Negro Leagues, making the standard of play likely equivalent to Single A Ball, which is frankly ridiculous. However, many historians, while they don’t state the converse logic openly, perhaps because it is safer to use the politically correct rationale, site the statistical chaos that was part and parcel of the Negro Leagues as the “apparent” reason used in refusing to consider any of these legendary players on their all time lists.
Several things need to be considered before making such a comparison. First of all, there was a great deal of interaction between the ballplayers in the Negro Leagues and the Major League ballplayers; although all of the contests were exhibitions, the participants, at least in the Negro Leagues, considered the games deadly serious, as a matter of personal pride. Not only was there a great deal of familiarity between the players, oftentimes they taught each other trade secrets, such as different pitches, game strategies, and the like. Secondly, there were many astute observers of the game, who were able to make qualified judgments concerning comparative ability. But the best argument is one of inference. We have a small sample of ballplayers that began their careers in the waning years of the Negro years, finishing their careers in the Major Leagues. Amongst these players were Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Larry Doby, Hank Aaron, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Satchel Paige, Minnie Minoso…you get the picture. If the Negro Leagues, in its atrophied state, could produce players of this caliber, why would anyone believe that it had not been producing equivalent prodigies in its halcyon days?
If you are still not convinced, consider this. Between the years 1949 – 1969, there were 16 black or black Latino’s who won the National League MVP. The vast majority of these players came from the Negro Leagues. (This was not the case in the American League, which was recalcitrant about integration.) Consider that these were the waning years of the Negro Leagues. Then consider how great those leagues were in their hey-day, from the time that Rube Foster founded the Negro Leagues in the early 1920’s until 1947, when Jackie played his inaugural game at Ebbett’s Field (of course, there were a number of superb black players before Rube was able to create formalized leagues from the chaos of unorganized ball — Charleston being but one of these players.)
All of which is a rather roundabout, but likely necessary introduction to Oscar Charleston. Perhaps many of those reading this article are only vaguely, if at all, familiar with The Hoosier Comet. How could anyone begin to compare Charleston with outfielders of the caliber of Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Tris Speaker, and Joe DiMaggio?
Oscar Charleston, who played his best baseball in the 1920’s through the 1930’s, is regarded by most experts of the Negro Leagues to have been the greatest all-around player in the history of the league. His build was similar to Babe Ruth; he was barrel-chested with thin legs. For most of his career he played center field; later in his career, when he slowed down, he was switched to 1st base. He was often dubbed “The Black Ty Cobb,” for he had the same fearless, pugnacious attitude, hitting and base running ability as the Georgia Peach; however, he was said to be better then Cobb defensively, and have power equivalent to Ruth. Dizzy Dean, who pitched against him in a number of exhibition games, stated: “Charleston could hit that ball a mile. He didn’t have a weakness.” Charleston ranks among the top five Negro League players in life time Batting Average and Home Runs, and is the all time leader in stolen bases.
Bill James, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, rates him as the 4th greatest player of all time. James states: “Charleston, in a sense, puts Mays and Mantle together. He combined the grace, athleticism and all-around skills of Mays with the upper body strength of Mantle, plus he was a left handed hitter.” Of course, the case for Charleston, by necessity, need be mostly anecdotal; James further states…”It’s not like one person saw Oscar Charleston play and said that he was the greatest player ever. Lots of people said he was the greatest player they ever saw. John McGraw, who knew something about baseball, reportedly said that. . . His statistical record, such as it is, would not discourage you from believing that this was true.” Buck O’Neil once stated that Willie Mays was the greatest Major League Player he ever saw, but Charleston was better. As blogger Jeremy Beer elegantly states, Charleston is baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player.
“The Hoosier Comet was the best to ever play the game of baseball. When Willie Mays was young, he played for the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues. It was 1948. The old men in the stands watched him close. They argued among themselves. And they decided that Willie Mays could be the next Oscar Charleston.”
– Buck O’Neil
“…behind those eyes was someone who brooked no insult, who would fight rather than give an inch. He was fearless enough to snatch the hood off a Ku Klux Klansman.”
– John B. Holway