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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

  1. Joe says:
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    I enjoy every article you write here, Paulie! I love the game of baseball and when I read articles like yours I try to imagine watching it back then when the game was about raw talent and the players loved the game for the game and not for money and fame. I don’t mean to diss on any current players because becoming a major league player is no simple feat and you have to love it to be that dedicated but the players back then… Only a passion for the game could make a Negro-leaguer, for example, want to keep grinding even though they had to endure the venom of racism and hate everytime they showed up to the ballpark.

    Players in today’s game can’t deal with the distraction of a light that’s too bright on a billboard or a patch on a pitcher’s glove that is too big…

    Keep up the good work!

    • AL KOHOLIC says:
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      @Joe: i agree joe,it really tends to take me back,i visualize the setting ,the park the people,talented writer Paulie,great work

      • Paulie Allnuts

        Paulie Allnuts says:
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        @AL KOHOLIC: Thanks, Kelly. That’s what makes baseball different then any other sport. I still remember the first time my Dad walked me around the old Yankee Stadium – before they remodeled it. They used to let you walk the fields in those days, and the monuments were actually in the field of play. I actually believed that Babe Ruth was buried here, and somehow, that seemed fitting.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Joe: Thanks, Joe! I agree with you entirely, which is why I primarily write about players who practiced their trade before free agency came into vogue.

      • Joe says:
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        @Paulie Allnuts: Hey Paulie, I’m a big Cardinal fan and I love reading about Rogers Hornsby, who I think is the best Cardinal of all time, no disrespect to Stan. Do you have any links to good articles about him?

  2. James says:
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    You hooked me in to the fact that you would trump the fact that pigmentation equates to being a better baseball player, yet contradicted yourself in the very next paragraph!

    Amazing…

    The players you named…WERE the only good players from the Negro Leagues…it was Boom or Bust. They were either MVP-HOF players or scrubs during 1950-1970

    SO that is what? maybe 1% of all players that played in the majors during that time?

    To take that jump in logic and use ancedotial evidence to say Charleston was Cobb on the basepaths and in mentality, Ruth with power and Speaker in the field…ugh

    You know who was the next greatest thing once? Marty O’Toole and Benny Kauff…didn’t happen.

    Fact is Charleston and Josh Gibson and Pop Lloyd (who could not be on second base before a line drive…since you believe (even though I revere the man) an old, biased and rose colored glasses Buck O’Neil…my grandfather killed 12 men in WWII…by the time it got to my birth, it was 55 with a spork and while he was bleeding out.

    Fact is older Negro League players had LESS of a chance being great than Mays, etc…due to the much lower population during that time….so more than likely Charleston would be more Ross Stephenson or Hack Wilson than Babe Ruth 2.0

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @James: Interesting perspective, James. However, observers like McGraw, Dizzy Dean, and the white ballplayers who observed them play and played against them head to head tended to disagree. John McGraw once stated that he would purchase the entire ball club of one of Rube Foster’s halcyon teams in the early 20th century, if possible. The tragedy is that neither you nor I could prove our point, because of the Gentleman’s Agreement..

      • Paulie Allnuts

        Paulie Allnuts says:
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        @Paulie Allnuts: BTW, as you likely realize, Ross Stephenson shouldn’t be in the Hall, and Hack Wilson would be on the bubble; I wouldn’t cast my vote for him, as his career was tragically shortened by his escalating love affair with John Barleycorn.

  3. Smokey

    Smokey says:
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    Good read Paulie, the Negro league stats are such a conundrum as baseball is a stat driven comparison between players and I have really never seen stats that truly give the players that played in that era the justice they deserve. Thanks for the article, I have heard Buck O’Neill say before that he thought Charleston was the best player in an interview he did at the BBHOF.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Smokey: Smokey, stats weren’t the strong suit of the Negro Leagues. The best stat is that the Negro League teams won about two thirds of the games between them and the Major League clubs. And that Satch won R.O.Y. when he was anywhere between 45 and 50. (Bill Veeck could never find out his true D.O.B. despite much research, and Paige was mum on the matter.

  4. I-Man says:
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    As always, great article Paulie. Thanks for helping us pull the lens back and see the scope of this beautiful game. A great respite from the daily, insignificant struggles of fantasy.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @I-Man: Thanks! Although many in my RCL would object to the trivialization of fantasy baseball:)

  5. Dude says:
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    Awesome piece.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Dude: Much appreciated!

  6. OaktownSteve says:
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    You’re doing good work here. Thanks for the good stuff. I came across a nice piece recently about a guy I’ve never heard of, Firpo Marberry. I found it particularly interesting in that it came from the SABR site and it got me to thinking if there isn’t a roll for a super hybrid starter reliever in the modern era where pitching staff flexibility and creative usage of the ‘pen keeps evolving. Anyway, thought you might enjoy:

    http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d7ce09aa

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @OaktownSteve: Thanks for the article about Firpo. The closest modern equivelants to him were John Smoltz and Hoyt Wilhelm; both were outstanding as starters and relievers, the latter is in the Hall of Fame, and the former will be some day in the not very far off future. SABR has an ongoing project to do short bio’s on every major league baseball player to ever play the game; the quality of them is typically excellent.

  7. The Guru

    The Guru says:
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    Nicely done, Paulie and bound to start some conversations.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @The Guru: Thanks! And I hope it does – nothing better then baseball conversations concerning those mythological hero’s of the past.

  8. gambz says:
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    Very nice and eye-opening article. I was almost ready to believe that fallacy, but I was tenaciously holding on. Thanks for the Logic lesson.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @gambz: And thanks for being tenacious!

  9. Jimbo says:
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    Is Homer Bailey for Arenado a fair trade?

    • Wallpaper Paterson says:
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      @Jimbo: It is fair.

  10. David says:
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    Who do you like better going forward, Price or J. Zimmerman. Thanks

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @David: Go with JZ!

  11. Al says:
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    Capuano activated and I need to decide if I drop him or Dillon Gee? 5×5 ROTO NL-only, Thank you!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Al: That’s a very sad choice. But having to give an opinion, I would keep Gee and get over the Cap.

      • Al says:
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        @Paulie Allnuts: IT IS SO SAD. I’m sad. Thanks for your opinion.

  12. Charleston was amazing. His peak two year average as listed on Baseball Reference

    .419 / .504 / .768, 1.272 OPS, 38 2B, 6 3B, 33 HR in just 427 total AB.

    Keep in mind this is playing centerfield with superb defense. Few have been the in the same league.

    Thanks for the article ‘Paulie, thoroughly enjoyed it

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Lou P: And thanks to you, Lou, for the research!

  13. Wake Up says:
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    Enjoying these pieces still Paulie, nice work!

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Wake Up: Much appreciated

  14. Brownie says:
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    Paulie – you’re articles remind me why I simply love the game of baseball.

    The fantasy stats, the money, etc. – it’s all just noise. It’s the history like this piece that make me a fan. Thank you sir.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @Brownie: Thanks for the support, Brownie
      !

  15. Wallpaper Paterson says:
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    Will there be an article on Smokey Joe Williams?

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @The Guru: @Wallpaper Paterson: Haven’t written one as of yet, but I certainly will consider doing one. I have several Negro League Players on the back-burner for future articles, and Smokey Joe certainly would be an interesting piece.

  16. the rat bastard says:
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    Great one bro….never even heard of the guy. As for the comparison of the Negro leagues and the majors… Its kinda like comparing the NBA and the ole ABA….the game was a little unorthodox in the ABA but to say that some of their stars were not as good as the NBA is just plain stupid.

    • Paulie Allnuts

      Paulie Allnuts says:
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      @the rat bastard: As I recall, the year after the ABA disbanded, the All Star Teams were chock full of ex-ABA players. That actually is a great comparison. I don’t think that the depth of the Negro Leagues was as deep as the Major Leagues – there were a lot more white players then black players, just doing the demographics – but the best of the Negro League players were certainly just as good as the Major League stars.

  17. Sue K. says:
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    Oscar “Charlie” Charleston was the best in the game. Sadly, he died working as a train porter, after playing for four decades and then working as a coach. He helped Branch Rickey recruit Jackie Robinson from the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. We have a statue of Oscar here in Pittsburgh, and there’s another one of him in the Negro Baseball League Museum in Kansas City. My hat’s off to the Hoosier Comet, a man I admire very much.

  18. Wallpaper Paterson says:
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    The McFarland catalog contains the following books on Negro League topics-
    “Rube Foster in His Time” by Larry Lester
    “Of Monarchs and Black Barons” by James A. Riley
    “The Pittsburgh Crawfords” by Jim Bankes
    “The Early Image of Black Baseball” by James E. Brunson III
    “Wilber ‘Bullet’ Rogan and the Kansas City Monarchs” by Phil S. Dixon
    “The Negro Leagues; 1869-1960″ by Leslie A. Heaphy
    “Satchel Paige and Company” by Leslie A. Heaphy
    “Black Baseball and Chicago” by Leslie A. Heaphy
    “The Negro Leagues in New Jersey” by Alfred M. Martin and Alfred T. Martin
    “Black Baseball Out of Season” by William F. McNeil
    “Baseball’s Other All-Stars” by William F. McNeil
    “Early Black Baseball in Minnesota” by Todd Peterson
    “Black Barons of Birmingham” by Larry Powell

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