Simply the best: Oscar Charleston

Simply the best: Oscar Charleston

To blend into one man the sprinter's daring of Rickey Henderson, the explosive power of Reggie Jackson, the flashy glove of Willie Mays, the rifle-like arm of Roberto Clemente, wrapped inside the single-minded concentration of Albert Belle, would be to produce the perfect baseball player.

But has any man ever come close to being that "perfect" ballplayer?

Yes, at least one man has, some baseball people say. His name is Oscar Charleston, a star center fielder in the Negro Leagues during the 1910s, '20s and '30s.

By all accounts, the charismatic, barrel-chested Charleston had all of these athletic gifts and more. Some baseball historians have gone so far as to say Charleston fine-tuned those God-given gifts to become the "best" baseball player -- black or white -- who ever took the field.

"He did everything well," said Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "Matter of fact, he did everything exceptionally well, going on what I heard and the readings that I've done on him. ... Wherever you put him on the field, he excelled in every aspect of the game."

Critics of black baseball argue that Charleston wasn't the equal of Honus Wagner or Tris Speaker or Ty Cobb. Some of them dare to say Babe Ruth was a better ballplayer than Charleston, too.

Regardless of how anybody decides to judge Charleston, he's in an elite class; he's in a class of a handful.

"In his prime, the well-honed blend of power and speed was unparalleled by any player in black baseball," wrote James Riley in his The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. "One of the fastest men in the game and an instinctive, aggressive base runner, he was rough and tumble, sliding hard with spikes high. At bat he had few equals."

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In its coverage of black baseball and the Negro Leagues, the black press chronicled Charleston's excellence for several decades. Sportswriters in the early half of the 1900s called Charleston "The Hoosier Comet," a nickname they coined to reflect the Hall of Fame outfielder's Indiana roots.

Their reports on Charleston revealed as much about the man's fearlessness and his aggressiveness as they did about his long home runs. Nothing frightened Charleston, they wrote. They were right.

Playing in an era where the color line separated black players from white players, he fought whoever got in his way. Charleston slugged it out with Ku Klux Klansmen and Cuban solders, and during his first season with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915, he and teammate Bingo DeMoss, himself a Negro League star, were arrested for assaulting an umpire and starting a riot.

Yet Charleston's willingness to brawl never hurt his reputation as a great ballplayer. He was the centerpiece of the ABC's franchise in 1920 when they joined the Negro National League, the first, fully organized major league.

From the league's beginning, Charleston stood as its brightest star. In 1921, records show he batted as high as .446 with 14 home runs, a Herculean number in the "Dead Ball era."

Statistics from the period are fuzzy at best, but those statistics were clear enough to show that Charleston, who was inducted into Cooperstown in 1976, had more tools in his tool box than anybody else in the game. He routinely led black baseball in batting, home runs and stolen bases.

One story about Charleston's talent came from Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, who often barnstormed against black ballplayers. Dean was quoted as saying, "He didn't have a weakness. When he came up, we just threw it and hoped like hell he wouldn't get a hold of one and send it out of the park."

Hope wasn't much to rely on in trying to get Charleston out. He hit better than .350 for nine straight seasons. Twice, he hit more than .400. In his prime, no other player in the Negro Leagues matched his blend of power and speed, and his glove was as magical as his bat.

"The greatest outfielder that ever lived, the greatest of all colors," Ben Taylor, a Negro League great himself, is quoted as saying in Lawrence Hogan's book Shades of Glory. "He can cover more ground than any man I have ever seen. His judging of fly balls borders on the uncanny."

Contemporaries often recalled the countless times Charleston, who also had a splendid career in Cuban baseball, had robbed them of hits. They raved about his combination of range, his great hands, his powerful arm and his superior instincts, which fueled fear in opposing hitters and baserunners.

Charleston, whose career spanned four decades, preyed on those fears. He exploited every opponent's weakness. He understood a player's weakness so well that he often flaunted it. He introduced the art of "showboating" to the game.

Fans loved it. They love him. They applauded his daring, emotional and flashy play, which embodied the spirit of black baseball.

People revered Charleston. Hall of Fame umpire Jocko Conlon, quoted in Riley's Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, called him "the great Negro player of that time." Conlon then went on to compare Charleston's center field skills to Speaker's, the gold standard of the era.

Tributes to Charleston's talent, though, came from all quarters.

"Not only is he the finest player of African extraction -- but in our judgment he ranks on equality with Cobb, (Christy) Mathewson, Wagner, and any other American or National League maestro the national pastime has known," Alvin Moses is quoted as saying in Hogan's Shades of Glory. "Charleston hits with the cunning of a Ty Cobb and the power of a Babe Ruth; runs the bases like a Bob Bescher, Max Carey, or an Eddie Collins; fields his position like a Tris Speaker could; and arm like Bob Meusel, and the dynamic personality of Johnny Evers and you have met Oscar Charleston as we have known him and hundreds of thousands of colored and white diamond fans will attest."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for's Ken Mandel contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.