The greatest player in baseball history is a complex question where the answers are various and criteria flexible. Many will opt for Babe Ruth, a sensational slugger and towering figure in American folklore. Some will tab Barry Bonds, a controversial figure whose best years played out in the cable-sports and Internet era. Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and possibly Mike Trout would all likely receive votes, for feats accomplished in either large markets or in eras when baseball loomed larger than life.
Far from the madding crowd in this debate stands Oscar Charleston. And this is a terrible
Charleston was born October 14,
Through no fault of his own, Charleston earned, as Sports Illustrated characterized it, “a
In those years, the post-prime Charleston served as player-manager of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the finest teams in the history of American sports. Long before the NBA popularized the concept of the superteam, Pittsburgh built one, with Charleston managing Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, Double Duty Radcliffe, and Jud Wilson, superstars all. In 1935, Charleston homered thrice in the Negro National League’s championship series, as Pittsburgh defeated the New York Cubans in seven games.
Painting an accurate statistical picture of Charleston’s feats is no easy task, but here is what we know for sure: Baseball Reference credits him with a .334 lifetime average at all levels, a figure that would place him 23rd on MLB’s leaderboard. His .536 slugging percentage would be 40th. The board game company Strat-O-Matic, in a landmark 2009 study of Negro League greats, calculated the following statistical averages for Charleston at his peak had he played in a conventional, 154-game MLB season: a .391 average, 32 home runs, 125 RBIs, and 50 stolen bases.
Bill James, in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, stated that Charleston was “regarded by many knowledgeable people as the greatest baseball player who ever lived.” Comparisons from contemporaries abounded to Ty Cobb (Charleston was known to have a quick temper), Babe Ruth (he was similarly built and powerful), and Tris Speaker. Buck O’Neil compared him to all three “rolled into one.” In 2003, James appointed Charleston the fourth-best player in history. Only Ruth, Mays and Honus Wagner were placed ahead of him.
Yes, Ruth played in New York during the glamour of the Jazz Age. Mays was the face of baseball in the golden Fifties and Sixties, and Williams was by acclamation the greatest hitter who ever lived. Bonds’ power and Trout’s consistency have galvanized a global fanbase.
But Oscar Charleston, a five-tool, generational talent who toiled in Indianapolis so future black stars could shine on baseball’s biggest stage, deserves recognition beyond SI writer John Schulian’s characterization as “the greatest player you’ve never heard of.” He deserves, despite his under-the-radar career, admiration as one of the finest players in the history of the National Pastime — full stop.
Featured Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library