Oscar McKinley Charleston: "The Hoosier Comet"
Many considered Oscar Charleston to be the best Negro player of the 1920s. The versatile star batted over .300 for most of his career and his speed, strong arm and fielding instincts made him a standout center fielder and first baseman. He played for the top Negro teams, including the Indianapolis ABCs, Harrisburg Giants, Philadelphia Hilldales, Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. He also managed several teams during his 40 years in Negro baseball. His speed, aggressive baserunning, short temper and terrific hitting drew comparisons to Ty Cobb.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976, he followed Satchel Paige (1971), Josh Gibson (1972), Buck Leonard (1972), Monte Irvin (1973), and Judy Johnson (1975). Of course, Jackie Robinson (1962) and Roy Campanella (1969) had long since been inducted, following their stints with major league ball clubs.
During his career, he played with the Indianapolis ABC's, New York Lincoln Stars, Chicago American Giants, St. Louis Giants, Harrisburg Giants, Hilldale, Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords , Toledo Crawfords, Indianapolis Crawfords, Philadelphia Stars, Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and Indianapolis Clowns. But it was as manager of the dynastic Pittsburgh Crawfords in the early to mid 1930s (a team which many rate as the finest in the history of the Negro Leagues, featuring Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, Paige, Gibson, Johnson and Charleston, among others) that he had his greatest success. A native of Indianapolis, Charleston grew up serving as batboy for the local ABC's. At age 15, he joined the army and was stationed in the Philippines. The military gave the underage runaway the opportunity to display his abilities in track and baseball; he ran the 220-yard dash in 23 seconds, and played in the otherwise all-white Manila League. Entering big-time black baseball with the ABC's, he was a vital cog in their 1916 Black World Series triumph over the Chicago American Giants, batting .360 in seven of the 10 games played. After stints with the American Giants and New York Lincoln Stars, he rejoined Indianapolis when the Negro National League was organized in 1920.
Through 1923, the lefthanded-hitting and throwing Charleston posted a .370 batting average with the NNL ABC's and St. Louis Giants, and in 1921 led the league in hitting (.446), triples (10), HR (14), total bases (137), slugging (.774), and stolen bases (28), finishing second with 79 hits in 50 games. From 1922 to 1925, he was player-manager for the Eastern Colored League Harrisburg Giants, and, after a second-division finish in 1924, he led them to three consecutive second-place finishes. In 1925, he batted .424. From 1928 to 1931, he hit .347 in two-year stints with the Hilldale club and the Homestead Grays. The Grays won a 10-game Eastern Championship Series from the New York Lincoln Giants in 1930.
In 1932 Gus Greenlee persuaded Charleston to manage his Pittsburgh Crawfords. Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige joined him to give the club four more future Hall of Famers. Operating independently, they went 99-36 as their 36-year-old manager batted .363, second on the club to Gibson. Often considered black baseball's greatest team, the Crawfords became the dominant member of the tough National Negro Association, which operated from 1933 to 1936. Pittsburgh claimed the 1933 pennant, as did the Chicago American Giants, without resolution. In 1935 the Crawfords won the first NNL's only undisputed title. In 1936 they posted the best overall record, winning the second half of the split season. A title series with the first-half champion Washington Elite Giants was never completed, though the Giants won the only game played, 2-0.
Charleston remained with the Crawfords through 1940, following them in moves to Toledo and Indianapolis. He became manager of the NNL Philadelphia Stars in 1941 and the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers when Branch Rickey formed the United States League in 1945. He was thus put in a position to scout and evaluate players for organized baseball's integration. He managed through 1954, leading the Indianapolis Clowns to the '54 Negro American League title, but died after the season.
Statistics so far compiled show that Charleston batted .353 lifetime. He twice led the Cuban Winter League in SB, and had 31 during the 1923-24 campaign, setting a record that stood for more than 20 years. In 53 exhibition games against white major leaguers, he hit .318 with 11 HR.
Charleston had a famous temper, and enjoyed brawling, resulting in legendary encounters with umpires, opponents, agents raiding his teams, a Ku Klux Klansman, and, on one occasion, several Cuban soldiers. As his legs gave out, he moved from centerfield to first base, yet as long as he played, he never lost his home run power, nor his meanness on the basepaths. He was sympathetic toward young players, and was protective of rookie teammates. A demanding manager who expected his players to perform as well as he did, his strength as a pilot lay in his understanding of the intricacies of the game. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues in 1976.
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