Commentary

The greatness of Oscar Charleston

Negro Leagues star was Mays before Mays, a combination of Ruth, Cobb, Speaker

Updated: February 25, 2010, 1:02 PM ET
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com

When I was a kid, I devoured baseball books like most kids consumed Twinkies or "Brady Bunch" reruns. I can still remember the time my grandmother gave me my first two hardcover books. One was "Great Infielders of the Major Leagues," which included profiles of luminaries like Glenn Beckert, Clete Boyer and Ken Hubbs; the other was a biography of Willie Mays.

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I loved that Willie Mays book, probably read it three or four times even though it was published in 1966 and didn't include anything about him stumbling around the outfield with the Mets during the 1973 World Series. My second-grade teacher gave me an old, wrinkled-up poster of Willie that I hung over my bed. I kept it there for years despite all the creases. I can still remember being awed by the size of Willie's hands, how strong they looked wrapped around the bat.

Later, I got my first Baseball Encyclopedia, and I could look up all of Willie's stats, impressed by the 51 home runs he hit in 1955 and the 52 he hit in 1965 and the five times he led the league in slugging percentage and the .302 career batting average and all those All-Star Games he played in. There was no doubt: The book was right; Willie was one of the best ever.

As I kid, I also read stories and anecdotes about Satchel Paige (maybe the greatest pitcher who ever lived), Josh Gibson (hit home runs farther than Babe Ruth) and Cool Papa Bell (so fast he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room turned dark). But it wasn't until much later that I learned about Oscar Charleston.

Oscar Charleston
AP PhotoOscar Charleston, who played center field, was a dazzling combination of power and speed.

Who was Oscar Charleston? There's a good chance you've never read about him, either. After all, he played a long time ago and never played in the major leagues. But Oscar Charleston might be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived. He was Willie Mays before Willie Mays.

In fact, when Mays reached the majors at the age of 20 in 1951, old-timers compared his all-around abilities to those of Charleston. What kind of pressure did that place on Mays? Buck O'Neil -- a former Negro Leagues player, major league coach and scout -- once described Charleston as "Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one."

The physical comparison to those three makes sense. Like Ruth, Charleston had a big barrel chest and spindly legs, and he hit left-handed with big power. But he ran the bases like Cobb, full of speed, ferocity and spikes. He played center field like Speaker (who was regarded as the best fly chaser before Mays), playing shallow behind second base but with the instinct to make plays over his head.

O'Neil isn't the only one to offer the highest of praise for Charleston. In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," James quotes many baseball people as saying Charleston was as good as any player they ever saw. James ranks Charleston as the fourth-best player of all time. That's not just the Negro Leagues; that's fourth-best ever -- behind only Ruth, Honus Wagner and Mays. James writes, "I don't think I'm a soft touch or easily persuaded; I believe I'm fairly skeptical. I just don't see any reason not to believe this man was as good as anybody who ever played the game."

Unfortunately, we don't have film of Charleston playing. We have few photographs. We don't have the image of him running down a deep fly at the Polo Grounds, making a spectacular catch with his back to home plate and his hat flying off. We must rely on the memories and anecdotes of people who saw Charleston play from his debut in the Negro Leagues in 1915 to his retirement in 1941.

Wouldn't you love to see Charleston? Highlights of old athletes and games often are disappointing. If you've seen action of Bob Cousy, the great Boston Celtics point guard of the 1950s, you're left wondering, "That's it?" You see Cousy dribbling right-handed all the time -- even when he drove to his left. The game just doesn't compare to modern basketball. It's a letdown. Something tells me we wouldn't be disappointed if footage of Charleston existed.

Of course, a question persists: Why did Paige become so famous -- or Gibson or Bell -- and not the guy who might have been the best of them all? (Not that either Gibson or Paige was a slouch; James ranks them ninth and 17th, respectively, on his all-time list.)

Some of it was simple timing. Charleston's career began earlier, and while he later was a teammate and manager of Paige and Gibson on the famous Pittsburgh Crawfords, his peak years came in the 1920s. In the 1930s, white major leaguers like Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller played black all-star teams in offseason barnstorming tours. Long after the major leagues were integrated, those guys told stories of Paige's fastball and Gibson's power. As recounted in Larry Tye's recent book "Satchel," Paige's fame also was boosted enormously by a 1940 article in the Saturday Evening Post, which boasted a circulation of 10 million in those days.

"For the first time, a white magazine had burned incense at the foot of a black man outside the prize ring," Tye quotes an old Pittsburgh Courier writer named Ric Roberts as saying. "The Saturday Evening Post made him 10 times more famous than the black press had."

Some of it was personality. Paige was gregarious and quirky and hung around long enough to pitch for the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. There were stories to tell about Paige; heck, they even made two movies about him ("The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings," in which the title character, played by Billy Dee Williams, was essentially a stand-in for Paige; and "Don't Look Back: The Story of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige," a made-for-TV movie starring Louis Gossett Jr.).

Charleston, meanwhile, was known for his legendary temper and fights with other players, umpires, owners and, if you believe the stories, Ku Klux Klansmen. His career ended, and while he stayed in the game as a manager in the Negro Leagues, his legacy seemed to drift away. He died young, in 1954 at age 57 from a heart attack. No movies were made about him. Paige (1971) and then Buck Leonard and Gibson (both 1972) became the first Negro Leagues players enshrined in the Hall of Fame, while Charleston made it a few years later (1976).

So as we remember Willie Mays in James Hirsch's new book, remember this: Willie was amazing. But he wasn't the first.

David Schoenfield is a senior deputy editor for ESPN.com.

David Schoenfield | email

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