Oscar Charleston may be the greatest center fielder of all time and yet you have never heard of him.
The Pittsburgh Crawfords star may also have been the greatest player in Negro League History. He was voted as such by a panel of Negro League historians.
“Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year, and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since…he was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.” – Buck O’Neil
(Charleston is the on the far right)
The fiery player had a career that spanned 26! seasons and played well into his forties.
Oscar was playing decades before civil rights activists such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr were all over national news, fighting against segregation in the south. Jackie Robinson had not publicly integrated baseball yet.
With a platform for vocal advocacy and public outcry decades away, baseball was robbed of one of the great ones. History has been robbed of the joy of witnessing and recording a man play a game at its highest level. Oscar was not allowed to play in the major leagues.
Bonus Baseball History:
The first black man to play in the major leagues was a slave by the name of William Edward White.He only played one game and not much is known about him. In fact, baseball historians did not know he existed until 2004.
In 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker played nearly a season for the Toledo Blade. Cap Anson, a baseball Hall of Famer, refused to let his team play Walker’s. This is an excellent story on Walker. Walker’s brother, Wedly Walker, would also join the team for a time. Wedly was the third and final baseball player to join the major leagues.
There would be no black major league player for another 63 years – until Jackie Robinson came along.
Black players were not allowed to play at the highest level for a great portion of baseball’s history, and the records we do have are incomplete because of his. This is the context we place around the greatness of Charlie. We simply cannot know how great he was.
“You had to see him to believe him.” – Satchel Paige
Charleston was enshrined into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, a criminally long wait for a player of his aptitude. He passed away over 20 years earlier.
Bill James ranked Charleston as the 4th greatest player ever in his seminal baseball work: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.
And yet…we hear nothing.
I don’t have all of his statistics. It takes a monumental effort just to find out how good he really is by the data.
That’s kind of the point.
This is a player who, as people watched Willie Mays, they said he was unquestionably better.
Oscar the Pioneer
“Charleston even played a role in the game’s integration. He probably became the first black man to work as a scout for a major league team when Branch Rickey began using him to evaluate Negro League players for the Dodgers. The Dodgers only signed future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella because of Charleston’s advice.”- Hothead: How the Oscar Charleston Myth Began, Jeremy Beer
When playing against the best in the MLB, Charleston still shined. In those days, “All-Star” games consisted of players in the area gathered together and playing a game. Charleston routinely dominated both hitting and fielding. One game, against one of the better “All Star” teams, he went 2-8 and somehow stole 8 bases. Meaning, he stole all the bases every time he got on, even when he walked.
His scouting report listed a strong arm and great speed among his 5-tool abilities.
“In my opinion, the greatest ball player I’ve ever seen was Oscar Charleston. When I say this, I’m not overlooking Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, and all of them.” – Scout Bennie Borgan
Please read some of the hyperlinks attached. They are the deeper dives Oscar deserves. There are books you can read on this fascinating and incredible ballplayer.
Hopefully now, when someone lists the best center fielders of all time, you can chime in about a little known horribly overlooked ballplayer by the name of Oscar Charleston.
A player whose skills, while lost in history, were second to none.
-Brent Buckley (@bigbucksbuckley on the twitter)