Ranked by baseball analyst Bill James as the fourth-greatest player of all time and considered by many the greatest all-around player ever, Oscar Charleston grew up in Indianapolis. The seventh of his parents’ 11 children, he served as a ball boy for the Indianapolis ABCs, a Negro League team on which he would later star, but not before enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving in the Philippines.
Upon Charleston’s honorable discharge, he returned to Indy and joined the ABCs, earning $50 a month. A southpaw, he played center field not far behind second base, relying on his great speed and preternatural sense of where a ball would land to chase down hits over his head. At 6 feet tall and weighing 195 pounds, he was known as the “Hoosier Comet.” He later moved to first base.
In 1916, Charleston and the ABCs won what was then billed as the “championship of colored baseball,” defeating the Chicago American Giants. Two years later, he enlisted in the Army a second time, but the end of the war brought his tour of duty to a premature end. When he returned to Indy, he found that the city was no longer fielding a team, so he joined the Chicago squad.
After the so-called Negro National League was formed in 1920, the ABCs were revived and Charleston returned to the team for a season before jumping to the St. Louis Giants, where he was paid $400 a month. In 1921, he led the league in home runs and batted over .400. In 1932, he joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords as player-manager, leading a team whose roster included greats Satchell Paige and Josh Gibson.
Charleston was known as a confrontational player. In one game against a white team, he punched the umpire, causing the ABCs to fire him and forcing Charleston to play in Cuba until the controversy died down. In another case, Charleston was said to have ripped the white hood off a Ku Klux Klansman who confronted him while he was traveling in the South.
He was also known as a straight shooter who neither drank nor smoked. While managing in Philadelphia later in his career, Charleston helped his team earn the nickname “the saints.” Said Mamie Johnson, a pitcher in the Negro Leagues, “What I would say about him is that he was a beautiful person.” He also knew how to thrill fans, sometimes adding acrobatics to what could have been routine catches.
As his playing days wound down in the late ’30s, Charleston switched to scouting and managing, helping to recruit and develop Black players such as Roy Campanella, who followed Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. In 1945, he enlisted in the Army for the third and final time, managing the integrated baseball squad of a military base in Philadelphia.
In the ’50s, Charleston managed the Indianapolis Clowns, a team that won the pennant of a waning Negro League in 1954. Later that year, he died at the age of 57 after a fall and was buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Indy. In death, as in life, some people called him the “Black Babe Ruth” or the “Black Ty Cobb,” but others preferred to say Ruth and Cobb had been the “white Oscar Charlestons.”
Of his 57 years, Charleston spent 43 playing baseball. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, 22 years after his death. Buck O’Neil, the first Black coach in Major League Baseball, said Willie Mays was the best major league player he ever saw, but Charleston was the best player he ever saw. Said Honus Wagner, “I’ve seen all the great players in the many years I’ve been around, and I have yet to see any greater than Charleston.”•
Indy Beacons celebrates the history of Indianapolis in the year leading up to its May 2021 bicentennial by telling the stories of famous city residents. It appears the second and fourth issues of every month. Gunderman is chancellor’s professor at Indiana University.