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And never, until Charleston moved on to the Homestead Grays in 1930 and declared himself too old and slow for the position, would a team of his put anyone else in center. Fellow centerfielder Cool Papa Bell, mesmerized by the sight of Charleston playing so close that he could almost shake hands with the second baseman, imitated the icon who became his manager on the Crawfords. And Gentleman Dave Malarcher, who patrolled the outfield with Charleston for Indianapolis, once said, "People asked me, 'Why are you playing so close to the rightfield foul line?' What they didn't know was that Oscar played all three fields. I just made sure of the balls down the line, and all the foul ones too."
But when Charleston broke in with Indianapolis, he thought he was a pitcher. Maybe it was symptomatic of what Stanley Glenn says, affectionately, "Oscar was lefthanded, and he acted like a lefthander. You know, a little crazy." Charleston was an Indianapolis kid, the seventh of 11 children born to an African-American mother and a Sioux father who was a construction worker and, the story goes, a jockey. Oscar had enlisted in the Army at the end of eighth grade, at age 15, and now, after four years and an infantry tour in the Philippines, he was playing for the team that once employed him as a batboy.
Maybe his days as a pitcher were done as soon as the ABCs saw him track a fly ball, just lower his head and not look up again until his internal radar had guided him to the place where it came down. Or maybe the end came when the ABCs saw him booming baseballs to faraway places. It was a time when every team, black or white, was hunting for its own Babe Ruth, and here was another reformed southpaw pitcher who had the bat and the build: a hair under six feet tall, 190 pounds and getting bigger, with spindly legs and a chest-o'-drawers torso.
If, as historian James A. Riley suggests, Charleston never matched the Babe's power, he was easily the black equivalent of Rogers Hornsby, who batted more than .400 three times in one four-year stretch. Of course, he was faster than Hornsby and almost anyone else--the Army clocked him at 23 seconds in the 220-yard dash--and he was capable of dragging a bunt, stealing a base and cutting the glove off your hand if a throw happened to beat him. However you choose to look at Charleston, slugger or slasher, he raised enough hell with his bat to launch a thousand stories.
He hit the triple that gave the ABCs black baseball's unofficial championship in 1916. He won, or tied for, five home run titles. In his best year, 1921, The Baseball Encyclopedia says he batted .434 with 14 doubles, 11 triples, 15 homers and 34 stolen bases in 60 league games. That fall he had five homers in five games against a team of major league (i.e., white) barnstormers. Then he roared off to Cuba, where he batted .471. Even when he was calling himself an antique, he rang up a .372 average for the Crawfords in 1933, as if to remind the future Hall of Famers he was managing--Josh and Satch, Cool Papa and Judy Johnson--that he was made of the same stuff.
Teammates and opponents stampeded to proclaim his greatness. One of the few still standing, Buck O'Neil, the eternal flame of the Negro leagues, testifies that, as Double Duty put it, "a better player never drew breath." Of the departed, Newt Allen, the Kansas City Monarchs' second baseman, swore that Charleston hit the ball so hard, "he'd knock the glove off you." Dizzy Dean, who faced him while barnstorming in the 1930s, described pitching to Charleston as a throw-it-and-duck proposition. Ted Page, a splendid Crawfords outfielder, told historian John B. Holway that Charleston introduced himself to the great Walter Johnson before an exhibition game by saying, " Mr. Johnson, I've done heard about your fastball, and I'm gonna hit it out of here." In Page's account, which may qualify as legend become fact, a home run was indeed what Charleston hit. To win the game, naturally.
But all that is mere preamble to the proclamation that John McGraw issued from the game's intellectual mountaintop: "If Oscar Charleston isn't the greatest baseball player in the world, then I'm no judge of baseball talent."
Decades later Bill James could hear the echo of McGraw's endorsement as he set to work on his engaging, argumentative Historical Baseball Abstract. Swept up in the list-making orgy that defines contemporary culture, James wanted to rate the top 100 players ever. If he generated controversy by including a player who was a mystery to "a lot of very knowledgeable baseball fans," he says, so much the better.
Numbers had to be crunched-- James without statistics would be like Hendrix without his guitar--and other people's lists had to be studied. But when it came to Negro leaguers, everything changed, because there weren't always game stories and box scores to substantiate the players' greatness. "When we went to New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., they'd write up our games in the newspapers," says 93-year-old Andrew Porter, a victim of Charleston's terrible swift bat when Porter pitched for the Baltimore Elite Giants. "But during the week we'd be out playing in small places, and you wouldn't know nothing about it."
So the list became for James a matter of the heart and the gut. "You wind up making a lot of assumptions," he says. But at every turn, he found more praise for Charleston from the men who had seen him play, the men who knew his greatness to be the cold, hard truth. "There was a scout for the Cardinals, I think his name was Bohlen--he'd scouted for them for many years--and at the end of his career he said the three greatest players he'd ever seen were Cobb, Ruth and Charleston," James says. "He wasn't hyping Charleston, he was just looking back, and he seemed so reasonable, so straightforward, that I said, 'I'm willing to believe.'"