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Thus did James anoint Charleston the fourth greatest player ever, according to the revised New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, published in the spring of 2003. Only the Babe, Honus Wagner and Mays are ahead of him, in that order. And--how Charlie would have loved this--Cobb is one place behind him. Then you have Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and Stan Musial. James expected at least one roaring good argument about Charleston's presence in such august company. Instead, all he got was this: "Stunned silence."
Oscar Charleston deserves better.
Even when he was horsing around, you could sense the brute in him, the anger lurking just beneath the surface. It was there when he wrestled Gibson before games, supposedly for fun, two powerful men sweating and grunting and tossing each other around on the ball fields that both served and betrayed them.
Charleston was past his physical prime by this point, and he was giving away 15 years to Josh, but damned if he'd let it show. "Must have been like two water buffaloes hooking up," says Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who heard all about it when he was a young Newark Eagle. A decade or more later, when Gibson was dead and Charlie was still full of the devil, he would playfully snatch up Glenn--"and I was 6'2" and weighed 225 pounds," Glenn says. The louder his young catcher squawked, the more Charlie laughed. It wasn't always a pleasant sound. "You never knew when he was angry," says Mahlon Duckett, the Philadelphia Stars' second baseman throughout the '40s. "They tell me in the old days, he could be laughing and knock you out."
Maybe that's why the Crawfords' Ted Page paid attention to Charleston's eyes; he knew they wouldn't deceive him. "Vicious eyes, steel-gray, like a cat," Page said in Holway's book Blackball Stars. To look into them was to see a man worth steering clear of in a fight, "a cold-blooded son of a gun."
Charleston used his fists on everybody who crossed him, black or white, on the field or off, as if breaking a nose or knocking out teeth gave him not just satisfaction but also sustenance. The smart ones backed down, the way professional wrestler Jim Londos, the Stone Cold Steve Austin of his day, did when Charleston threatened to throw him off a train for making too much noise. But at least one Ku Klux Klansman failed to get the message about discretion being the better part of valor, and according to Cool Papa Bell, Charleston yanked the hood off his head and made him run like a scalded dog.
Laughing all the way, Charleston teed off on opponents, teammates, umpires, even the owner of the Hilldale Daisies. In all the accounts of Charleston's battles, the closest thing to a recorded loss is when Oliver Marcelle, the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants' hyperviolent third baseman, supposedly clubbed him over the head with a bat. That is one story, however, that Buck O'Neil is quick to shoot down in his autobiography, I Was Right on Time. "Oscar," he says, "had a stoplight nailed to his chest."
Still, Charleston was like the fastest gun in the West, and challengers came from every direction, even the grandstand. One Saturday afternoon in Havana in 1924 Charleston was playing for the powerhouse Santa Clara team when he stole third base and carved up a Cuban infielder with one of his spikes-high slides. As the poor devil lay bleeding in the dirt like a Hemingway bullfighter, a uniformed Cuban soldier charged out of the stands and jumped Charleston from behind. Charleston shook off the cheap shot, then used the soldier for a punching bag until the cops showed up. They dragged Charleston off to the calabozo for the cell-door-rattling night he told his young Philadelphia Stars about a quarter century later.
" Jim Murray had a line about Frank Robinson and how he played the game the way the great ones played it, out of pure hate," Bill James says. "I don't know that Oscar was filled with hate, but there was a lot of anger in him."
Charleston might have been scarred by the racism in his boyhood Indianapolis. "At that time," says Riley, the historian, "there was more Klan activity in Indiana than there was in the South." Something ugly might have happened in the Army too. But no anger-management specialist is needed to track down the most likely source of what drove him: Here was a proud man confronted daily by the fact that the world beyond the Negro leagues would never know just how great he was. He would never face Ty Cobb on the diamond, never find out once and for all if Cobb shouldn't have been called the white Oscar Charleston.