The only reported instance of Cobb's playing against blacks comes from the autumn of 1910, when he toured Cuba with the Detroit Tigers. He batted .370--he also got thrown out stealing by a Negro leagues catcher named Bruce Petway--and then he swore off interracial ball. So it took playwright Lee Blessing to conjure up a meeting between that snapping-turtle racist and Charleston, in Cobb. "Were you any good?" Cobb asks, as if word never reached him. "Better'n you," Charleston replies.
It's the only possible answer, for Charleston was locked in eternal competition with a legend who was his mirror image in everything except race and fame: played centerfield, batted lefthanded, took no prisoners on the bases, even managed, and did it all furiously. Forever overlooked, Charleston had the right to be angry. But the Negro leaguers still with us hesitate to say so. And those who do say so are quickly negated by testimony that follows O'Neil's benevolent template: "Charlie? No, Charlie wasn't angry."
Yet one afternoon in 2003, as O'Neil walked among the life-sized statues in Kansas City's soulful Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the awe he felt all those years ago returned to lower his guard. Double Duty Radcliffe, traveling by wheelchair, had joined him, and their eyes settled on Charleston's defiant bronze presence.
"Look at that neck," O'Neil said, and smiled appreciatively at what its thickness portended. "He'd knock you out the way." And Duty said, "I seen him knock two fellas out in Indianapolis. Knocked 'em cold."
They made the violence seem matter-of-fact, gave it the same ritual quality as a ballplayer's knocking dirt from his spikes with a bat. But anger as ritual becomes something deeper, more profound. Better, perhaps, to call what drove Charleston an abiding rage.
The scrapbook's yellowed pages are crumbling around the edges. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum provides white cotton gloves for handling the book on those rare occasions that it comes out from under lock and key, but the gloves do only so much. The rest is left to fate, like the legacy of the man who kept the book.
Charleston gathered his clippings with little regard for their dates or the names of the newspapers they appeared in. His overriding interest, it seems, lay in stories that proclaimed him CHARLESTON THE GREAT�in the States and EL FAMOSO PLAYER CHARLESTON�in Cuba. But here and there are glimpses of something deeper than vanity. His obsession with Cobb surfaces repeatedly; one story wonders how much Charleston is worth if the Georgia Peach makes $30,000 a year. In an engagingly literate if disingenuous letter to The Pittsburgh Courier's sports editor, Charleston writes about "[elevating] Negro Athletics to the place we would have them be" while claiming that umpires jobbed his Harrisburg team. And he takes special care to chronicle the way his brawl in Havana inspired cartoons, essays apologizing for the Cuban soldier's "wicked attack," and a public collection to buy him a gold watch (price: $82.50).
In the midst of all that, one clipping seems almost as if it came from somebody else: "Miss Jane B. Howard of Harrisburg, Pa., was quietly married to Oscar Charleston Thursday noon at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Percy Richards, 3305 Lawton Ave."
The story goes on to say that Charleston would be playing for St. Louis come spring, so the year must have been 1921. His wife was an elementary school teacher and the daughter of Harrisburg's most prominent African Methodist minister, Martin Luther Blalock. She was well-read, knew much about culture and travel, and in time--she lived until a few weeks past her 100th birthday, in 1993--she became the Blalock family's cornerstone. All of which makes her marriage to a divorced, brawling ballplayer three years her junior that much more puzzling. But Janie never did any explaining. "She was from an age," says her niece Elizabeth Overton, "when you didn't tell your business."
It was no secret, however, that she had known tragedy before she met Charleston. Her first husband had died on their honeymoon, the victim of a flu that swept Cuba. "Our Janie was a widow," Overton says. "Maybe that's why she considered Charleston more than she would have."