- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
There were some hard miles on that bus, and harder ones on the man behind the wheel. His name was Oscar Charleston, which probably means nothing to you, as wrong as that is. He was managing the Philadelphia Stars then, trying to sustain the dignity of the Negro leagues in the late 1940s as black ballplayers left daily for the moneyed embrace of the white teams that had disdained them for so long. Part of his job was hard-nosing the kids who remained into playing the game right, and part of it was passing down the lore of the line drives he'd bashed, the catches he'd made, and the night he'd spent rattling the cell door in a Cuban jail. His players called him Charlie, and when it was his turn to drive the team's red, white and blue bus, it was like having Ty Cobb for a chauffeur. Of course the players never said so, because sportswriters and white folks were always calling him the black Ty Cobb, and Charlie hated it.
While Cobb counted the millions he'd made on Coca-Cola stock, Charlie bounced around on cramped, stinking buses until he, like their engines, burned out. The Stars would play in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, then hightail it back to Philly so they could use Shibe Park on Monday, when the big leaguers were off. So they drove through the long night, with Charlie peering at the rain and lightning, wondering which was louder, the thunder or the racket his players were making.
When he could take no more, he glanced back at Wilmer Harris and Stanley Glenn, a pitcher and a catcher, earnest young men who always stayed close to him, eager to absorb whatever lessons he dispensed. "Watch this," he said, yanking the lever that opened the bus door. Then he leaned as far as he could toward the cacophonous darkness, one hand barely on the wheel, and glowered the way only he could glower.
"Hey, you up there!" he shouted. "Quit making so damn much noise!"
The bus turned as quiet as a tomb. "I bet there wasn't one player hardly breathing," Glenn says. The Stars were a straitlaced bunch--"the Saints," some called them with a sneer--and they weren't inclined to test whatever higher power might be in charge. But Charlie was different from them, and anybody else for that matter. And when the thunder boomed louder still in response to his demand, he proclaimed his defiance with a laugh. If it didn't kill him, it couldn't stop him.
the words are the product of a writer's imagination, but the inspiration for them was as real as the bile that Charleston must have choked on every time his skin color was held against him, every time he was told he couldn't play where he belonged. Bigotry handed him a one-way ticket to obscurity. Even when he went into the Hall of Fame, in 1976, he was overlooked. How could it have been otherwise when there were big names, white names-- Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts--going in with him? Besides, the general public had been conditioned to think only of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson if it thought of Negro leaguers at all.
Satch and Josh had swept into Cooperstown after its walls of intolerance crumbled five years earlier, and a myth sprang up around them that made it impossible to imagine anyone having paved the way for them. But Oscar Charleston did. He played so long ago that even old-time Negro leaguer Double Duty Radcliffe, who died on Aug. 11 at age 103, said of Charleston, "He was before my time."
Double Duty exaggerated, of course, for the two of them were teammates on the 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords. Yet by then Charleston had spent most of two decades as the reigning icon in black baseball. No matter what he did for the Craws--and he played first base, batted third and managed what became the greatest Negro leagues team ever--there was always an old-timer around to say you should have seen him when he was really Oscar Charleston.
Starting in 1915, he turned centerfield into an art gallery on behalf of the Indianapolis ABCs, New York Lincoln Stars, Hilldale Daisies and three kinds of Giants: Chicago American, St. Louis and Harrisburg. His vagabond life was inspired by the disposable nature of the era's contracts and the wisdom of another black baseball pioneer, Pop Lloyd: "Wherever the money was, I was." At every stop, including Cuba in the winter, Charleston hung great catches as if they were paintings. He played shallow, the way Tris Speaker did and Willie Mays would, but when he went back for a ball, legend says he performed acrobatics that have eluded everyone else in the position's history, leaping, spinning, making catches behind his back. Yet his showmanship was founded on fundamentals that compensated for what was, at best, an ordinary throwing arm. Never would artistry interfere with winning.