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Finding Oscar Charleston: Why was Indy's greatest baseball player forgotten?

Indianapolis native was inducted into Hall of Fame in 1976
Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 16:10:46-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Oscar Charleston lies in a quiet corner of Floral Park Cemetery on the west side of Indianapolis. A recent snowfall hid his gravesite from view, but finding the greatest baseball player ever forgotten usually requires some uncovering.

With assistance from a cemetery employee, two markers come into view. One is a simple military tombstone that has been at the site since Charleston died in October 1954. For more than 65 years, an unfamiliar visitor wandering past never would have known the man buried there was one of two Indianapolis natives to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

They would not have guessed his brilliance on the field would lead him to not just be compared with baseball's immortals, but to be recognized on one list as the fourth-greatest player who ever lived.

And then there's the second tombstone, installed in 2020, that provides a fuller measure of Charleston.

Oscar McKinley Charleston
Negro Leagues Legend | National Baseball Hall of Fame
October 14, 1896 | October 5, 1954
"I've seen all the great players in the many years I've been around and have yet to see anyone greater than Charleston. — Honus Wagner
"The greatest player I have ever seen ... and one of the greatest men." — Buck O'Neil
Played, coached, and umpired in the Negro Leagues, 1915-52, 1954. Played professional baseball in Cuba, 1915, 1920, 1922-30. Managed and played for racially integrated semipro team in Philadelphia, 1942-44. Scouted for Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers, 1945. Ranked as fourth greatest baseball player of all time by Bill James, 2003.
Inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Jeremy Beer, author of the 2019 book "Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player," was tasked with composing the epitaph.

"Caring for the dead is a basic human obligation, right?" Beer said. "It was wonderful to have the opportunity to do that for Oscar, in some small way. Felt like we were rectifying an injustice, and that always feels good."

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Oscar Charleston is buried at Floral Park Cemetery on the west side of Indianapolis.

Taking the field

Born in 1896 on the northeast side of Indianapolis, Charleston, along with his parents and nine siblings, moved multiple times. He spent the majority of his childhood in the Indiana Avenue area, Beer said.

After his eighth-grade year, Charleston left home to join the U.S. Army, likely lying about his age. While stationed in the Philippines, Beer wrote that Charleston began playing for the 24th Infantry Division's regimental baseball team in 1912 and continued until he was honorably discharged in 1915.

After he returned home, Charleston signed with his hometown Indianapolis ABCs, the city's Black baseball team that played at Federal League Park, near the current location of the Diamond Chain factory at West Street and Kentucky Avenue, and later at Washington Park, now the site of the Indianapolis Zoo.

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Oscar Charleston is pictured second from the left in the first row in this early 1920s Indianapolis ABCs team photo.

It was the beginning of a 39-year playing and managerial career that would take Charleston to 14 teams in the United States and more in Cuba. Sportswriters in Indianapolis took note of his talent.

"Oscar Charleston, who is only 21 years old, has been proclaimed by experts as one of the greatest ball players in the game," the Indianapolis Star wrote on Jan. 12, 1918. "He is the type of outfielder that gets almost everything that comes his way. He also has an uncanny ability to judge the batters' driving power and where he is going to hit it."

Charleston was a complete player who could hit for both power and average, run, field and throw, but because of his race, he was locked out of Major League Baseball, which did not allow Black players until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

"Left-handed Mike Trout. That's the one I always say. And I think if you want to get a sense of how good he was, he was like Mike Trout is the best player in baseball today," Beer said, comparing Charleston to the Los Angeles Angels' outfielder who has won three American League Most Valuable Player Awards since 2011.

Charleston also played with the some of the game's best. The ABCs teams of the early 1920s included future Hall of Famers Biz Mackey and Ben Taylor, while his 1932 Pittsburgh Crawfords featured six players who would eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown: Charleston, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and Jud Wilson.

OSCAR CHARLESTON
Oscar Charleston, a longtime player and manager in baseball's Negro Leagues, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on February 10, 1976. This is an undated photo.(AP Photo)

Like many players of his time, Charleston got in fights on the field, including an infamous incident in Indianapolis in 1915 when he punched an umpire who sparred with an ABCs teammate, but Beer said that does not define who he was as a player or person.

"He was very fiery on the field, very competitive, but was charming and charismatic and well-liked and incredibly popular. The most popular Black baseball player for maybe a generation," Beer said.

Searching for Oscar

Aside from his grave, the only place in Indianapolis where Charleston's name can be found is at Oscar Charleston Park in the 2800 block of East 30th Street.

Fans are not greeted by an Oscar Charleston statue outside Victory Field's center field entrance. Indianapolis officials have never declared an Oscar Charleston Day.

Charleston and his wife, Janie, had no children to pass on his stories, and audio and video recordings of him do not exist. Negro Leagues baseball statistics are incomplete, and Beer said Charleston never sat down with a journalist for an extensive interview.

An Indianapolis Recorder obituary published Oct. 9, 1954, seemed to foreshadow the difficulty in keeping Charleston's name in the public consciousness.

“Just to sketch the outlines of his long and brilliant career is to invite an argument, not to settle one," the Recorder wrote. "Though his ability was universally recognized, he played in the era when the rigid color bar kept all Negroes out of 'organized baseball.' Thus his fame is preserved not in record books, but in the memories of those who played with him and watched him play.”

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Negro League Pittsburgh Crawfords 1935 baseball team including (l-r) Oscar Charleston (first), Judy Johnson (fifth), Cool Papa Bell (12th), Josh Gibson (15th), and Satchel Paige (17th).

Beer, a Milford, Indiana native who resides in Phoenix, said the first time he learned about Charleston was in the early 2000s when baseball writer and statistician Bill James released "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" and ranked him the fourth-greatest player of all time behind Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays.

"I'd never heard of Oscar Charleston," Beer said. "I couldn't believe the fourth-best baseball player of all time could've been somebody I'd never heard of, so that's how I got to know who he was and started to do some research."

Beer's research took him to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Years earlier, the museum acquired Charleston's personal scrapbook and photo album. It contains everything the baseball star thought was important during a 40-year span between 1914-1954.

Finally, a picture of who Oscar Charleston was began to emerge.

"What I thought was I can finally get a glimpse into this guy's mind. What he, and his wife who helped put together the scrapbook, what did he think was important? Who were his friends? It really gave an insight into what he thought," Beer said.

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Oscar Charleston is one of 12 players featured in the Field of Legends at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

The scrapbook detailed his playing and managing career and included clippings about players Charleston saw as his peers, including Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig, and those he enjoyed, such as Dizzy Dean.

There were even articles from Cuban newspapers he read during his winters playing on the Caribbean island that he translated into English in the margins.

"Indiana has another Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson-level athlete in its history, and his name is Oscar Charleston," Beer said. "We should think of him at that level. And we have plenty of history and data and everything to show that's legitimate. That's not inflating him in any way."

The Hall of Fame, finally

Thirty-five Negro League players, managers and executives are enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. When Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams stood in front of the crowd at his induction ceremony in 1966, there were zero.

“I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can … be added to the symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given a chance,” Williams said.

Paige would be elected within five years. Gibson and Buck Leonard would soon follow.

Ten years after Williams' speech, Oscar Charleston finally joined baseball's immortals. He was the first Indianapolis native elected. Chuck Klein, a Philadelphia Phillies star in the 1920s and 30s who grew up on the south side, joined him in 1980.

Charleston’s sister, Katherine Horsley, accepted the opportunity to represent her brother at the 1976 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which she called, “the greatest delight of my whole life.”

“For 22 years, I prayed and hoped this day would come,” Horsley said, according to a transcript provided by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “He’s well-deserving and I appreciate the privilege of being able to accept this plaque in the honor of my brother’s name whose life was baseball.”

Charleston Oscar Plaque_NBL
Oscar Charleston was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Visit the University of Nebraska Press website for more information on Jeremy Beer's book "Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player."