Friday, April 24, 2020

Howie Balaban Book Review: Oscar Charleston

Oscar Charleston: The Life & Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Player - Jeremy Beer
University of Nebraska Press
429 Pages

If you’re a baseball fan, chances are you’ve heard of some of the great names of the game’s past and at least a few of the game’s present.

Babe Ruth. Ty Cobb. Satchel Paige. Josh Gibson.

How many of you have heard of Oscar Charleston?

In the past year or so I started following a variety of different baseball accounts on Twitter, and one of them is the one run by the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City. (It’s a great follow, by the way.) Late last year the account started promoting a book about Charleston, who I’d heard of, but not to the extent of some of the other players I’ve already mentioned.

The best years of the Negro Leagues would have to be considered the time from roughly 1920 to just after World War II. A number of players during that time have been enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and perhaps the greatest of them all is Charleston. Among those who saw him play was Buck O’Neil. And, according to O’Neil, Charleston was a player who could hit like Ruth, run the bases with the ferocity of Cobb, and could field with the natural uncanny ability of Tris Speaker.

As Jeremy Beer suggested in the first half of Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player, imagine a modern day left-handed Mike Trout.
Beer’s book does not just explain the greatness of Charleston. It does much more than that by going through Charleston’s life from birth to death and provides a thorough look at all the reasons how and why Charleston’s name isn’t the first one we think of when we think of the great players of the Negro Leagues.

For starters, Charleston’s prime years were in the Roaring 20s. In case you didn’t know, those were also the same years when Babe Ruth became the legendary figure people know even if they don’t know baseball. Plus, when you take into account the severe lack of coverage provided to the Negro League teams during that era, it makes it that much harder to put together a player profile. (However, this has been done by historians who have combed through old clippings to put together what they can. Those statistics and reports are used well in this book.)

Over the past several years there have been a number of “best of” lists concerning all time baseball players. One just recently named Willie Mays no. 1 overall, and Charleston ranked in the single digits. What this book does is explain how and why players who never played in the Major Leagues deserve to be ranked where they are, specifically as it pertains to Charleston, but indirectly as it pertains to players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and others.

Now, as anyone with a social media account can attest to, there are some quite divisive argument topics we can choose to avoid. Or, we can choose to waste our time and try to convince people why we are right and they are wrong. In some cases, like with “best” movies or “best” foods, the issue is predominantly subjective. When it comes to sports, though, there are so many ways to argue any number of points that you can lose hours.

For example, based on what I’ve learned about baseball history over the years, I believe Babe Ruth was the best ever to play the game. Even if he hadn’t broken so many records with his home runs, he was on a Hall of Fame track as a pitcher, as he proved to be a dominating force on the mound for his first few years before fully transitioning to an outfielder. And he was so much better as a hitter than so many others of his era in the Majors that there’s really no argument.

That is, until the inevitable is brought up: Ruth played only against other white players.

Again, Beer does not make such obvious comparisons in his book. But what he does do is make you think about what might have been.

Take, for instance, a part in the introduction that can hook any baseball history aficionado. Beer explained how over a 15-year period the noted baseball statistician Bill James went from listing zero Negro League players on his all time top 100 list, to listing 12 by the dawn of the 21st Century, including two in the Top Ten (Charleston and Gibson, who he ranked as the greatest catcher ever).

There are a number of questions left unanswered and a lot of speculation throughout Oscar Charleston, but that is through no fault of the author. The distinct lack of information could probably fill a couple volumes, but that lack is the fault of the era in which Charleston played. What I took from the questions and speculation, though, was a greater appreciation for what we actually do know thanks to the meticulous research Beer did to give us this home run of a book.

As I continued reading, very early on, I knew what I was getting into. Beer explained how James reasoned he was actually not including enough Negro Leaguers on the all-time list. James said that in a seven-year span the Negro Leagues saw players like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays all become bona fide superstars in the Major Leagues. Beer quoted James as saying, “If those leagues could produce five players like that in seven years, what about the previous forty?” During that “previous forty” is the time during which Charleston was dominant.

As the game of “what if” is played throughout this story, readers are not bombarded with a narrative of, “Oh, poor Oscar he never got a chance.” Beer instead tells a more straightforward story that says simply what Charleston was able to accomplish within the confines of the opportunities he was given.

Indeed, the research takes us through the beginning of Charleston’s career, his time in the military during World War I, his peak years as a star in the Negro Leagues, his time as a player-manager when his team included both Paige and Gibson, his winters spent barnstorming in Cuba and in the south against teams of Major Leaguers (during which time he excelled), and all the way through his time as a scout who Branch Rickey trusted.

Rickey, of course, was responsible for signing Jackie Robinson. Earlier this month, on April 15, was to be Major League Baseball’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day. When Robinson took the field on that day in 1947 he broke a seven-decade old color line.

By the time we get to the end of Oscar Charleston, Beer’s conclusions make a ton of sense. He leaves one wondering, “What if?” in the best possible way. For example, what if the color line had been broken during Charleston’s prime? There are quite a few other questions he asks that also don’t have any definitive answer.

What is definitive, though, is that you’ll come away from this book with a profound appreciation for Oscar Charleston as a baseball immortal.

Howie Balaban misses baseball. He hopes it comes back soon, but even his most optimistic dreams don’t see it happening until 2021.