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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

Five-tool player
Charleston considered best all-around player in Negro Leagues
By Ken Mandel/

Oscar Charleston was often compared to Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.
Born: Oct. 14, 1896, Indianapolis, Ind.
Died: Oct. 6, 1954, Philadelphia, Pa.
Bats: Left
Throws: Left
Hall of Fame induction: 1976

Five years before Rube Foster formed the first Negro National League, its future superstar roamed the outfield for the Indianapolis ABCs -- a 21-year-old, barrel-chested slugger who would combine Ty Cobb's personality with Babe Ruth's talent.

Oscar Charleston, often referred to in the black press as "The Hoosier Comet," may have been the greatest all-around baseball player in history. He was an aggressive, fearless, brawler who wouldn't back down, and whose scrapes on and off the field are as incredible as his playing skills.

No one scared him. During his first year as an ABCs pitcher/outfielder in 1915, after returning from military service in the Philippines, he and teammate Bingo DeMoss were arrested for assaulting an umpire and starting a riot. Other squabbles include fighting with a Ku Klux Klan member and several Cuban soldiers. Charleston's "never say die" attitude never wavered and would later translate into a successful managing career.

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Charleston rapidly established himself as a standout player with Indianapolis and was the centerpiece of the franchise when it joined the Negro National League in 1920, the first, fully organized major league. Other teams included the Kansas City Monarchs, Dayton Marcos, Chicago Giants, Detroit Stars, St. Louis Giants and Foster's Chicago American Giants.

From the league's beginning, the seventh of 11 children was the league's biggest star. In 1921 some records say he batted as high as .446 with 14 home runs. Regardless of some unclear statistics, Charleston was a five-tool threat, and only because there aren't more tools. The left-handed swinger routinely led the league in batting, home runs and stolen bases.

In his prime, his blend of power and speed was unmatched by any other player in the Negro Leagues. Rarely did he not take an extra base or slide into a base hard without his spikes high. And to keep infielders honest, the excellent drag bunter used his speed to bunt his way on base.

There wasn't a drop-off with the glove either. Many players recalled the countless times he robbed them of hits in the gaps, and his combination of outstanding range, good hands, a rifle arm and superior instincts always had opposing hitters and base runners running scared.

Charleston thoroughly understood the sport and exploited every opponent's weakness. He understood it so well that he often flaunted it, introducing the art of "show-boating" to the game, and fans loved it. He excelled in every facet and epitomized the spirit of black baseball.

Former teammate Ben Taylor, a star first baseman and manager in his own right, said after the 1924 season that Charleston was the "greatest outfielder that ever lived … greatest of all colors. He can cover more ground than any man I have ever seen. His judging of fly balls borders on the uncanny."

Even objective observers recognized this tremendous athlete. Hall of Fame umpire Jocko Conlon called Charleston, "The great Negro player of that time," and compared his centerfield skills to Hall-of-Fame outfielder Tris Speaker.

Despite his antagonistic style of play and frequent emotional outbursts, Charleston was not only a fan favorite, but players loved him as well. Upon moving to the Eastern Colored League in 1922, Charleston began his often-repeated role of player/manager, piloting the Harrisburg Giants. Over the next nine seasons with three teams, Charleston hit better than .350 for nine straight seasons and twice hit more than .400.

Pittsburgh Crawfords' owner Gus Greenlee then secured Charleston's dual services as he assembled his dream team in 1932. During the Crawfords dynasty from 1932-36, Charleston maintained an average above .340 and teamed with Josh Gibson to provide Pittsburgh with one baseball's most potent offenses.

Charleston left the Crawfords for the Philadelphia Stars in 1941 and four years later accepted the post as manager of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers in Branch Rickey's newly formed United States League. He also helped Rickey scout the Negro Leagues for the player who would smash down the color barrier - Jackie Robinson. When this league disbanded, Charleston accepted management duties with the Indianapolis Clowns where he stayed until his death after the 1954 season.

The slugger ended a 27-year playing career that spanned four decades credited with a .376 batting average. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976.

Ken Mandel is a writer/editor for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.