Beer, Jeremy. Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019.
Reviewed by Leslie Heaphy
Author Jeremy Beer has written the first full biography of one of the greatest baseball players in history, Oscar Charleston. The story is long overdue, and Beer meets expectations, bringing to life the story and accomplishments of this amazing player and manager. Charleston’s career spanned nearly forty years, yet most fans are unaware of him. The primary reason for Charleston’s relative obscurity is his career came entirely through the segregated Negro Leagues. Beer successfully argues that Charleston deserves to be remembered among the best who ever played in any league.
Beer uses a variety of sources, including scrapbooks and other materials never seen before, to help uncover Charleston’s career and life. One of the strengths of Beer’s writing is that he takes time to explain what can be known and what is still up for debate. He goes into great detail describing the methods used and sources consulted to try to be as accurate as possible, all while acknowledging there are still holes to be filled. Many of the holes surround Charleston’s early years and parents’ history. For example, does Charleston have Native American blood in his family tree? Beer suggests it is likely but cannot prove it without a doubt.
Charleston’s baseball career began while he was in the military, as early as 1912. Beer suggests that his success at such a young age gave him a clear path when he came out of the military. Beer presents Charleston’s baseball career, which began in 1915 with the Indianapolis ABCs, chronologically. Thereafter, Charleston played for more than twenty different ball clubs, including the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. While highlighting specific teams and games that standout for Charleston, Beer also puts each season in context. Readers likewise learn what else was happening in Charleston’s life, as well as what was happening in the city he was playing or in the country as a whole. For example, Beer tells readers about Charleston’s first wife Hazel and her family from the time they were married (1917-1918).
Beer also highlights how competitive Charleston, including how his intensity sometimes led to problems with other players and umpires. Notably, Charleston and manager C. I. Taylor had numerous clashes, as both men wanted to win and would not easily back down. Charleston definitely had a temper, but, as Beer shows, that did not dominate or define him, as some other authors have suggested. As an example, regarding one of the earliest incidents Charleston was involved in, Beer provides as evidence a news article that noted that Charleston later apologized for his actions.
Charleston’s long career extended across the United States and, during the winter months, south of the border. Beer chronicles every season, noting highlights and lowlights. He effectively uses box scores and news articles to demonstrate Charleston’s excellence without exaggeration, informing the reader his performance as a hitter when third, sixth, or seventh in the batting order. The picture that comes to light is a man with incredible skills, but who had his bad days just like any other player. Overall, readers appreciate the brilliance made him one of the best players ever.
Charleston’s career did not end when he stopped playing, as he decided he wanted to try to bring baseball back to his hometown of Indianapolis. Bringing baseball back to his city was Charleston’s way of showing he had learned from C. I. Taylor. His teams’ successes were generally credited to Charleston’s training and the hard push he gave his players. Even Branch Rickey saw the benefit of using the Charleston name. When Rickey helped create the USL in 1945, he brought in Charleston to manage the new Hilldale club for a season. When the league ended and Robinson started the process of integration, Charleston found himself out of work. He did not return to the diamond until 1948 when Ed Bolden brought him on board to manage the Philadelphia Stars through 1952. Even though Charleston was at the helm, the Stars never finished better than fourth even. Sadly, Charleston never got the chance to work as a scout or in another capacity in Major League Baseball because he died of cancer in 1955.
Beer concludes his book with a short epilogue lauding Charleston’s election to the Hall of Fame. Beer also acknowledges that even that honor did not seem to lift Charleston out of obscurity. But he insists it did not matter, as Charleston did not play for others. He played for himself and the record he left is second to none. As such, any true baseball fan needs to read this book in order to be introduced to one of the best players in the game. Beer gives readers a well-written, well-researched story that to some may seem to good to be true. But that is the beauty of a true story.
Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University at Stark. Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues.