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Is it possible that Oscar Charleston is the greatest Player of all time?
The question is a huge one, but it’s a simple one, and it’s not even the primary focus of this narrative. For the time being, simply maintain an open mind and use this as a starting point: it’s a legitimate question.
“Oscar Charleston probably rates right with them. Some say he was better. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have been better, but Charleston, in a sense, put Mays and Mantle together,” Bill James once wrote when comparing Charleston to legendary center fielders Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Willie Mays.
Charleston has not gone totally unnoticed. After all, he is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, admitted 22 years after his death in 1976. He dropped so far off the historical radar, like so many other greats from Charleston’s Negro Leagues, that the first full biography on him, penned by Dr. Jeremy Beer, was not published until 2019. “Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Star” is an apt title for Beer’s book.
Charleston died at the age of 57, according to Beer’s biography, and his death received little attention in the mainstream press.
In an email discussion, Beer noted, “No one was yet going around questioning former Negro Leagues Players about their lives and careers.” “As a result, we don’t have much of him on the record, and most of the men that were interviewed in the 1980s and afterwards only knew him from his latter playing career, at best.”
Putting Black athletes from Charleston’s period into their appropriate perspective remains a challenging prospect this week, as ESPN ranks the best 100 Players of all time.
Though committed scholars are working to rectify this, records from the period are fragmented and fragmentary. Statistics aren’t the only thing that’s uncovered. Many of these athletes’ legacies have been lost, forgotten, misinterpreted, ignored, or discarded, and their tales have been lost, forgotten, misunderstood, ignored, or dismissed.
The process of recovering their histories resembles an excavation. Anecdotes were discovered, oral histories were documented, and tales were handed down down the centuries. Almost as important, countless box scores have been discovered.
“Hopefully, the work we do and the work being done to bring these statistics together, as well as the fact that Major League Baseball has formally recognized [the numbers], will start to change some mindsets,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
That effort is why a musician like Charleston, who was born in 1896, began playing professionally in 1915, and died in 1954, may still be considered.
“When I heard Buck [O’Neil] and some of the other old timers speak about him, they’d say the closest thing to Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays, that’s just terrifying,” Kendrick said. “It’s simply impossible to think a guy could be that good and we have no idea who he is.”
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“We’ve been telling you all along, ‘No, it occurred, and it happened in spectacular form,’” Kendrick remarked. “This is that great game of comparisons and statistics; the comparisons have always existed; the statistics, on the other hand, have never existed in such a manner that people would give them the credence that they deserve.”
Maybe that’s changing now. MLB stated in December 2020 that the Negro Leagues will be included to the official statistics record. It was doing so to acknowledge the “major league” status of a number of pre-integration Black leagues. As many have pointed out, even in the face of various inequalities that led in less coverage, worse record keeping, inferior playing conditions, and other issues, the leagues remained major all along.
“No big leaguer has ever had to deal with the societal situations that the Players in the Negro Leagues had to deal with,” Kendrick remarked. “They had to play without knowing where they could obtain food, sleep on the bus, and couldn’t wash their jerseys; no big league Player has ever had to go through that.”
There are many perspectives on what MLB’s decision to “promote” the Negro Leagues implies, and I recommend reading Howard Bryant’s impassioned article on the issue at the time of the announcement. We’re only looking into what we should do with those numbers now that they’re part of the official major league record — a huge collaborative effort by scholars that gradually built up the canonical Negro Leagues database at Seamheads.com. The data was completely integrated into the pages of Baseball Reference about the same time, bringing it into the mainstream for the first time.
Consider the following basic leaderboard created by Baseball Reference’s Stathead tool. It’s the all-time top 10 in career OPS+ for all Players with at least 2,500 plate appearances in the modern period in the database.
1. (215) 2. Josh Gibson Babe Ruth (206), Babe Ruth (206), Babe Ruth (206), Bab Ted Williams (191) has four children. Oscar Charleston (nineteenth century) Barry Bonds (182) is a six-time All-Star. Buck Leonard (nineteen) 8. Lou Gehrig (179) Stearnes, Turkey (177) 9. Mike Trout (176) is ranked No. 10 in the world. Hornsby, Rogers (175)
This list includes four Negro League luminaries, all of whom are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. (While OPS+ is often calibrated for league and stadium context, the work to compute proper park factors for the Negro Leagues is still underway; Baseball Reference has yet to include them, and the attempt to more precisely calculate another component of WAR — replacement level — is still ongoing.)
Satchel Paige didn’t have an opportunity to play in MLB until later in his career, whereas Josh Gibson never did. Getty Images/Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics
There is no agreement on whether we should take these figures at their value or use them to spark a larger debate.
Still, we need a good grasp of how to evaluate the stats if we want to use them to enhance our capacity to place forgotten Negro League greats in their correct perspective.
Sports Reference gathered a number of statistical and non-statistical writings on the issue as part of the launch of its improved Negro Leagues presence on Baseball Reference. The material was also compiled in a book titled “The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues: Essays and Research for Overdue Recognition,” edited by firm founder Sean Forman and writer Cecilia Tan. There’s an article by researcher and analyst Todd Peterson in there titled “Negro Leagues = Major Leagues,” which gives away the conclusion.
According to Peterson, the figures should be regarded with respect. The conclusion marks the end of a lengthy journey of investigation. Peterson edited a compilation on similar themes a few years ago, which includes a lengthier version of his article than what is available at Baseball Reference. In fact, the 45-page paper he supplied me is rather lengthy.
“I militantly fall into the side of adopting the pre-integration NLB statistics at its value,” Peterson stated. Peterson arrived at his findings based on a few crucial facts. One example is Black teams’ success in head-to-head play with white league teams, some of which were legitimate teams (such as the 1917 New York Giants) and many of which were All-Star teams. So far, Peterson has been able to show that from 1900 to 1948, black teams outscored white teams 316-283-21. (.527 winning percentage). When comparing the success of Black teams against other levels of competition, this ramps up proportionally. That is simply the top of Peterson’s research iceberg, but it is an intriguing one.
In many reported games between Black and White teams, this influence trickles down to the Player level. The Seamheads’ page for Charleston summarizes 37 games versus all-white major league opposition. In those games, he hit.355, homered ten times, slugged.738 and drove in 38 runs.
Several efforts have been made to create MLEs using data from the Negro Leagues. This is comparable to how analysts would modify minor league data to reflect what they might look like in a big league situation, for example, to aid prospect research.
Eric Chalek, a researcher and analyst, devised one of the most widely acknowledged methods for Negro League MLEs. The procedure is complicated since there are several factors to consider, including the fact that not all of the Negro Leagues were of same quality. The quality of the playing venues was highly inconsistent, and there were many more ballparks with extreme proportions than in the AL or NL.
“In its left field, Stars Park in St. Louis had a [trolley car] shed that supplied the boundary and outfield wall,” Chalek said. “From the air, the park’s playing area appeared a rectangle rather than a diamond since the barn was so near to home plate.”
Furthermore, most Negro Leagues have a wider range of skill than the AL or NL, at least in the post-World War I era. Black leagues drew a significantly lower fraction of the population, and there were several difficulty in keeping rosters and schedules constant, resulting to competitive balance concerns comparable to those experienced by the AL and NL in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Consider the 1943 Homestead Grays as an example. Gibson hit.466, which now ranks second all-time on the rebuilt Baseball Reference leaderboard, behind Tetelo Vargas — from the same league in the same season. Gibson was joined by other Hall of Famers Buck Leonard, Jud Wilson, Cool Papa Bell, and Ray Brown, who were all members of the Grays.
Even yet, 1943 was a war year, and many baseball Players were serving in the military, just as it did for AL and NL clubs. In a league with clubs playing anything from 16 to 68 games, the Grays went 53-14-1. Because of the length of the seasons and the fact that we don’t have documentation for almost all of the games, sample size is a problem when evaluating Negro League single-season figures.
The fact that none of the AL, NL, or Negro League clubs were playing against the greatest possible competition was the deciding factor. Major league clubs recruited outstanding Players, but for a long period after integration, the total participation of Black Players on most squads was restricted.
“I’ve seen some [major league equivalencies, or MLEs] lately that put the Negro Leagues at.8 of big league worth [roughly Triple-A levels],” Peterson said. “However, I think that around 33% of [major league] and [Negro Leagues] Players would not have been playing in their respective leagues if all other factors were equal, therefore both organizations’ totals are similarly inflated and should be contextualized equally.”
This is predicated on current non-white Player participation rates, which Peterson estimates to be between 30% and 40%. What this implies is that a slew of Players who were called big leaguers before to 1947 would not have been if baseball had been integrated from the start.
All of this must be taken into account when we implement the figures that have been provided. It’s incredible that Lefty O’Doul hit.383 in 1930, but we must keep in mind that he did it in a season when the National League’s overall batting average was.303. We’ve always gone to tremendous lengths for AL and NL greats, and now we’ll have to go to great lengths for Negro Leaguers as well.
“When we can correlate tales with numbers, it’s better,” Chalek added. “It’s even better when we can use the same analytical tools we use on MLB Players to get a better estimate of a Negro Leagues Player’s talent; these guys deserve more appreciation, and it’s very difficult to appreciate them fully without understanding them in the context of what we already know about greatness in baseball.”
After that, we’ll be able to have a serious dialogue.
“[The major leagues] had incredibly structured documentation from 1876 on,” Bill James said via email. “The Negro Leagues certainly had at least half of the top Players in the 1920s and 1930s, but not the same level of stadiums, attendance, or recording.” “It’s critical to honor the Players for who they were, as well as the effort done thereafter to recover and build a statistical record.”
What occurred after integration is the final data point for how we should consider pre-integration Black ballPlayers. Beginning with Jackie Robinson’s rookie season, the success of former Negro Leaguers, or those who would have played in the Negro Leagues in a prior period, was instantaneous. It was all over the place. And it was in charge.
Former Negro Leaguers surpassed their counterparts in the years after Robinson crossed the color barrier, outhitting them.277 to.255 with an OPS advantage of 111 points, according to Peterson. This reflects the efforts of superstar Players like as Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Robinson, Roy Campanella, and a slew of others. It’s also a reflection of the absence of a “middle class” of Black Players after the integration of the league, since their presence on rosters was still intentionally restricted.
Still, take a look at this tweet from Sports Reference’s Adam Darowski. Former Negro Leaguers received more than their fair share of Rookie of the Year and MVP trophies for over three decades following integration, and they began winning those accolades soon after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The post-integration leaderboards reflect the long-overlooked fact that the top Black baseball Players were at least as excellent as the best in all-white leagues. Knowing this helps us say things like, “From 1921 through 1925, Oscar Charleston batted.397 with a.700 slugging percentage.”
Ruth hit.357 with a.728 slugging percentage over those seasons. Ruth was the greatest Player in his league, and maybe the finest Player in history. The same might be said for Charleston. And it’s possible that Charleston wouldn’t have put up such stats in the American League or National League. But it’s also possible that Ruth wouldn’t have had the same career stats if he’d had to deal with Smokey Joe Williams, Satchel Paige, and Bullet Rogan on a regular basis.
“If Oscar Charleston had been given the opportunity to play in an integrated league, he probably would not have batted.364 career,” Peterson said. “There’s no way Ty Cobb is hitting.366 against the likes of John Donaldson, [Smokey] Joe Williams, Dick Redding, and others, and the Babe, wonderful as he was, isn’t slugging 714 homers, either,” says the author.
The top Players from the Negro Leagues deserve to be included among the best baseball Players of all time. Getty Images/Clarence Gatson/Gado
Now, let’s return to Beer and his book. What was Beer’s motivation for writing it? Because he read Bill James’ historical abstract back in 2003. He saw that Charleston was placed No. 4 on James’ list of the greatest Players in history. And he had never heard of Oscar Charleston. When Beer discovered that Charleston, like him, was from Indiana, he set out on a journey to learn more.
Beer’s starting number was a ranking — 4, but it was still a number. Beer was thrown down a rabbit hole by the number, which led to years of labor and an award-winning book. That is why figures are important.
That is why, in my opinion, it is critical that we take use of the wealth of data from the Negro Leagues period that is now readily accessible and simpler to deal with than ever before. That’s why, when we have these “best ever” debates, we don’t forget to include the data. Don’t shrug and say, “Those don’t sound right,” because they are exactly correct. They’re a developing record of what these Players performed on the field at the greatest level to which they were permitted to compete.
Baseball Reference’s WAR values are contextualized for the leagues and ballparks in which they are collected, albeit the Negro Leagues data is presently not adjusted for ballparks, and WAR is difficult to compare since the Negro Leagues seasons were shorter. Individual winning percentage is a rate metric found beneath the hood of WAR technique that may be used here.
I grabbed the bWAR database and created a scoreboard based on winning % over the course of a career. (Apologies to Satch, Smokey Joe, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, and the others; I had to stay with position Players since pitchers function a bit differently.) I computed the lifetime winning percentages for each Player and translated the results into an index. So 100 represents average, 110 represents one standard deviation over normal, 120 represents two standard deviations above average, and so on. These indices are based only on Players who have at least 2,500 career plate appearances logged.
|1. Josh Gibson (158.4)* is a player from the United States.|
|2. Babe Ruth (156.7)* is a baseball player who was born in the United States.|
|3. Rogers Hornsby (150.0)* Rogers Hornsby (150.0)* Rogers Hornsby (150.0|
|4. Mike Trout (148.2)# Mike Trout (148.2)# Mike Trout (148.2)|
|5. Barry Bonds is a baseball player who is known for his (147.0)|
|6. Ted Williams (146.1)* is a musician from the United States.|
|7. Oscar Charleston (144.7)* is a fictional character.|
|8. Willie Mays (141.3)* is a baseball player who has a career batting average of 141.|
|9. Lou Gehrig (141.1)* is a baseball player who played for the New York Yankees.|
|10. Stearnes of Turkey (140.8)*|
|11. Buck Leonard (139.9)* is a fictional character.|
|12. Betts, Mookie (139.7)#|
|13. Willie Wells (139.2)* is a musician from the United States.|
|14. (138.5) Mickey Mantle|
|15. (137.6)* Ty Cobb|
|16. Dan Brouthers (137.2)* is a member of the Dan Brouthers (137.2) team.|
|17. Honus Wagner (137.2)* is a German composer.|
|18. (135.8)* Tris Speaker|
|19. Joe DiMaggio (135.2)* is the all-time leader in home runs.|
|20. Mike Schmidt (134.9)* is a member of the 134.9% club.|
|A minimum of 2,500 plate appearances is required.|
|* Inducted into the Hall of Fame|
|# of players currently online|
The figures themselves aren’t nearly as significant as the investigations that they may lead to. When a statistic like 184 (Charleston’s OPS+) or 140.8 (Stearnes’ index) appears on an all-time leaderboard, baseball fans can’t help but be intrigued. It could prompt people to go into the internet’s bowels, where they might come upon a succession of testimonies similar to those made about Charleston during his time and afterwards. The tales are kept alive by the statistics.
“It’s critical that we never forget those who, in the words of the late great Buck O’Neil, ‘constructed the bridge over the gulf of prejudice,’” Kendrick added. “It is incumbent upon this museum to ensure that those who helped open the door for Black and brown players to enter into the big leagues and transform our game are never forgotten.”
It is also our responsibility to do so. Is Oscar Charleston the greatest player in history? I’m not sure. Despite Gibson’s high status, I’d still put Ruth ahead of him and everyone else. What I do know is that Charleston is being discussed. It’s the very least we can do to have that discussion.
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