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Legends On Deck

The Cream of the Crop: Negro Leagues 100 Best Players (#1)

Note From the Editor – David Conde:

When I created Legends on Deck, the mindset was to be different from everyone else. We discussed putting out content that did not mimic what was already out there, but to take chances and share our own opinion on who we felt were the better ball players in the game.  In this amazing game of baseball people can predict many outcomes or even create a list of the greatest ball players of all time, and it is always just that, a prediction or an opinion based on fact. So in our minds if we provide the fact behind our decisions, then it’s hard to argue even if it doesn’t match everyone else’s pick.

When Kevin Larkin approached me about sharing with our readers the Top 100 Negro League Ball Players of All-Time, I have to admit I was intrigued because that is one part of baseball that my knowledge is lacking.  And when Kevin stated that his list would not be just a list copied from other sites, that he would actually put thought and effort to creating a list he felt honored the greats of the Negro Leagues,  I could not be any more thrilled to share that on our site. To us it was an honor to give Kevin the platform for such a great series.

So over the past few months, and we are sorry it took so long to get this list all out, and please note in no way were we grabbing the attention for the site only, as some have accused of us doing. The truth is, we just wanted each post to grab the attention it deserved without just rolling out a Top 100 list and nothing more. Each ball player and the time Kevin took to research each post, deserved the time needed for all to enjoy.

We are truly grateful that Kevin chose our site to share these great posts and great information about each ball player and we hope many more will enjoy reading and maybe even comparing your lists against Kevin’s.  I am sure that is something that he would really enjoy.

Thank You Kevin, and great job putting together your version of the Top 100 Negro League Ball Players.

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Sorry for the bit of teasing but after much thought, the best ballplayer surely deserved his own separate biography or column so here we go with number one, the best of the best and that man is……….

1-Oscar McKinley Charleston
Born: October 14,1896 Indianapolis, Indiana
Died: October 6, 1954 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Center Field/First Base
Bats Left/Throws Left
Indianapolis ABCs 1915, 1918, 1920, 1922-1923, New York Lincoln Stars 1915-1916, Bowser’s ABCs 1916, Royal Poinciana Hotel 1916-1917, Chicago American Giants 1919, Detroit Stars 1919, St Louis Giants 1921, St Louis Stars 1922, Harrisburg Giants 1924-1927, Cuba 1927-1928, Hilldale Daisies 1928-1929, Homestead Grays 1930-1931, Pittsburgh Crawfords 1932-1938, Toledo Crawfords 1939, Indianapolis Crawfords 1940, Philadelphia Stars 1941-1944, 1946-1950, Brooklyn Brown Dodgers 1945, Indianapolis Clowns 1954.

For a baseball player to be ranked ahead of such greats as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, that ballplayer must be someone very, very special. Oscar Charleston was just that type of ballplayer. Over a career that began in 1915 and ended in the 1940’s, Oscar Charleston was the best player in the world of black baseball and the Negro Leagues and perhaps may have ranked second to the great Babe Ruth. Charleston’s physical appearance led to Ruthian comparisons, big upper body and spindly legs. When he first started his long and storied career, his style of base running led to comparisons with the “Georgia Peach”, Ty Cobb. His style of defense in the outfield led to comparisons with the “Gray Eagle”, Tris Speaker. Before he became a Hall of Fame umpire, Jocko Conlan played major league baseball. Conlan said that Oscar Charleston was the greatest outfielder and in fact the greatest player who had ever lived, regardless of his color. He covered some unbelievable amounts of ground running down fly balls, judging them like no one he had ever seen. Ben Taylor, of the famous Taylor brothers, said that there was no one better in baseball, black or white, than Oscar Charleston.

Charleston would sometimes show off for the fans hot dogging, afforded the opportunity. He was an excellent player in every facet of the game, truly complete. He was what would now be called a five tool player who could run, hit, field, throw and hit with power. He was black baseball’s best.

He was fearless when it came to brawling and was not intimidated either on the field or off the field. As he got older his brawls became the stuff that legends are made of. He had no problem fighting with solders when he was in Cuba or with members of the Klu Klux Klan. In fact legend has it that one time in a fight with Klan members, he had no problem ripping off the Klansmen’s hoods exposing their identity.

While he was a brawler he was also very protective of younger players who idolized the big man because of his charisma. As a baserunner he was very aggressive, not giving an inch and despite his size was a very fast man as well. When he was in the outfield he combined the skills of great range, sure hands, a deadly accurate throwing arm and some fantastic baseball instincts around to make himself into one of the greatest baseball players of all-time black or white.

As a youngster he was a bat boy for the Indianapolis ABCs and finally left home at the age of 15 to join the army where he would play for the 24th Infantry Division in the Philippines. After his time in the army was over, he returned home to the Indianapolis area and signed a professional contract with the Indianapolis ABCs, the very team he had been a bat boy for as a younster. His road to fame and stardom had begun.

At the plate Charleston had a pair of very good batting eyes and he was able to parlay that into hitting for power and for average. He could hit to all fields, left field, center field and right field. As a brief sample of his ability in 1921, while a member of the St Louis Giants, he had a .434 batting average, stole 35 bases, hit 14 doubles, 11 triples and 15 home runs in just 60 baseball games. His total of stolen bases, doubles, triples and home runs were all league leading figures. In 1922, Charleston led the league in both home runs and stolen bases and he also had a .370 batting average. In 1924, Charleston was the league leader in home runs with 14 and also had a .411 batting average. Then in 1925 he was the league leader in home runs with a total of 20 bashes. That year he also hit for a .445 batting average. The 1926 season saw Charleston hit .344 with 19 home runs and then in 1927 he led the league in home runs and also had a .384 batting average.

Charleston was with the Hilldale Daisies in 1928 and during that season hit for a .363 average. He came back to Hilldale for the 1929 season and hit for a .396 average in the Hilldale team’s only year playing in the American Negro League. No mention of the great career of Oscar Charleston would be complete with mentioning the 1931 baseball season when he was on one of the greatest teams of all-time, the Homestead Grays. That 1931, Grays team boasted a lineup that included Charleston, Josh Gibson, Smokey Joe Williams, Jud “Boojum” Wilson, George Scales, Vic Harris, Ted Page and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.

That team certainly ranks among the best of Charleston’s long career and may have been a team that could have rivaled some of the greatest teams of all-time like the 1927 Yankees, 1929-1930 Philadelphia Athletics. Certainly in the era of black baseball and the Negro Leagues, that team ranked in the top three. Although Charleston was also on a team that was ranked that high, the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. On the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawford team besides future Baseball Hall of Famer Charleston were the following men who would later on join their teammate as members of the Hall of Fame. Those players were Josh Gibson, James “Cool Papa” Bell and Judy Johnson. Other members of that star-filled team included Chester Williams, Sam Bankhead, Jimmie Crutchfield, Bill Perkins and pitchers Leroy Matlock, Sam Streeter and William Bell. That surely is a team ranked up there in Negro League and for that matter all of baseball history.

Oscar Charleston was nearing his 40th birthday when he was playing with the Crawfords, but he certainly was not slowing down when it came to his play on the diamond. In the later part of that career the great Charleston would hit .363-.450-.310-.304 and .356 not bad at all and certainly not bad for a man nearing the age of 40.

Charleston was selected for the first three East West Negro League All Star games as a first baseman. He ended his Negro League career with a .357 batting average and he also had a .326 batting average in exhibition games played against the stars of Major League Baseball. Also in nine seasons of playing baseball in Cuba, Charleston posted a .361 batting average.

During his long and illustrious baseball career Charleston hand the opportunity to play with some very good baseball players. Men like Ben Taylor, Louis Santop, Pete Hill, Jose Mendez, Cristobal Torriente, Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, William “Judy” Johnson, Marti Dihigo, Smokey Joe Williams, Josh Gibson, Willie Foster, Jud “Boojum” Wilson, Leroy “Satchel” Paige and James “Cool Papa” Bell were lucky enough to play with and against the great Oscar Charleston.

Charleston was afforded the ultimate honor in baseball, when in 1976 he was selected for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The honors did not stop for Charleston either as he was named as the 67th greatest player of all-time on the Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. That number ranked Charleston just behind Cool Papa Bell and ahead of some of the greats like Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, Sam Crawford, Ken Griffey Jr and Wade Boggs.

As a sort of sidebar, we all as fans of the game know there have been numerous books written on some of the game great. Men like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Connie Mack Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and others have had book after book written about them and their deeds on the baseball diamond, an honor well deserved. Finally, after a time that was and is long overdue, Oscar Charleston will be joining this club as well. A man by the name of Jeremy Beers is compiling the long overdue biography on the great Oscar Charleston. It is not known the exact date of this long awaited book, but when it becomes available it should be a must read for fans of the great game of baseball.

So there we have it, a list in my opinion as to who the greatest 100 players are in the history of black baseball and the Negro Leagues. The story however does not end as there will be more to follow. Thank you all for taking the time to read my thoughts and words and to all those who have lent a helping hand in this, this is as much your thoughts and ideas as mine. God bless you all.

Kevin Larkin

Kevin Larkin has been going to all kinds of baseball amateur and professional since 1969. When asked he says he is a baseball fan who likes the Yankees. He was a police officer for 24 years in his home town of Barrington Massachusetts and helped on investigating most major crimes including murder, plane crashes and automobile crashes. He was certified as an expert witness in accident reconstruction and investigated almost 90 fatal automobile accidents. After retiring from the police force he renewed a love for baseball and as of now has authored three books on the subject: Baseball in the Bay State, Gehrig:Game by Game and Baseball in the Berkshires. He has authored articles for SABR and helps out there with research whenever possible. He has a coloection of almost 700 baseball books and enjoys pre 1900 and post 1900 baseball as well as the Black Sox Scandal and learning about the Negro Leagues. He also writes a column for CNY Baseball and loves giving back to the sport which has given him so much.