Could Oscar Charleston be the best player of all time?
The question is a big one, perfectly straightforward and ultimately, not even the real subject of this story. For now, just keep an open mind and take this as a jumping off point: it's a reasonable one to ask.
Bill James once wrote, when comparing Charleston to legendary center fielders Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays, "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."
Charleston hasn't been completely overlooked. He is after all a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1976, 22 years after his death. Yet, like so many other greats from the Negro Leagues of Charleston's time, he fell so far off the historical radar that the first comprehensive biography about him, written by Dr. Jeremy Beer, was not published until 2019. Fittingly, Beer chose the title, "Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball's Greatest Forgotten Star."
In his biography, Beer notes that when Charleston died at 57, his passing merited scant notice in the mainstream press.
"No one was yet going around asking former Negro Leagues players about their lives and careers," Beer said in an email exchange. "So, we don't have him on the record much himself, and most of the guys who ended up getting interviewed in the 1980s and later only knew him from his later playing career, at best."
This week, when ESPN is ranking the top 100 players ever, putting Black stars from Charleston's era into their proper context remains a difficult proposition.
Records from the time are scattered and incomplete, though dedicated researchers are trying to change that. It's not just statistics that are unearthed. So, too, are the stories of many of these players, whose legacies were lost, forgotten, misunderstood, ignored or dismissed.
The effort to recover these histories is something like an excavation. Anecdotes have been found, oral histories have been recorded and stories have been passed down through generations. And, almost as essential, numerous box scores have been unearthed.
"Hopefully the work that we do, and the work that is being done to pull these statistics together, and 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 work is why we can still consider the body of work of a player like Charleston, who was born in 1896, started playing ball for a living in 1915 and died in 1954.
"When I heard Buck [O'Neil] talk about him, along with some of the other old timers ... they'd say the closest thing to Oscar Charleston was Willie Mays, that's just downright frightening," Kendrick said. "It's just hard to believe that a player was that great and we really don't know who he is."
Take this quote: "In my opinion, the greatest ballplayer I've ever seen was Oscar Charleston. When I say this, I'm not overlooking Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig and all of them."
That's from 1953, 12 years after Charleston stopped playing full time, and was uttered by a player, manager and scout named Bennie Borgmann.
And he's not the only one. In the seminal "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" from 2003, James ranked Charleston fourth on his list of greatest players of all time -- citing a number of others who made the same claim as Borgmann, that Charleston was the best player they ever saw.
The list included Hall of Fame manager John McGraw, who said, "If Oscar Charleston isn't the greatest baseball player in world, then I'm no judge of baseball talent." (And he said this in 1922, after Babe Ruth had already become perhaps the most famous person in America.)
In addition to everything else, O'Neil was one of baseball's greatest scouts. James quoted O'Neil as saying, "Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since. ... He was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one."
Finally, Grantland Rice reportedly once wrote a column, in which he claimed, "It's impossible for anybody to be a better ballplayer than Oscar Charleston."
Despite all of this, James also noted that among top 100 lists that had been put together by the time of the 2003 Abstract, only one had Charleston on the list, and that was by The Sporting News, which ranked him No. 67 in 1998.
"I don't blame anyone for not including Oscar," Beer said. "Until recently it has been really hard to evaluate him, and it still is to a significant extent. But if you dig carefully into his numbers, his legacy, what people said about him, then I think it's hard not to come to the same conclusion to which Bill James came 20 years ago: that he deserves to be in the discussion."
As great as Charleston was, through time and neglect, his exploits had lost their proper context, and he was far from alone.
"Keep in mind that we have forgotten just about all Negro Leaguers from the generations that preceded [Satchel] Paige and [Josh] Gibson," Beer said. "So in part Oscar is simply caught up in that cultural amnesia. He stands for the larger problem."
The problem is inscrutable, but not unsurmountable: how to revive the legacies of some of the best players in baseball history, to make them known to all fans, not just a lucky few.
The scattered numbers of the Negro Leagues have been around for decades, but were considered by some to be unreliable, incomplete and, basically, useless. Yet those numbers were often used to tell their story.
"We've been here all along telling you, 'No, it did happen and it happened in grandiose fashion,'" Kendrick said. "This is that wonderful game of comparisons and statistics. The comparisons have always been there. The statistics, however, have not been there in a way where people would give them a real credence that they should."
Perhaps now that is changing. In December 2020, MLB announced that it would be adding the Negro Leagues to the official statistical record. In doing so, it was acknowledging the "major league" status of a number of Black leagues from the pre-integration era. As many pointed out, the reality is that the leagues were major all along, even in the face of numerous inequities that resulted in lesser coverage, poorer record keeping, worse playing conditions and so much else.
"No major leaguer ever had to deal with the set of social circumstances that the Negro Leagues players had to deal with," Kendrick said. "They had to play not knowing where you can get something to eat, sleep on the bus, can't wash your uniforms. No major league athlete ever had to endure that."
There are conflicting views of what MLB's decision to "promote" the Negro Leagues means, and I urge you to read Howard Bryant's powerful essay on the subject that was published at the time of the announcement. Here, we are merely looking into the question of what we should do with those statistics -- an enormous collaborative effort by researchers, which gradually built up the definitive Negro Leagues database at Seamheads.com -- now that they are a part of the official major league record. Around the same time, the data was fully incorporated into the pages of Baseball Reference, brought into the mainstream for the first time.
Let's consider a simple leaderboard generated by Baseball Reference's Stathead utility. It's the all-time top 10 in lifetime OPS+ for all players in the database with at least 2,500 recorded plate appearances during the modern era.
1. Josh Gibson (215)
2. Babe Ruth (206)
3. Ted Williams (191)
4. Oscar Charleston (184)
5. Barry Bonds (182)
6. Buck Leonard (181)
7. Lou Gehrig (179)
8. Turkey Stearnes (177)
9. Mike Trout (176)
10. Rogers Hornsby (175)
There are four Negro Leagues legends on this list, all of whom are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (While OPS+ is normally calibrated for league and ballpark context, the work to calculate good park factors for the Negro Leagues is still a work in progress. Baseball Reference has yet to add them for the Negro Leagues data, and the effort to more accurately calculate another building block of WAR -- replacement level -- is also ongoing.)
There is no consensus on whether we should accept these numbers at face value, or if they should simply fuel a broader discussion.
Still, if we want the numbers to expand our ability to put overlooked Negro Leagues greats into their proper context, we need to have a working understanding of how to interpret them.
As part of the rollout of its enhanced Negro Leagues presence on Baseball Reference, Sports Reference collected a number of essays on the subject, statistical and otherwise. The work was also collected in a book edited by company founder Sean Forman and writer Cecilia Tan titled "The Negro Leagues are Major Leagues: Essays and Research for Overdue Recognition". In it is an essay by researcher and analyst Todd Peterson with a title that gives away its conclusion: "Negro Leagues = Major Leagues".
The numbers, Peterson concludes, should be treated legitimately. The conclusion is at the end of a long road of research. Peterson edited a collection a few years ago on these topics which contain a longer version of his essay than is what is at Baseball Reference. In fact, the document he sent me is 45 pages long.
Peterson's standpoint is clear: "I militantly fall into the camp of taking the pre-integration NLB data at face value," he said. There were a couple of key points that led Peterson to his conclusions. One is the success Black teams had in head-to-head competition against teams from white leagues, some of which were actual teams (like the 1917 New York Giants) and many of which were All-Star teams. So far, Peterson has been able to document that Black teams from 1900 to 1948 went 316-283-21 against white teams (.527 winning percentage). That scales up accordingly when you look at the success of Black teams against other levels of competition. That is really only the tip of the iceberg of Peterson's research, but it's a compelling one.
In many cases, this effect trickles down to the player level in documented games between Black and white teams. Charleston's page at Seamheads sums up 37 games against all-white major league competition. He hit .355 in those games, homered 10 times, slugged .738 and drove in 38 runs.
There have been numerous attempts at creating MLEs out of Negro Leagues statistics. This is similar to the way that analysts will adjust current minor league numbers to suggest what they would look like in a major league context, to help guide prospect analysis, for instance.
One of the most cited systems for Negro Leagues MLEs was created by analyst and researcher Eric Chalek. The process is complex, as there is a lot to account for -- not all of the Negro Leagues were of the same quality. The quality of playing venues was wildly disparate and the prevalence of ballparks with extreme dimensions was much greater than in the AL or NL.
"Stars Park in St. Louis had a [trolley car] barn that provided the boundary and outfield wall in its left field," Chalek said. "The barn was so close to home plate that if you viewed the park from the air, its playing surface resembled a rectangle more than a diamond."
Also, the spread of talent in most Negro Leagues is considered larger than it was in the AL or NL, at least beyond the 1900s. Black leagues were drawing from a much smaller percentage of the population and there were numerous challenges for maintaining stable rosters and schedules, leading to similar competitive balance issues to what the AL and NL faced in the first decade of the 20th century.
As an example, consider the 1943 Homestead Grays. That season, Gibson hit .466, which in the revamped Baseball Reference leaderboard now ranks second all time, behind Tetelo Vargas -- from the same league in the same season. The Grays were loaded with talent, no doubt, with Gibson joined by fellow Hall of Famers Buck Leonard, Jud Wilson, Cool Papa Bell and Ray Brown.
Still, just as it was for AL and NL teams, 1943 was a war year and a lot of ballplayers were serving in the military. The Grays went 53-14-1 in a league in which teams played a range of documented games numbering between 16 and 68. Sample size is an issue when it comes to assessing Negro Leagues single-season numbers, because of the actual length of the seasons, and the fact that we don't have documentation for nearly all of the games.
However, the overriding factor for AL, NL and Negro Leagues teams is that none of them were playing against the best possible competition. Major league teams pursued star-level players, but the overall presence of Black players on most rosters was limited for a long time after integration.
"I have recently seen some [major league equivalencies, or MLEs] that put the Negro Leagues at .8 of major league value [basically Triple-A levels]," Peterson said. "However, if all things had been equal, I believe about 33% of [major league] and [Negro Leagues] players would not have been playing in their respective leagues. Therefore, both organizations' totals are similarly inflated and should be contextualized equally."
That's based on current participation levels of non-white players, which have settled into a rate between 30% to 40%, by Peterson's estimation. What it means is: A whole slew of players who were considered to be major leaguers before 1947 would not have been were baseball integrated all along.
All of this needs to be understood as we deploy the numbers that have been documented. It's amazing that Lefty O'Doul hit .383 in 1930, but we also have to understand that he did that in a season where the overall NL batting average was .303. We have always gone to that trouble for AL and NL greats and now we have to do the same for Negro Leaguers.
"It's better when we can corroborate stories with stats," Chalek said. "It's better yet when we can use the same analytical tools we use on MLB players to get closer to an accurate estimate of a Negro Leagues player's talent. These guys deserve more appreciation, and it's very hard to appreciate them fully without understanding them in a comparison to what we already know about greatness in baseball."
Once we do that, then we can really have a discussion.
"[The major leagues] from 1876 on had extremely organized recordkeeping. The Negro Leagues probably had at least half of the best players in the 1920s and 1930s, but not the same level of stadiums, attendance or recordkeeping," Bill James said, via email. "It's absolutely essential to respect the players for what they were. It is essential to respect the work that was done after the fact to recover and create a statistical record."
The ultimate data point on how we should regard pre-integration Black ballplayers is found in what happened after integration. The success of former Negro Leaguers, or those who would have played in the Negro Leagues in a previous era, was immediate, beginning with Jackie Robinson's rookie season. It was widespread. And it was dominant.
Peterson documents that former Negro Leaguers outperformed their counterparts in the years after Robinson broke the color line, and by a considerable margin, outhitting them .277 to .255 with an OPS edge of 111 points. This is a reflection of the contributions of the star-level players like Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Robinson, Roy Campanella and so many others. It's also a reflection of the lack of a "middle class" of Black players after integration, as their presence on rosters was still being artificially suppressed.
Still, consider this tweet from Adam Darowski who works for Sports Reference. For almost three decades after integration, former Negro Leaguers won more than their share of Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, and they started winning those honors in the immediate aftermath of Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The post-integration leaderboards reflect the long-ignored reality that the best players in Black baseball were at the very least as good as the best in the all-white leagues. Knowing that serves us when we say something like, "Oscar Charleston batted .397 with a .700 slugging percentage between 1921 and 1925."
During those same seasons, Ruth hit .357 with a .728 slugging. Ruth was the best player in his league, perhaps the best ever. You can say the same things about Charleston. And if you say that Charleston wouldn't have put up those numbers in the AL or NL, that might be true. But it would also be true to suggest that Ruth wouldn't have put up the same career numbers if he had had to face a steady dose of Smokey Joe Williams, Satchel Paige and Bullet Rogan over his career.
"Oscar Charleston probably would not have batted .364 lifetime in an integrated league, if he would have been given a chance to do so," Peterson said. But "there is no way Ty Cobb is hitting .366 against the likes of John Donaldson, [Smokey] Joe Williams and Dick Redding, etc. The Babe, great as he was, is not mashing 714 homers, either."
Let's turn back to Beer and his book. Why did Beer write it? Because in 2003, he read Bill James' historical abstract. He saw that James had ranked Charleston No. 4 on his list of the best players in history. And he had no idea who Oscar Charleston was. When Beer found out that, like him, Charleston was from Indiana, the quest to find out more was on.
The number that got Beer started was a ranking -- 4 -- but it was still a number. And the number sent Beer down a rabbit hole that led to years of work and an award-winning book. That is why the numbers matter.
That really is at the crux of why, for me, it is imperative that we take advantage of the trove of data from the Negro Leagues era that is now available to us and easier to work with than ever. And it's why when we have these "greatest ever" discussions, we don't leave those numbers out of the analysis. Don't shrug your shoulders and say, "Those don't sound right." Because they are as right as they can be. They are a still-growing record of what these players actually did on the field at the highest level they were allowed to play.
The WAR figures at Baseball Reference are contextualized for the leagues and ballparks in which they are compiled, though the Negro Leagues data currently is not adjusted for ballparks, and WAR is hard to compare because the Negro Leagues seasons were shorter. However, under the hood of WAR methodology is a rate stat that can be deployed here: Individual winning percentage.
I downloaded the bWAR database and compiled a leaderboard based on career winning percentage. (I had to stick with position players, as pitchers work a little differently, so apologies to Satch, Smokey Joe, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith and the rest.) I calculated the career winning percentages for every player and converted the results into an index. So 100 is average, 110 is one standard deviation better than average, 120 is two standard deviations better than average and so on. These indexes are based only on the group of players who compiled at least 2,500 documented career plate appearances.
The actual numbers here aren't as important as the investigations they might lead to. When we see a number like 184 (Charleston's OPS+) or 140.8 (Stearnes' index) on an all-time leaderboard, those curious about baseball can't help but to want to know more. It might start them digging into the dustbins of the internet, where they might find a string of testimonials like those that were uttered about Charleston during his time and beyond. Thanks to the numbers, the stories stay alive.
"It is always important that we never forget those, as the late great Buck O'Neil always said, who 'built the bridge across the chasm of prejudice,'" Kendrick said. "Those that opened the door for Black and brown players to move into the major leagues and help change our game. It is incumbent upon this museum to make sure that they are never forgotten."
It's incumbent on us to do that, too. Is Oscar Charleston the best player who ever lived? I don't know. I'd still rank Ruth ahead of him and everyone else, despite Gibson's lofty standing here. What I do know is that Charleston is part of the conversation. Having that debate is the least we can do.