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INTEGRATION SPELLED THE DEATH of the Negro Leagues. Perhaps it needn’t have. Perhaps, as was discussed at the time and has been much discussed since, the existing Negro Leagues could have been incorporated into the structure of (heretofore white) organized baseball, ultimately functioning as “historically black” leagues in much the same way that historically black colleges have functioned for decades. That seems to have been the hope of Oscar and others. It would have been a better outcome, probably, for the hundreds of African American players, coaches, managers, and umpires who made their livings in baseball. For as it turned out, the short-term effect of the long-awaited erasure of baseball’s color line meant jobs, success, and (relative) riches for a few—and fewer jobs, less recognition, and less money for the many.

The integration of organized baseball did not come as fast as blacks desired or deserved. Still, already by 1949 there were black players in every Class AAA and Class A Minor League circuit, and both Major and Minor League organizations were consistently purchasing the rights to players from Negro Leagues teams. As the calendar turned from one year to the next in the post-Jackie era, the cream of the black crop was more and more thoroughly skimmed from the remaining black baseball teams. One result was the crumbling of the Negro Leagues. Another, paradoxical, one was that by the mid-1950s fewer African Americans were making their living from professional baseball than at any time since 1900. That wasn’t what anyone had wanted, but it was the reality.

Fan support for the Negro Leagues declined radically beginning in 1947, not only because Jackie Robinson and his exploits dominated people’s minds, but also because the leagues came to be viewed by African Americans as a sort of peacemaking with segregation that now seemed embarrassing, even intolerable. Robinson himself heaped scorn on the leagues in a June 1948 Ebony article, criticizing everything from the pay to the bathrooms. By the end of that year crowds were reportedly one-half to one-third of what they used to be. After that season the rickety Negro National League called it quits. The New York Black Yankees folded. The once powerful Homestead Grays would henceforth play only independently. Abe and Effa Manley sold the Newark Eagles, which were temporarily relocated to Houston before finally ending up in Nashville. Beginning in 1949 a newly reorganized Negro American League incorporated those NNL clubs still left standing and split into Eastern and Western divisions. Gradually, it began to dawn on the remaining black-baseball owners that their business model must change. What profit there might be would henceforth come less from gate receipts and more from developing and selling players to the Majors.

Even that strategy was not enough to save black baseball. First, it meant selling off a team’s best drawing cards, further reducing both fan interest and the quality of play. Second, while the demand among Major League teams for black players was growing—as it ought to have been, given the generally fantastic seasons blacks were producing at the levels at which teams were placing them—it wasn’t growing fast enough to provide consistent, sizeable cash flow. Negro Leagues owners responded by slashing salaries, cutting corners, and ramping up already grueling travel schedules in order to go wherever the remaining fans were located. By 1950 the Baltimore Elite Giants were demanding foul balls back from the crowd and had taken players off salary to pay them a percentage of the gate instead—a practice that hadn’t been seen in the major Negro Leagues for decades.

This was the new, bittersweet world of black baseball in which Oscar Charleston managed Ed Bolden’s Philadelphia Stars from 1948 through 1952. At a December 19, 1947, press conference, a gray-templed, gray-suited Oscar sat next to Bolden and signed a contract to return as the team’s manager. He would replace the man who had replaced him in 1942, Homer “Goose” Curry, widely regarded as a clown by his players. (Some of them also thought Curry dealt crookedly with the team’s finances.) Bolden promised Oscar a free hand in shaping the club, and until his death in September 1950 he was true to his word. The 1948– 52 Stars were Oscar’s team through and through. They were young, played hard, and were good citizens. Unfortunately, a team that was never especially talented—no Willie Mays, no Henry Aaron, no Ernie Banks came through the Stars before heading to the bigs—became less so as time went on. Oscar wanted badly to win one more championship. The Stars would not give it to him.

In the five years Charleston managed the club in the late 1940s and early 1950s the Stars’ full-season record was never better than fourth in their league. They finished fourth in the 1948 NNL, eighth in the 1949 NAL, eighth in the 1950 NAL, seventh in the 1951 NAL, and sixth—that is, last—in the 1952 NAL. It was a young club that seemingly got younger, and worse, each year as the best players jumped or were sold to Major League, Minor League, or Latin American teams. Roy Partlow, who had washed out of the Dodgers system after spring training in 1947 owing to run-ins with management; Gene Benson; Mahlon Duckett; and Henry McHenry—all veterans—anchored the 1948 Stars, but only Duckett returned for the 1949 season.l0 Oscar’s friend Bus Clarkson and talented infielder Marvin Williams returned to the States and joined the Stars in 1949, but Williams didn’t last the year, and Clarkson was sold to the Brewers midway through the 1950 season. The 1951 club, a true no-name outfit, had an average age of twenty-three.ll The 1952 team’s average age was reportedly just twenty-one, and it lost its best player, Ben Littles, when he died in a car accident in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in March of that year.l2 By 1951 the Stars’ talent pool was so limited that Oscar’s starting shortstop, Teddy Washington, had yet to even graduate from Camden High School. The following year, the starter at short was another eighteen-year-old kid named Dick Whittington.l3 These later Stars clubs were comparable to a mid-Minors team at best. These weren’t the 1930s Crawfords. But while there wasn’t much depth, there was talent on these teams, even if it wasn’t top-tier and even if it was sometimes very raw. Oscar got a thrill out of helping young black men get into organized ball. “I never got the chance to play in the majors because of the color-line,” he commented to Wendell Smith. He was therefore committed to doing all he could “to see that these kids I’m managing get their chance. Everyone who goes up compensates in some way for me.”l4 With that end in mind, one of Oscar’s strategies consisted of constantly planting stories in the press about this or that player being scouted by a big league team.

Harry “Suitcase” Simpson was the best of the Stars in the Charleston years. He left the squad after the 1949 season and debuted with the Cleveland Indians in 1951. Bus Clarkson, whom Oscar had hoped to groom for a managerial job one day, got his shot with the Boston Braves in 1952.l6 Catcher Charlie White hooked on with the Braves in 1954, and infielder Milt Smith made it to the Reds in 1955. Charleston was given at least some credit for the development of each of these men.l? (White said that he “owed a lot” to Charleston for teaching him “a great many points” about the game during his time with the Stars.)l8 A dozen or so other Charleston finds and protégés carved out careers in the Minors of varying lengths, including Washington and Whittington, catchers Bill Cash and Stanley Glenn, shortstop Frank Austin, and pitchers Bill Ricks, Manny Cartledge, and Wilmer Harris. Despite the occasional whiff—as with the teenaged Bill Bruton, a future Braves standout who was brought to Stars training camp in 1948 by Judy Johnson but was present for only a week before Oscar sent him home—Oscar certainly proved he could scout.

Oscar was happy for these men, but he must have looked wistfully into center field when the Stars barnstormed through the South with the Birmingham Black Barons in mid-1949. Eighteen-year-old Willie Mays was clearly something special out there; after he went 5 for 6 against the Stars in a game at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, Oscar made sure to tip his cap in appreciation. And in 1952, when his team spent the beginning of the league season traveling with the Clowns, Oscar could not have helped but wish the eighteen-year-old shortstop who hit cross-handed, a kid named Henry Aaron, was wearing a Stars uniform. Both men must have reminded him of himself. By July 1951 columnist Al Moses was comparing Mays to Oscar, noting that Willie’s power, as well as “his natural love of the game” and “native baseball gifts,” were positively Charlestonian.

During these years old acquaintances were renewed as well. Oscar reconnected with his old business partner Jesse Owens in August 1948, when Owens, promoting his sporting goods line, raced Stars shortstop Frank Austin and a couple of other players during a game at Yankee Stadium. The two men sat together on the Stars bench, shooting the breeze and recalling the uSO Camp Show in which both were supposed to have participated in 1945. The draft board had prevented Owens from going to Asia with the program, while the opportunity to manage in the United States League had kept Oscar home. “I really wanted to be on that one,” sighed Owens. “So did I,” responded Oscar.

In 1950 forty-four-year-old Satchel Paige, then between gigs with the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns, sauntered back into Oscar’s life. Still a gate attraction, Paige helped the Stars pump up their otherwise dwindling crowds by pitching for them that July and August in Philadelphia, Williamsport, Harrisburg, Buffalo, and Toronto. At least, he was scheduled to perform in each of those towns, as well as others. Satchel traveled not on the team bus but in his own Cadillac, to the top of which he had strapped a canoe. Sometimes, if Paige saw a lake, he would stop and do some fishing—and consequently be a latecomer or a no-show for the game. Before long, Oscar was keeping Satchel on task by traveling in the Cadillac himself.

Satchel’s time with the Stars was too brief to give the team much of a lift. But given all the obstacles the Stars faced— including, after 1948, having access to their nominally home grounds of Shibe Park only when the Athletics and Phillies were out of town, which therefore often meant staying on the road for two months or more at a time—Oscar was praised for his team’s competitiveness. Joe Bostic, having seen the no-name Stars play at Yankee Stadium in May 1950, said they were “playing old Charlie’s brand of ball They cashed every error the [Elite Giants] made and [the Stars’] hell-bent-for-leather hi-jinks was hustling them into making the miscues.” Oscar would work miracles if he were given control of the Major League Giants, Bostic concluded. Charleston was selected as the manager for the East in the 1950 East-West game (his club, a two-to-one underdog, lost 5–3), and he was entrusted with further control of the Stars by Dr. Hilda Bolden, Ed’s daughter, when she inherited her father’s share of the club after his death. Given the auburn-tressed, curvacious Hilda’s prestigious status as the head of Parkside Clinic in Washington DC, not to mention her inclusion on the Afro-American’s list of the ten best-dressed women in America, Hilda’s faith in him must have given Oscar great satisfaction.

The next year Charleston’s hometown friends honored him with “Oscar Charleston Night” on August 25, 1951, at Indianapolis’s Victory Field. The outmanned Stars were crushed by the Chicago American Giants, 11–1, but Oscar was presented with gifts from Ted Sullivan, the Indianapolis Indians’ business manager. Sullivan declared Charleston to be “one of baseball’s true greats in every department,” and he “lamented that his color kept him from stellar roles in the big leagues.” Of course, it wasn’t too late for Oscar to be given a chance in the Majors. In 1949 black columnist Dan Burley had nominated Charleston for consideration as a Major League coach or manager. And the New York Amsterdam News wondered aloud on September 8, 1951, why no team in organized baseball had at least hired Charleston as a scout. It was a good question.

***

To play in the Negro Leagues in the post-Jackie era meant confronting, more or less on a daily basis, two especially salient facts: (1) the persistence of demoralizing and demeaning racial discrimination, prejudice, and violence; and (2) the necessity of spending a depressing percentage of one’s life on a bus.

Occasionally the racial hatred was shocking, even for men who had known it all their lives. For example, there was the time when the Stars were in Cleveland, Mississippi, and they stopped for gas and heard some kind of commotion. When they asked the attendant what it was all about, he told them that a small black boy had been taken off his bicycle by a gang of hooligans and had an air hose shoved up his rectum, blowing him all to pieces. The Stars just shook their heads and got the hell out of there.

Much more often, prejudice manifested itself in heckling and frustrating inconvenience. The players all heard, and remembered, the insults hurled from the stands, even as they trained themselves to ignore the noise. Mississippi was particularly bad, recalled one player, but it wasn’t just the South where players encountered fan hostility. Umpire Bob Motley thought he was called more names by whites while traveling through mid-western states like Indiana and Ohio than in Deep South states like Mississippi and Alabama. “Negro ballplayers had a tough time” with certain fans, said Cliff Layton. The only strategy that worked was to wait them out. “If you would ignore them, they would settle down.”

Getting fed could be a serious challenge. After night games in small towns, no stores or eateries would be open, at least not where blacks where welcome. Light-skinned and foreign players with accents were treasured for their ability to purchase food for the team in establishments that wouldn’t serve African Americans. The North was particularly difficult to navigate because, unlike in the South, it was frequently impossible to tell ahead of time whether one would be served or not. The only way to find out was to go into a restaurant, sit down, and see if a waitress came to take one’s order. Many a time the players were happy simply for the opportunity to purchase bread and cold cuts from a grocery store. Buck O’Neil, who managed the Kansas City Monarchs during the years when Charleston managed the Stars, used to keep a book listing rooming houses that would accept blacks, along with information about the quality of their beds and meals. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, which began publication in 1936 and listed restaurants, service stations, and private tourist homes that served blacks, met the same purpose. (The 1947 edition listed seven hotels open to African Americans in the entire state of Mississippi.) Whether in the North or South, bedbugs tortured the exhausted men in more than one of these establishments.

And yet the players who suffered these indignities were invariably quick to point out that it wasn’t all bad. “There were places where we could really enjoy ourselves—especially Birmingham and Memphis, where there were black-owned hotels and restaurants,” said Jim Robinson. Harold Hair was proud to point out that players “stayed in the same hotels and ate at the same places as did the entertainers on the Chitlin Circuit.” After games, said Hair, they often went out to clubs or to the movies, and in New York they stayed only a block and a half away from the Apollo. Buck O’Neil stressed that his Monarchs “stayed in some of the best hotels in the country. They just happened to have been black hotels.” In other words, the black self-help tradition had not been without its successes.

Travel stories dominated the recollections of former Negro Leaguers for the simple reason that their teams essentially belonged to the road more than they did to any one city. This was especially true in the post-integration era, when the remaining profit-making opportunities lay primarily in towns where black baseball was seen only a couple of times per season. And it was especially true of the Stars, who saw their Philadelphia gate receipts decline year after year after year. Traveling in a red, white, and blue 1942 Ford bus with the team’s name painted on both sides, the Stars’ schedule took them to big cities and small towns throughout the Northeast, Midwest, South, and Southwest. In 1951 and 1952 they played more than 90 percent of their games on the road and did not debut at their nominally home grounds of Shibe Park until July.

Oscar and several players usually took turns driving as the Stars rambled the country, putting up to sixty-five thousand miles per year on the old Ford, and putting in the occasional new motor, as they searched for gates that would pay their expenses and keep them in the game. It was crowded on that bus, with seventeen men and their gear usually aboard, and it was inevitably stinky. As Bob Motley testified, “There is nothing worse than being stuck in tight quarters with a bunch of smelly ballplayers who have just completed a doubleheader on a hot summer day in a stadium that had no shower.” The stench was made all the more pungent by the ointments, liniments, and tonics that the players used to treat their injuries. One of the more popular of these was called “goose grease,” quite literally made with the rendered fat of a cooked goose. Kerosene oil and Epsom salts also had their uses in the home remedies that players had inherited from their elders. It all combined to form a nasal nightmare.

Typically, players would sing, play cards, and tell stories as they bumped along from town to town, often boasting about the women they had bedded—or would bed in the next city. “The guys liked bragging about their success in the bedroom,” remembered Motley, “and always tried to one-up each other with exaggerated tales. Some had a different girlfriend in every town. Others preferred anonymous one-night stands. Some favored hookers. Still others boasted of having two and three girls at a time.” Buck Leonard reported that many players ended up contracting syphilis and other STDs from prostitutes. The Stars, thanks to their unusually high proportion of teetotaling, straitlaced, religious players, probably indulged in blue banter less than other teams. Other clubs teasingly called them the “saints.” That the Stars had a characteristic makeup was no accident. It reflected Oscar’s own values and preferences. The Stars’ bus was often also the Stars’ hotel, and during all-night trips someone would stay up with the driver to make sure he stayed awake. Sometimes Oscar liked to give everyone a jolt. Multiple players remembered an occasion during which the team was driving through an awful thunderstorm on a treacherous mountain road. Suddenly, Charleston opened the bus door, leaned out, and shouted into the sky, “Hey, up there! Stop all that damn noise!” The players became deadly silent, as if God himself had been threatened. Oscar just burst out laughing.

Teasing and kidding with his charges was part of Oscar’s leadership style. He would make dinner bets with hitters on how many hits they would get. Too often, he won. “I’m getting too fat from the dinners you guys are buying me,” he told them. Over and over he asked junkballer Barney Brown if he was ever going to throw the ball hard. And he still liked to show off his strength; Stanley Glenn recalled that Oscar “could pick me right up like I was a baby,” and Glenn was 6 feet 2 inches and 225 pounds. More impressive yet were Oscar’s hands. Not only were they so rough that Oscar could cut a ball just by rubbing it. They were also so strong that he could twist the cover off a ball. These feats of a fifty-year-old left his players deeply impressed.

By this time Oscar had definitely mellowed, never getting in fights or flying off the handle. Quincy Trouppe saw him as “relaxed,” Harold Hair remembered him as a “nice guy,” and James Robinson recalled him as “very mild” and “friendly.”

Motley, the umpire, thought Oscar was so calm that “you could have mistaken him for a man of the cloth.”

Unlike almost every other manager in the leagues, [wrote Motley] I never had one problem with Charleston. He was just a low-key kind of fellow who never raised his voice. If he did have a dispute about a call, he would simply walk up from the dugout and ask, almost in an apologetic tone, “What happened, ump?” Once I had explained the reason for my call he’d just nod or say, “Okay, ump,” and go back to the dugout. He was the most calm and collected of gentlemen during some of the fiercest fought games, and I was always appreciative of his non-confrontational manner of managing.

On one occasion Charleston and Buck O’Neil nobly helped Motley escape an angry crowd. In Motley’s telling, after the final out of a game at Blues Stadium in Kansas City, a Monarchs loss, the fans expressed their displeasure by chucking Coke bottles at him. Either Oscar or Buck shouted to Motley to go out toward second base, where the fans’ throws could not reach him, and when things did not immediately settle down, both managers came out of their dugouts and escorted Motley to safety over the center field fence.

Oscar may have become less turbulent by the time he took the helm of the Stars in 1948 (a July 1948 game in which he was ejected and the game forfeited because he would not leave the field appears to have been an anomaly), but he had certainly not become a softy. Pitchers who failed to go all nine usually found Oscar handing them a ball on the bus after the game with a simple message: “It’s your game tomorrow.” Runners who didn’t take the extra base would get a tongue-lashing. Players didn’t dare argue with him; players didn’t dare be late; and between the lines players didn’t dare do anything but play the game all out, as he had. Oscar still went all out himself. Some- times it was to comic effect, as when he pinch-hit in one 1948 contest and lined a gapper to right-center field. As he rounded second, Oscar—now with a forty-six-inch waist and weighing north of 250 pounds—stumbled and fell. He was forced to crawl his way to third base to complete the triple. On another occasion, against the Brooklyn Bushwicks, he hit a long drive that would have been an inside-the-park home run for anyone else but was only a triple for the aged Oscar. When the next hitter hit a long fly ball to center field, a still panting Oscar was determined to score. Putting his head down and running as fast as his legs would take him, he bulled straight into the catcher, knocking off his mask—and knocking him out. “Charlie just stood up and dusted off his pants,” recalled infielder Mahlon Duckett.

There was a right way to play the game, Charleston believed, a way that he and other black stars had themselves received and honed, and it was his job to pass that way down to the rising generation. The players were grateful, because they were painfully aware that the little instruction they had received before turning pro had been inadequate. Hank Aaron bitterly recalled that “coaching was something for white kids.” Buck Leonard lamented that the Negro Leaguers “didn’t have time for somebody to teach us fundamentals and inside baseball like the major leaguers did in the spring.” Stars pitcher Harold Gould claimed he was taught the definition of the strike zone by an umpire. Numerous other players attested to the embarrassment they felt when they became aware of their ignorance. Oscar did his best to mentor them. According to Cliff Layton, Charleston “showed the guys how to play their position in a real professional way.” He would go over base running techniques, swing paths, follow-throughs, and other nuances of the game that players might never have encountered. He was “a very intelligent man,” said Layton, “who had great knowledge of the game.” Sometimes, at least, his advice helped, as when he was credited with helping the Stars’ Mahlon Duckett and Harry Simpson blossom at the plate in 1948. And sometimes he forged a deep connection. “He was like my dad,” remembered Harold Gould. “I could never say enough. He was such a great man.”

Many of those who have written on the Negro Leagues have proceeded from the premise that the players must have been embittered by the experience. Lee Blessing’s 1990 play Cobb, in which an angry Oscar Charleston challenges the Georgia Peach’s understanding of himself, is a case in point. Generally, however, the premise that Negro Leagues players felt aggrieved and resentful is false, and it is certainly false with respect to Charleston. Oscar dearly wished he had had the opportunity to play in the Majors, but no one recalled him as sulky or self-pitying. If Cool Papa Bell can be believed, what hurt him most was when he noticed that younger black players had no idea how good he had been. Oscar himself confessed to the Philadelphia Tribune’s Malcolm Poindexter Jr. that he got “his biggest thrill . . . from hearing others talk of his sensational feats on the diamond.” He was proud that he had once hit two home runs in a game in Holland, Pennsylvania, and two more that went just foul, after a fan had asked him to hit four. He was proud of having earned John McGraw’s praise (if that never really happened, Oscar never corrected anyone). And he was especially proud of having homered off Lefty Grove, in what Oscar believed was Grove’s first time pitching against a black club, and of tearing up St. Louis Cardinals pitching in 1921. He had proven himself against Major Leaguers. In 111 plate appearances Charleston had posted a tidy .347 batting average, .418 on-base percentage, and .806 slugging percentage versus big league pitching. He didn’t need their or anyone else’s validation.

Usually, when given the opportunity to promote himself, Oscar demurred. On May 1, 1948, Fred Wilson, of the Delaware County Times, was watching a Cubans-Stars game in Chester, Pennsylvania, with Lefty Vann, white longtime manager of the local semipro team against which Oscar’s and other Negro Leagues clubs had played countless times during the last two or three decades. Vann took the occasion to give Wilson his all-time Negro all-star team. Coming to the outfield, he pointed at Oscar, standing in the third base coach’s box, and said, “There’s my center fielder.” When Oscar came back to the dugout, Wilson and Vann called him over to ask who the team’s left fielder ought to be; Oscar nominated Cristóbal Torriente. Wilson and Vann then told him the rest of their team. “You could have gotten a better center fielder,” Oscar replied. When he disappeared into the dugout, Vann warned Wilson not to believe it. “He’s the best I ever saw. He could hit ’em as far as Leonard or Gibson or anybody else.” Likewise, when Charleston, along with Ed Bolden, was asked to name his own all-time Negro Leagues team by the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1949, he chose Rap Dixon for center field and omitted himself entirely.

Thank you for reading

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alex chidester
3/16
This is a fantastic memoir, and one I recommend anytime someone asks for books about baseball, nevermind the Negro Leagues.
alex chidester
3/16
biography, not memoir.