(Oct. 14, 1896-Oct. 6, 1954). Born in Indianapolis, Oscar McKinley Charleston was the seventh of eleven children. His father, Tom Charleston, worked in construction and in his youth had been a jockey. Charleston grew up playing sandlot baseball. He also was a batboy for the Indianapolis ABCs, which began his longtime association with the team. He spent 33 seasons starring for or managing the Indianapolis ABCs, Chicago American Giants, Homestead Grays, and other Negro League teams.

A man wearing a baseball uniform holds a bat.
Oscar Charleston playing for the Almendares club, Cuba, 1924 Credit: Almendares baseball club (Cuba), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons View Source

In 1912, Charleston lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was a member of the Army 24th Infantry Division, which served in Manila during the Philippine-American War (1899-1913). He dominated opponents as a pitcher-outfielder as part of his U.S. Army unit’s baseball team. After his discharge from the Army in 1915, Charleston signed with Charles I. (C. I.) Taylor’s Indianapolis ABCs in 1916. With Charleston, Bingo DeMoss, and Taylor’s brothers Ben, Johnny, and “Candy” Jim, the ABCs defeated the legendary Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants five games to four in the Negro World Series. Charleston played the first game of the Negro National League,  which took place on May 2, 1920, in Indianapolis at Washington Park. The ABCs played against the Chicago Giants and won, 4-2.

Though reliable statistics from the era of the Negro Leagues are scarce, it is known that Charleston played in over 1,000 games with a batting average near. 350. In 1921-1922, as a rookie in the Cuban winter leagues that featured numerous Major League ballplayers, the fleet centerfielder hit opposing pitchers at a .405 rate. A five-game exhibition series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1922 produced five Oscar Charleston home runs. John McGraw, the New York Giants Hall of Fame manager, was so impressed he attempted to sneak the Hoosier into the National League posing as a Cuban. The ruse failed.

A baseball player swings a bat while standing at home plate in a baseball field.
Oscar Charleston, n.d. Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

Retired from the Negro Leagues in 1945, Charleston spent several years as a baggage handler for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He returned to baseball in 1954 as a manager of the famous Negro show team, the Indianapolis Clowns, but was felled by a heart attack or stroke following the 1954 season.

He was buried in Floral Park Cemetery on the westside of Indianapolis. Oscar Charleston Park, an Indianapolis park in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, is named in his honor.

The legendary James “Cool Papa” Bell pronounced Charleston the greatest Baseball player who ever lived. Charleston’s contributions to the national pastime were recognized through his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976. Floral Park enhanced his burial site in April 2020 to honor his legacy and contributions to the game.

Revised February 2021

Help improve this entry

Contribute information, offer corrections, suggest images.

You can also recommend new entries related to this topic.