This is a story about two great baseball players: Pop Lloyd and Oscar Charleston. They played in the Negro Leagues 100 years ago. Most stories about players like this rely on stories of old ballplayers and writers who saw them. Some of these stories are true, some are exaggerated and some are totally fiction. This will be a different type of story.
What if baseball had NEVER been integrated?
This is a thought experiment I mentioned on baseball message boards as far back as 20 years ago, when we first started talking about trying to accurately rank Negro League players among the stars of baseball history and had to rely on anecdotal data and the word of contemporaries.
It’s a disturbing concept, but bear with me.
Imagine that there was never a Jackie Robinson in the major leagues. Or Willie Mays. Or Roy Campanella. Or Hank Aaron. Or Bob Gibson. Or Frank Robinson. Or Joe Morgan. Or Reggie Jackson. No Frank Thomas or Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds. No Mookie Betts.
The list goes on and on. Imagine there are no dark-skinned Latinos either. No Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, Pudge Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar or Pedro Martinez. No Albert Pujols. No Giancarlo Stanton.
Imagine if all these greats played in a modern version of the Negro Leagues, out of public attention and the mainstream media, with spotty record keeping.
Think about the stories people would tell about Rickey Henderson. There’s no Lou Brock or Maury Wills in this alternate universe of the majors. So you would hear stories that Rickey could have demolished the stolen base records of Ty Cobb, which had stood for 70 years or so. He would steal around 100 bases a year regularly, hit for a very high average and get on base constantly. “He played until he was 46, and I believe he would have stolen over 1,400 bases and scored more runs than anyone in baseball history. He told hilarious stories and talked about himself in the third person constantly.”
You might smile in wonder and amazement, but you’d be left skeptical. If it wasn’t against white major leaguers, if it wasn’t well documented, it’d be difficult to convince people he was really that good. In this context, stories and stats about Rickey Henderson sound as crazy as hearing that Martin Dihigo was a great hitter and pitcher who was a wizard at every defensive position.
The players who did play in the Negro Leagues were often given nicknames to compare them to their white counterparts. Josh Gibson was called “The Black Babe Ruth,” and his teammate on the Homestead Grays, Buck Leonard, was called “The Black Lou Gehrig.” Such monikers do a disservice to all players involved, really, as all four were unique and wonderful players who are truly incomparable.
For someone like Rickey, if he had played in a shadow version of the majors, who could he even be compared to? Brett Butler? The Black Lenny Dykstra? Would Ken Griffey Jr. be called The Black Jim Edmonds? These are, frankly, insults. Rickey and Griffey are greats of the game with no true counterparts among white players of their era.
‘I was born at the right time’
John Henry Lloyd was called “The Black Honus Wagner.”
Wagner was an utterly dominant player, towering over the National League during the early years of the 20th century in much the same fashion as his contemporary, Ty Cobb, did in the American League. Wagner led the league in batting average eight times, RBIs four times, and slugging percentage six times. He finished his career with 3,420 hits and 723 stolen bases, marks that stood as NL records for decades. He led the league in stats that didn’t exist at the time, like OPS eight times, and WAR 11 times.
Wagner was in many ways the opposite of Cobb and other ruffians in the sport. He was a gentleman who did not want his image to be associated with baseball cards sold by a tobacco company. The modest Wagner himself said it was an honor to be compared to as great a player as Lloyd.
There is also a story that Babe Ruth said Lloyd was the greatest player he had ever seen. That is refuted by Joe Posnanski in his article about Lloyd, whom he lists as the 25th greatest player of all time in his top 100 players series for The Athletic (which is terrific).
Posnanski also laments that little is known about Lloyd, saying, “But at the center of it all, we know so little about Pop Lloyd. If we want to know how great Pop really was, then, sadly — or perhaps happily, if you want to see the world with optimism — we must use our imaginations.”
Posnanski is trying to give due to the overlooked players of the Negro Leagues and celebrate their abilities, but the truth is we have quite a bit of detail about Lloyd. We can do more than use our imaginations or rely on old stories and apocryphal tales.
“We have information about every season or just about every season in his career, including his career in Cuba and the United States,” said Eric Chalek.
Chalek is a member of the Hall of Merit, a group at BaseballThinkFactory whose goal is to do a better job of honoring the best players in the history of the game in a more accurate fashion than the Baseball Hall of Fame, with the benefit of historic perspective and modern sabermetric principles.
Chalek, who helps run the baseball analytics site Hall of Miller and Eric, has personally worked on “Major League Equivalencies” (MLEs) for Negro Leaguers. MLEs were designed by Bill James in the 1980s to project the hitting abilities of minor leaguers. It’s not a concept that has taken hold in the mainstream the way runs created or WAR (or James’ version of WAR, called Win Shares) has, but they have proven to be quite accurate over time. Most famously, James took a lot of grief for his projections that ran in a 1991 Stats Inc. book that showed a minor leaguer named Jeff Bagwell to be one of the best hitters in the game. Bagwell instantly vindicated the method by winning Rookie of the Year and embarking on a 15-year, Hall of Fame career.
Chalek was creating MLEs for Negro Leaguers back in 2005, relying on data from various sources such as John Holway, James Riley and the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia. Now his work is made easier by Seamheads.com, which has painstakingly compiled data from old newspapers. Chalek then converts these numbers, and fielding and baserunning numbers into modern sabermetric stats, like WAR. These translations are backed up by observing the performance of Negro Leaguers in the minors during the integration period, as well as exhibtions against major leaguers.
“So I figure out how good a guy was in the Negro Leagues, compared to the average Negro Leaguer, and place that into a major league context, while taking into account the quality of the leagues, and taking into account the parks they played inn. But basically, it’s taking a guy from one context and moving it to another. And adjusting for the fact that the major leagues were higher overall quality, top to bottom.”
The Negro Leagues were generally of Triple-A quality, but with a wider talent distribution. The Negro Leagues had a tougher time finding players to fill out the back end of rosters, so there are some players who are AA- or A-ball quality. But then there are players at the top who are far better than any Triple-A player, and as good as or better than the top stars in the white majors.
“Pop Lloyd is the best player to emerge in the Negro Leagues in the deadball era,” Chalek says. “If you look at it generationally, Lloyd, Oscar Charleston and then Josh Gibson, moving through time, these are the three guys who are the standard-bearers for their generation.”
Seamheads shows Lloyd as starting at age 22 and lasting through age 48, hitting over .400 multiple times. He is listed with a career average of .338, and a .313 average in exhibitions vs. major leaguers. White teams didn’t want to be embarrassed, and those games generally featured only the top pitchers of the major leagues. Lloyd was a plus defensive shortstop before moving to second at age 40 in favor of Dick Lundy, who could be considered the Ozzie Smith of the Negro Leagues. His longevity earned him the nickname “Pop.”
Chalek ranks Lloyd as easily a top 5 shortstop of all time and sees him as a 3,000-hit man in the majors. As a lefty-hitting shortstop, he would be peerless in baseball history.
“I don’t think he’s going to touch Honus Wagner, but it’s going to be close with A-Rod,” Chalek said.
After retiring from the Negro Leagues, Lloyd worked in the Post Office and as a janitor in the Atlantic City, N.J., school system. He played in local semi-pro games well into his 50s, including playing for a team owned by “Nucky” Johnson, the gangster from “Boardwalk Empire,” according to a 2016 story in the Atlantic City Press by David Weinberg. Lloyd loved to teach kids how to play baseball, none of whom had any idea they were learning from one of the all-time greats of the game.
Pop Lloyd was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, 12 years after his death. Lloyd, as gracious as his white counterpart, Honus Wagner, is quoted by Holway as saying he did not regret being born too early.
“No, I don’t consider that I was born at the wrong time. I feel it was at the right time. I had a chance to prove the ability of our race in this sport, and because many of us did our best for the game, we’ve given the Negro a greater opportunity now to be accepted into the major leagues with other Americans.”
He was Willie Mays before Willie Mays
Oscar Charleston is baseball’s forgotten man.
In many ways, Charleston’s story is a microcosm of the story of being Black in America. He was born in 1896 in Indianapolis, where his family had moved as part of the Great Migration, and the same town where another sports star named Oscar was born decades later: Oscar Robertson, “Big O.”
This migration of Black people, were it to happen in another country, could simply be described as refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing and terror at the hands of Southerners, only to face prejudice and redlining in the North. Baseball served as an escape for Charleston, as well as one of his 11 siblings, a brother who was once arrested for stealing a baseball. His family was poor and moved from house to house constantly. Another brother was arrested for stealing a 20-cent pair of eyeglasses.
Charleston’s middle name was McKinley, after the Republican president. His family, as was common for Black folks until the 1960s, were mostly Republicans, when it was very much still the party of Lincoln.
One of the prevailing notions about Charleston is that he was a brawler, a hothead who loved to fight as much as he loved playing baseball.
According to author Jeremy Beer, this simply isn’t true. “That’s a distorted picture. When I first started researching him, I thought, this guy is like the Bobby Knight of the Negro Leagues. No, it’s so not the case. He got into a well-publicized brawl, he punched out a white umpire in an exhibition game against a white team. That was his rookie season, he had a temper, no doubt. But he didn’t start that fight. The umpire and second baseman Bingo DeMoss were fighting. He liked to join fights, he always came to the aid of teammates.”
Beer notes that Babe Ruth also once punched an umpire and got suspended. You can go pretty far into the life story of Babe Ruth before you learn about this though. It was a condition of the time, grown men got into fights, and it happened in baseball several times a year.
“Part of that might be a race thing, the angry Black man stereotype. But he never got into fights off the field. He never got into trouble or drunken brawls — he didn’t drink, for one thing. He was respectable, in fact he worshiped respectability. He was socially ambitious, dressed well, and was charming and charismatic. People liked him and were drawn to him. So very different from the thuggish, psychopath stereotype you might encounter if you look around online.”
Beer first learned about Oscar Charleston in the Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract, in which Charleston was listed as the fourth greatest player of all time. (Posnanski ranked Charleston No. 5.) Beer, an Indiana resident, thought it was incredible that someone he had never heard of before could be the fourth-greatest player in history.
“It puzzled me, it troubled me,” Beer said. He set about researching Charleston, didn’t find a ton of resources, before deciding that he would write a book himself. It was published through the University of Nebraska Press last year and is called Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player.
At age 15, Charleston ran away to join the Army. He was shipped to the Philippines, where he became a regular on a baseball team with his all-black unit. That team included fellow future Hall of Famer “Bullet” Joe Rogan, Beer says.
When he was honorably discharged in 1915, he returned home and joined the Indianapolis ABCs, a Black team that existed before the official founding the Negro Leagues in 1920.
Charleston was a year younger than Babe Ruth, who revolutionized baseball with his prolific home-run hitting. The Negro Leagues were quick to pick up on the change, with Charleston leading the way.
In 1921, Charleston entered his peak at age 25 and set the new Negro Leagues on fire, hitting .423 with 17 home runs in 307 at-bats and 32 stolen bases.
According to his bio by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Charleston was obsessed with press clippings comparing him to Ty Cobb.
But Charleston was compared to many white stars of diverse abilities, including Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby. Beer compares him to a left-handed Mike Trout because he was built like a linebacker and had tremendous speed.
Chalek likens him to Speaker, because he was not quite the best, but very close, and a tremendous two-way player. While acknowledging that his system does not fully capture the true peaks of a player’s career because the lack of “granular information on baserunning and fielding stats,” Chalek nonetheless says his system gives a very good idea on hitting ability, and translates Charleston’s 1924 season as a 100-run above average season offensively, a mark very few hitters have reached. For instance, Ted Williams’ 1941 season in which he hit .406 is a 99-runs above average season.
With the Harrisburg Giants that year, Charleston hit .405 with 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 207 at-bats. Seamheads credits him with a 252 OPS+.
“That’s a tremendous season,” Chalek said. “It’s an outlier of course, but that’s a lot of power, that’s a lot of on-base, he’s a machine.”
Charleston had another amazing season in 1925, hitting .427 with 20 home runs. The reason Chalek doesn’t rate this season as highly as his 1924 season is a difference in league run context; the average hitter produced more in 1925.
It was during this era that Charleston played on one of the most dominant teams of its time: the 1923-24 Leopardos de Santa Clara in Cuban winter ball. The team featured the great Jose Mendez and an outfield of Charleston, Alejandro Oms and Pablo Mesa. The team brought in other Americans like Oliver Marcelle, Frank Warfield, Dave Brown, Bill Holland and Dobie Moore. They were so good, the season was called with Santa Clara declared the league winner with a 36-11 record, and the teams were reconfigured to be more competitive. Charleston hit .375 and led the league in runs scored (59) and stolen bases (31).
SABR notes that Cuban papers referred to “Charleston as the best player in the league and as a perfect star who combined intelligence, baserunning, slugging, fielding, and clutch play in a way never before seen.” According to Beer, that team is still treated with reverence in Cuba, sort of a pre-revolution version of the 1927 Yankees.
Chalek, however, notes that Charleston’s career arc is very much like Ken Griffey Jr.: he came up very young, was a sensation and dominated for years. But his career fell off soon after turning 30.
Charleston put on weight, and it appears he lost some of his athleticism. He moved to first base at age 31, a sign of declining mobility. Charleston didn’t approach .400 again after his 1927 season, when he hit .399.
Charleston was still a key figure in two legendary Negro Leagues clubs, the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. He became a player-manager with Pittsburgh in 1932. Even though Charleston was beyond his prime, it was a star-studded team that included immortals Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. At various points, Charleston’s Crawfords included four or five future Hall of Famers, and would certainly have been a dominant team in white MLB. The Crawfords proved it by going 5-2 against major league teams after the 1932 season. The Crawfords won championships in 1933, 1935, and 1936.
For his career, Charleston hit .350 in the Negro Leagues, .351 in Latin leagues. In 37 games against major leaguers, he hit .355 with 10 home runs, driving in 38 runs. Extrapolate that to a full 162-game season, it would come out to 44 home runs and 166 RBIs.
“In less than half the at-bats of Willie Mays, Charleston hit 190 home runs, stole over 300 bases and hit .350,” Beer said. “No one’s ever done .300/300/300 in major league history. And all the press at the time and other players talk about him as an otherworldly figure in the field.”
In time, Charleston, when remembered at all, would be most often compared to Mays. No one in his own time had the all-around package of skills, so people struggled to describe him. If anything, the players with the closest skill set to Charleston were fellow Negro Leaguers and five-tool players Cristobal Torriente and Turkey Stearnes.
After his playing career, Charleston was hired by Branch Rickey to scout Black players for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although Jackie Robinson had already been secured, Charleston was instrumental in getting Roy Campanella and other Black players to sign with Brooklyn. Charleston hanging around teams wouldn’t draw suspicion, and Rickey and head scout Clyde Sukeforth knew they could rely on Charleston to find information they couldn’t. For instance, they were concerned that Campanella was much older than he claimed, but Charleston found out his listed age was legit.
“Everyone who goes up, compensates in some way for me,” Charleston is quoted as saying.
Beer notes that it’s typical of Charleston’s life that he was destined to not be given proper credit for this, as the first Black scout for the majors. Campanella’s autobiography calls him “Oscar Robertson.”
Posnanski, relaying the story of a conversation between Buck O’Neil and Willie Mays, notes that Charleston died a week after Mays made “The Catch” on Sept. 29, 1954. “He was you before you,” O’Neil says.
Charleston was 58, and his death warranted just a one-paragraph note in The Sporting News, Beer says. Although he was married twice, Charleston never had children, and thus, no one to carry his legacy and talk about him to modern audiences. When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, a sister, Katherine, accepted the honor.
‘History is not a just judge’
The truth is there is only one Willie Mays. Mays started in the Negro Leagues, and joined the majors at age 20, hitting 20 homers as a rookie for the 1951 Giants, who famously won the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” Very few players are that good that young, but it’s not unprecedented. Mickey Mantle was a 19-year-old rookie that same year, and Hank Aaron a few years later had roughly the same quality rookie season. Ken Griffey Jr.’s 19-year-old season looks just like Mays, Mantle and Aaron’s debuts.
There are a few guys, like Al Kaline and Mike Trout, who were even better as 20-year-olds. Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. are just beginning their journeys.
Mays served two years in the military, returned as a 23-year-old and won the MVP. What makes Willie Mays WILLIE MAYS is he played at an MVP level until he was 35 before settling into merely an All-Star player until he was 40, when he led the NL in on-base percentage.
Mike Trout still has a chance to be that great, but no one will ever call him the White Oscar Charleston, just as no one will call Derek Jeter the Biracial John Henry Lloyd. Oscar Charleston isn’t the Black Mike Trout or Tris Speaker. He isn’t the Original Willie Mays. He isn’t even the best-known Oscar from Indianapolis.
Beer says if there’s one thing to take away from his book, it’s that, “History is not a just judge. Don’t think there aren’t many other people out there in many walks of life (who deserve to be remembered).” To Beer, Charleston is a stand-in for players whose accomplishments have been lost to time, including Pop Lloyd and several others.
Charleston should be remembered. He was Oscar Charleston, and being Oscar Charleston was great enough.