Cooperstown Confidential: Ed Charles and 42

It took me awhile, far too long to be honest, but I finally watched the film 42 over the Thanksgiving Weekend. As with most of the critics, I enjoyed the movie, appreciating the lead performances by Harrison Ford and the previously unknown Chadwick Boseman and the uneasy tension created by the hatred of Jim Crow racism against the forceful bravery of Jackie Robinson.

Although I was familiar with much of the story, I learned more about some of the peripheral characters, like former Dodger pitcher Kirby Higbe and Montreal Royals manager Clay Hopper. Neither was Robinson’s biggest fan, and for reasons that had everything to do with racism. The biggest revelation for me, however, came toward the end of the film, when a graphic explained that one of Robinson’s youngest fans in the film, an African-American child who lived in Florida, turned out to be future major leaguer Ed Charles. As Robinson departed spring training on a train in 1946, the young Charles led a group of enthusiastic young rooters bidding their new hero farewell. Charles waived to Robinson. Robinson waived back. Within 15 years, Charles himself would take his place in the major leagues.

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Ed Charles grew up in a broken home in the ghetto of Daytona Beach, Florida, just a few blocks from where the Brooklyn Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate spent spring training. In 1946, the Montreal Royals prepared for the International League season in Daytona, playing exhibition games at City Island Ball Park.

Charles did not have enough money to buy a ticket, but he watched Robinson from beyond a chain link fence in left field. “To a kid growing up in Daytona Beach,” Charles once told the Newark Star-Ledger, “in a world where we lived with our own form of apartheid—Jim Crowism—it was like a miracle.”

While the film shows Charles receiving an autographed ball from Robinson at the train station, that kind of interaction never happened. Typically, after a Royals game at City Island Ball Park, Charles’ friends ran for the clubhouse door, where they asked Jackie to give them autographs. But Charles didn’t feel it was right to approach Robinson and ask for his signature. “He was like a god to me,” Charles told the New York Daily News, “and that [asking for an autograph] wasn’t something you did with someone like that.”

Six years after watching Robinson, Charles signed his first professional contract with the Boston Braves. But he would never make it to Boston, instead spending nearly a decade in the Braves’ farm system. He debuted as a shortstop for Quebec in the old Provincial League in 1952; he found the fans and community there accepting of a black man playing baseball. But then, he moved on to Ft. Lauderdale in 1953, Corpus Christi in ‘55, and Jacksonville in ‘56. In between, he lost a season and a half to military service during the Korean War. When he was able to play, those three locations in the South exposed him to much of the hatred and bigotry that Robinson himself experienced while in the military and while trying to establish himself during his first year in Brooklyn.

One time, Charles was playing in Knoxville, where a white man taunted him throughout the game, calling him a full range of insulting, racist names. But Charles played well that day, impressing the white man, who waited to see him after the game. “He extended his hand,” Charles recounted. “He said, ‘By golly, ######, you’re one hell of a ballplayer.’ In his own little ignorant way, given how he’d been reared, he had brought himself to the point that he could see I was not inferior to the whites.”

While playing in the South, Charles not only dealt with verbal taunts, but also had to accept staying at the homes of local black families, while his white teammates stayed at segregated hotels. When his teams traveled by bus, they often came to diners and restaurants that refused to serve black players. So Charles had to eat on the bus, often by himself. Those experiences motivated Charles to write about them, which he did in the form of poetry. Hence, Charles became known as “The Poet.”

After showing mild promise as a hitter, Charles moved up to Triple-A Wichita late in 1956, but he struggled badly. He finished the season by hitting only .175 in 15 games. He didn’t impress scouts with his physique either; at five feet, nine inches tall and nearly 180 pounds, the stocky Charles hardly looked like the prototypical major leaguer.

So in 1957, the Braves (by now relocated to Milwaukee) demoted him two full levels, all the way down to the SALLY League. Now back in Jacksonville, Charles hit .296 with 13 home runs.

That performance convinced the Braves that he should return to Triple-A in 1958. He reported to Wichita, where he saw examples of racism coming from the team’s coaches. One day, Puerto Rican left-hander Juan Pizarro hurt his leg, affecting his ability to run wind sprints at full speed. The coach approached Pizarro, telling him that if he didn’t want to run, he could go back to Africa. The incident shook Charles, who considered quitting.

Little did Charles know that he would spend the next four seasons at the minors’ highest level, while splitting time between Wichita, Louisville, and Vancouver. Defensively, Charles performed spectacularly, as he made an excellent transition from shortstop to third base. Defensively, he twice led his minor league in putouts, but his intermittent problems at the plate prevented him from making the last step–jumping from Triple-A to the major leagues.

Charles also faced another obstacle. The parent Braves already had an established third baseman, a Hall of Famer named Eddie Mathews. Even if Charles had hit better, there was no room for advancement within the Milwaukee organization.

Someone less persistent would have given up the chase long ago, but Charles seemed to have learned from the lessons of Robinson. Charles figured that if Robinson kept trying in the face of beanballs and death threats, he could keep plugging at Triple-A. In 1961, Charles finally enjoyed a breakthrough in the Pacific Coast League in 1961. He put up an OPS of .848, showed promise with his ability to hit for average and power, led the league in runs scored, and continued to flash good glove work at third base.

As well as Charles played in the PCL, his biggest break would come that winter. That’s when the Braves packaged Charles with catcher Joe Azcue and outfielder Manny Jimenez and sent them all to the Kansas City A’s for infielder Lou Klimchock and pitcher Bob Shaw.

The 1962 A’s needed help in numerous areas, none more so than at third base. Charles started the season on the bench, but soon caught the eye of manager Hank Bauer. After Wayne Causey flopped at third base, Bauer turned to Charles. The 29-year-old rookie delivered 17 home runs, 20 stole bases, and an OPS of .811, the second best mark among Athletics regulars. Just like that, Bauer and the A’s had found their new third baseman.

Charles did not play as well the second time around, but he hardly experienced a sophomore jinx either. He hit 15 home runs, drew 58 walks, and continued to show good range and hands at third base.

In 1964, the A’s became a bit concerned when Charles batting average dropped off to .241. A’s owner Charlie Finley made the situation more difficult when he moved the fences back at Municipal Stadium in 1965. Charles’ home run output fell by half, but he still managed to improve his on-base and slugging percentages, even in a larger ballpark. Then came another solid season in 1966; even though he hit only nine home runs, he batted .286 and reached base 33 per cent of the time.

In 1967, Charles started slowly at the plate and lost his starting job to Danny Cater, with Sal Bando making his way through Kansas City‘s farm system. Although Charles had emerged as arguably the best player in the brief history of the Kansas City A’s, he was now 34, hardly a youngster anymore and not the kind of player the developing A’s could count on as part of the future. On May 10, the A’s decided to part ways, sending Charles to the Mets for an obscure outfielder named Larry Elliot and a sum of $50,000.

The trade did not seem to help Charles, at least not initially. He hit only .238 with three home runs over the balance of the season. That November, the Mets waived Charles.

Charles didn’t give up, instead agreeing to report to Mets camp as a non-roster player. Impressing new Mets manager Gil Hodges, Charles made the team. He also regained his starting berth at third base. At 35 years of age, a resurgent Charles batted .276 with 15 home runs and a respectable OPS of .761. In the Year of the Pitcher, those were highly respectable numbers.

Charles’ defensive play and baserunning style drew special attention in New York. He played third base so smoothly and ran so gracefully that he earned the nickname, “The Glider,” courtesy of Mets left-hander Jerry Koosman.

Having staged a remarkable comeback, Charles began the 1969 season as the starting third baseman, but he slumped so badly that Hodges eventually resorted to a platoon of Charles and rookie Wayne Garrett at the hot corner. Charles hit only .207 for the season, but the 36-year-old veteran (the oldest player on the Mets) provided leadership to his younger teammates, most of whom were in their twenties. Among the players he helped was Cleon Jones, who was often criticized for his lack of hustle.

Even with his hitting skills deteriorated, Charles managed to play a subtle role on the game’s most surprising team. Although Charles did not play at all in the Championship Series and picked up only two hits in 15 World Series at-bats, he did score the winning run in Game Two and enjoyed the five-game ride to an unlikely world championship. After eight consecutive losing seasons, Charles had suddenly vaulted to the top of the game.

After the World Series, the Mets decided to make a change at third base. They released Charles in late October. Most observers thought that the Mets were clearing a path for Garrett to play third base every day, but in actuality they were creating space for Joe Foy, whom they would acquire at the winter meetings in December.

Now 36 years of age, Charles decided against pursuing a contract as a bench player with another team. He opted to leave the game on the high note of a World Series title. With eight years of major league service time, Charles called it a career.

A man of numerous talents, Charles did not to rely solely on baseball. A lover of music, he became a record producer for a few years before starting his own furniture business. He also continued to write his poetry. And then in 1972, only three years after the World Series title, he received perhaps his greatest thrill when he actually met Jackie Robinson for the first time. Just by chance, the two men happened to be at the New York City office of the Small Business Administration, each filling out paperwork. Although he was trembling with nerves, Charles approached Robinson, thanking him for his efforts in breaking the color barrier. Robinson smiled, saying, “You’re welcome. That means a lot to me.”

When the furniture business dissolved, Charles returned to the game, first as a scout with the Mets and then as a rookie league coach. But it was not until the late 1980s that Charles found his true calling. Joining the Department of Juvenile Justice, he became a houseparent at a place called Beach House, a home for juvenile delinquents in New York City. There he put in long shifts working with troubled youngsters, overseeing their behavior and doing his best to steer them away from drugs and drinking.

I’m not surprised to learn that Charles, who is now 80, has dedicated much of his post-baseball life to assisting youngsters, some of them African American, in their attempts to straighten their lives. It’s the kind of work that Robinson would have appreciated, the kind of positive example that Robinson set over and over again, first with the Dodgers and then as a civil rights activist.

In a quietly effective way, Ed Charles found a way to pass the torch from Mr. Robinson to the next generation.

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Comments

  1. Fred said...

    For reasons that are obscure to me fifty years later, I was a KC A’s fan as a child. Ed Charles was my very first favorite player, until he became supplanted by one Dagoberto Campenaris. Thanks for bringing up fifty year old memories!

  2. Grandpa Boog said...

    My family saw Ed Charles play numerous times in KC’s old but beautiful Municipal Stadium (22nd and Brooklyn Ave.). He was as the above article relates; i.e., a hustling and skilled thirdbaseman, with base-running speed, a good glove, a quick and accurate arm, and gap power. He quickly became and remained a KC A’s fan favorite. I was sad when they traded him to the Mets but happy when he helped win that WS for the Mets. I am 88 years old and appreciate The Hardball Times appreciation for the past in baseball.
    —Grandpa Boog

  3. dennis Bedard said...

    I remember him well in KC as well as with the Mets.  Oddly, at least for me, he symbolized at least a decade of frustration for the Mets at the hot corner.  I remember names like Foy, Aspromonte, Garrett, Fregosi, and countless others who were a reverse image of their pitching staff.

  4. littlelucas said...

    Charles was one of my favorites growing up.  The green uniforms added a touch of brightness to some of the drab colors of the era. The mid 60’s were when I first started following the game through box scores and reading the sporting news. The A’s also had a young slugger named Ken Harrelson that was exciting to watch. Charles had about 5 solid years in the 1960’s. A guy you could really count on. Coke came out with bottle caps during this era where players photos were pictured on the bottom of the caps. Ed Charles was the first one I remember fishing out of the YCMA pop machine on a Saturday morning. You hooked a magnet to a string and dropped it down the bottle cap opener slot. What memories!!!!!!

  5. John C said...

    Ed Charles had retired before I was born, but I knew of him from some of Bill James’ writings about watching the KC A’s when he was growing up. Ed Charles was one of the few players they had who was actually any good (aside from the Yankee shuttle they ran), and they stumbled across him after he’d kicked around the minors for years.

    Nice to learn something about him besides his being the rare homegrown Kansas City Athletic who didn’t suck.

  6. Tom Dockery said...

    I wonder what Ed’s reaction was when the Mets passed over Gil Hodges in favor of Jackie Robinson when the Mets built the rotunda at Citi Field?

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