Friday, March 16, 2018

Ed Charles, 1933-2018; Tom Benson, 1927-2018

When the Jackie Robinson film 42 came out in 2013, it showed Jackie, played by Chadwick Boseman - yes, kids, the guy who plays Black Panther - waving from the train going north from Spring Training to a black kid, played by Dusan Brown, waving back. The kid had been shown earlier in the film, and now, looking at Jackie, he had a look on his face, as if to say, "Someday, that's going to be me."

I knew that kid was going to make it, or else why would they have made a big deal out of showing him? In literature, this is known as "Chekhov's Gun": The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote, "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

At the end of 42, graphics were shown, giving updates on the principals, and the boy's identity was revealed: He was Ed Charles.

He did make it to the major leagues. And, while not as significant as Jackie Robinson's first major league game, on April 15, 1947, Ed's last major league game was a significant day in New York baseball history.


Edwin Douglas Charles was born on April 29, 1933 in Daytona Beach. Long before it was known for spring break and NASCAR, Daytona was known for segregation. But Jackie Robinson changed things.

Not everything, though: Ed Charles was signed by the Boston Braves in 1952 -- they became the Milwaukee Braves the following year -- and Eddie Mathews was their 3rd baseman. As would be the case with future major league managers Dick Williams, Gene Mauch and Sparky Anderson, stuck behind Pee Wee Reese as the shortstop for Jackie's Brooklyn Dodgers, Charles was stuck. As a result, he remained in the minor leagues, while most of the Braves' farm teams were in the South.

Years later, in Ball Four, Jim Bouton (white) noticed that, while the major leagues admitted black stars to their ranks, if you weren't a star, they were more reluctant. He noted in 1969 that the defending World Champion Detroit Tigers had only 3 black players on their roster: Willie Horton, Detroit native and All-Star outfielder; Earl Wilson, All-Star pitcher; and Gates Brown, Detroit native and then regarded as the best pinch-hitter in baseball. Meanwhile, 3rd baseman Don Wert batted just .200, and shortstop Ray Oyler only .135. Surely, they weren't good enough with their gloves to justify keeping them in the lineup. Surely, there was a black player somewhere in the Tigers' system that could hit major league pitching better.

And it's not as though Major League Baseball was loaded with great 3rd basemen. From 1957, the year Charles turned 24, through 1961, the last year before he was finally promoted, these were the 3rd basemen in the All-Star Game:

* National League: Eddie Mathews (Hall of Fame), Don Hoak, Frank Thomas (not the later HOFer), Ken Boyer. Ron Santo (Hall of Fame) hadn't gotten there yet.

* American League: George Kell (Hall of Fame), Frank Malzone (the only 3rd baseman on the AL roster in the 1958 Game), Harmon Killebrew (Hall of Fame slugger but a terrible fielder), Brooks Robinson (Hall of Fame, the only 3rd baseman on the AL roster in the 1961 Games). Clete Boyer, Ken's brother who starred for the Yankees and was about as good a fielder as Brooks Robinson, was not selected.

Surely, there had to be a black 3rd baseman good enough to get in there. But Ed Charles would not be that man. The racism he experienced, both from Southern spectators and his own organization, led him to write poetry about it.

Finally, in 1962, the Braves traded him to the Kansas City Athletics. The A's were terrible, so they gave him a chance. He made the most of it, batting .288 with 17 home runs, 74 runs batted in, and 20 stolen bases, as a 29-year-old "rookie." He remained a good power hitter for the A's, in spite of Kansas City Municipal Stadium not being conducive to home runs.
In 1967, he was traded to the Mets for Larry Elliot and -- probably of more interest to cheapskate A's owner Charlie Finley -- $50,000. The Mets were a young team, and Charles would be their oldest regular. They were already known for going through 3rd basemen like tissues, and they needed help.

Despite it only being his 6th major league season, at 34, Charles was able to provide veteran leadership. Right fielder Ron Swoboda said, "Ed Charles was this guy, you wanted to sit on his knee and hear how he made it. He had a physical and emotional grace that most of us didn't seem to feel. He would say, 'Don't wrestle with what feels like complexity.'"

Early that season, he dove to his left and stopped a grounder from becoming a sure hit. Pitcher Jerry Koosman told him, "You sort of glide to the ball. That's it: You're The Glider from now on."

The Mets did get better in 1967 and 1968, although it was not a dramatic improvement. The dramatic improvement came in 1969. The Mets -- whose major league debut was on the same day as Charles', April 11, 1962 -- seemed to get 7 seasons' worth of bad luck evened out in 7 months. Now 36, Ed was being phased out as the starting 3rd baseman in favor of Wayne Garrett, a younger white player. More racism? Probably not: Ed's batting average had dropped to .207, and the Mets' 2 best offensive players were left fielder Cleon Jones and center fielder Tommie Agee.

Nevertheless, the Mets stayed within range of the Chicago Cubs in the newly-created National League Eastern Division through August 13, when they were 10 games back, and then surged, surpassing them a month later. The Division was clinched on September 24, with Charles hitting his last major league home run off Steve Carlton of the St. Louis Cardinals at Shea Stadium. They swept Charles' former organization, now the Atlanta Braves, in the NL Championship Series, to win the Pennant.

He didn't play in the NLCS, but played in every game of the World Series except Game 3. He went just 2-for-15 with no RBIs, but scored the winning run of Game 2 on Al Weis' 9th inning single. He was at 3rd base for the final out in the clinching Game 5, and was thus in the celebratory photo with pitcher Jerry Koosman and catcher Jerry Grote.
The Mets released him, and he retired. He finished with a .263 lifetime batting average, a 103 OPS+, and 86 home runs.

He later served the Mets as a scout and a minor-league coach, and worked with inner-city youth. He remained in the Mets' home Borough of Queens, living in East Elmhurst. In 1985, he passed the civil service exam, and worked with poor kids at a house complex in The Bronx. He attended reunions of the 1969 team in 1994, 1999 and 2009, and the last game at Shea Stadium in 2008.
He died yesterday, March 15, 2018, at age 84. No cause has been given, only an admission by his family that he "had been ill for several years." He had been married and divorced, and was survived by his sons Edwin Jr. and Eric, his sister Virginia, and his brother Charlie.


Also dying this week was Tom Benson, owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints since 1985, and of the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans in 2012. Although at first he wanted to replace the Superdome, and looked like he would move the Saints out of his hometown if he didn't get a new stadium, especially after Hurricane Katrina, he was shamed into keeping the team in town.
Then he bought the New Orleans Hornets, allowed Charlotte to reclaim the name for the replacement expansion team that had been the Bobcats, took the name Pelicans, and saved a 2nd sport in New Orleans. He's now generally regarded as a hero in Louisiana.

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