Porter Riley Charleston was born in Mexia, Limestone County, Texas, on January 8, 1904. Charleston’s life story is filled with gaps. His parentage remains obscure; whether or not he played in one of the Negro/Colored Leagues in Texas is not known.1 When Charleston first traveled to Pennsylvania, where his Negro League career began with the Hilldale Daisies in 1927, is uncertain. However, it appears that he called Chester, Pennsylvania, in Delaware County, his home during his Negro League career and until his death on June 11, 1986.
Porter began his professional Negro League career with the Daisies in 1927. At 23 years of age, he provided a bright spot in Hilldale’s pitching rotation. The 1927 Hilldale Daisies – also known as Clan Darby (or Darbie) – were managed by Frank Warfield for the first 17 games, and later by Otto Briggs for the final 70 games. The team, owned by Ed Bolden, featured greats Biz Mackey and Judy Johnson. That first season, Charleston, who stood 6-feet-1 and weighed 181 pounds, appeared in four games, completed three, and owned a 1-2 record. His performance earned praise from the press; and he was dubbed the “Swarthmore Rookie,”2 perhaps due to Chester’s proximity to Swarthmore College. From the outset of his playing days, the gaps in Charleston’s life story were acknowledged. One reporter wrote, “The Rookie Twirler of the Clan Darbie, Porter Charleston, seems to know what it is all about. He has pitched several splendid games for Ed Bolden and he looks like a real find. How they caught him, found him, came by him, I know not. And it matters not, if he continues to deliver the goods.”3 The 1927 Daisies finished the Eastern Colored League (ECL) season with a 38-48 record.
The 1928 Daisies fared much better under manager Otto Briggs, and with the addition of 31-year-old center fielder and future Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston. Porter Charleston played in 15 games, pitching to a 4-6 record, with five complete games. The right-handed hurler also hit .222 that year.4
In 1929 Charleston pitched a career-high 120⅓ innings, with 12 games started, and produced a 9-5 record. Managers for the Daisies were Oscar Charleston (0-4) and Phil Cockrell (44-32-4); the team’s overall record was 44-36-4, and in the American Negro League, 43-35-3. The Pittsburgh Courier wrote that Charleston “has been touted as one of the [Daisies’] newest stars.”5 He also was identified that year as a utility player.6 He showed great promise, and it was noted that “Charleston has developed into one of the best hurlers on the strong staff of Clan Darbie and is most effective against tough competition.”7
The 1930 season was unusual in that Charleston received little attention, except for a note by W. Rollo Wilson that identified strengths and weaknesses in his game: “I consider Charleston was [one] of the best pitching prospects in the country, and only his own conduct off the field can keep him from stardom.”8 The “conduct off the field” statement is notable and indicates that Charleston may have run afoul of Bolden, the Hilldale owner, or worse. Charleston does not appear to have pitched for Hilldale that season; if he did, he was not involved in games against any of the other major Black clubs in the East. Hilldale finished with only the fifth-best record among the Eastern Independent clubs under manager Phil Cockrell and had a miserable 8-30-1 record.
In 1931 the 27-year-old Charleston was back with Hilldale and appeared in 11 games, finishing with an 8-2 record and nine complete games. Managed by Judy Johnson, the Hilldale Club – the team’s name that year –finished as the top squad among the East’s Independent Clubs with a 38-14-1 record. Of note is an article that addressed Charleston’s off-the-field reputation: “Porter Charleston is home again. The bad boy of the suburbs is back from the Pacific slope.”9
In 1932, his final year with the Hilldale Club, Charleston delivered a 5-3 record, completing each of the eight games he started. That same year, the Baltimore Black Sox acquired Charleston, who appeared in one game as a relief pitcher. The Baltimore club, managed by Dick Lundy, had a record of 33-33 in the East-West League that year.
Charleston became a Philadelphia Star in 1933. He started four games and compiled a 3-0 record, completing three of the four games. He married Cora Robinson on July 20, 1933.10 They had at least one child, a son named Porter Charleston Jr., who achieved some repute as a boxer.11
The Philadelphia Stars of 1934, managed by Webster McDonald, accumulated an overall record of 49-24-3 and a Negro National League II (NNL2) record of 39-18-2. After winning the NNL2’s second-half title, the Stars captured the league championship by defeating the Chicago American Giants, winners of the first-half title. Charleston’s role on the team is not clear, but his name does appear in some press clippings. In June a columnist reported, “The Boldeners have had a run of hard luck. … Porter Charleston reported with a sore arm and it gets no better right along.”12 Apparently Charleston sat out the year with an injury, but it is possible that he played in exhibition games later in the season.13
Charleston was 31 in 1935, which was his last in the Negro Leagues. But it certainly was not his final year in baseball. Playing for the Philadelphia Stars, he had a record of 2-1 in five league games. The press still praised Charleston as “a great natural pitcher, who may start the [season] opener against the Grays.”14 Indeed, the 1935 season looked bright for him; a newspaper commented, “Local sports fans who looked askance at the weak performance of Porter Charleston during the ’34 season are in for a surprise. Exhibiting a contract from Ed Bolden’s Philadelphia Stars, Charleston, for several years, the ace of the Negro pitchers, is signed for comeback.”15
After his final season with the Stars, Charleston continued to play with semipro teams, including Ed Billstein’s Congoleum Crescents. (Billstein was “one of the prominent members of the Congoleum-Nairn office.”16) Other teams for whom he played were the Chester Elks, the Swarthmore Giants, the Lincoln Giants, and Stan Jackson’s Chester Clippers. (Stan Jackson was a Chester High School baseball and football player.17)
Charleston’s appearance with the Baltimore Black Sox in 1939 was noteworthy. The Delaware County Daily Times reported, “Porter Charleston, famous Negro League pitcher, leads the Baltimore Black Sox into town tonight to battle the Lloyd A.C. Tossers. … Charleston is one of the most popular pitchers ever to appear in Chester and is quite well known around the local diamonds.”18
With World War II raging, Charleston registered for the military draft. His draft card notes his age as 35, but as most records indicate he was born in 1904, he was more likely 36. He listed his wife, Cora Robinson, as his contact person and gave his employer as L.M. Supplee, possibly a hardware supplier. Charleston was not called to service, so he was able to continue to play baseball, and he garnered positive press coverage. In 1941 his name headlined a story: “Charleston Stars as Clippers Win.” In this game, pitching for Stan Jackson’s Chester Clippers, Charleston allowed the Eveready A.C. team, of Leesburg, Virginia, “2hits in the first inning,” then “faced only 25 men in the last eight frames. He had four hits in four times and batted in the only two runs of the game.”19
In a 1942 reflection on decades of Negro League baseball, sportswriter Randy Dixon included Charleston as one of many Negro Leaguers who had the talent to play in what were then termed the (White) major leagues.20
As the years passed, Charleston received attention for his baseball play and for non-baseball-related events. In 1948 a newspaper reported that “police are investigating the shooting of Porter Charleston,”21 adding, “… According to the story he told police, the shot was fired by William Johnson, his next door neighbor.” Charleston said the Johnsons were in his home that evening, and that Johnson aimed his pistol at Mrs. Johnson. After the gun failed to fire, Johnson fired again and “Mrs. Johnson is said to have ducked. Charleston who was in the line of fire received the bullet.”22
More details came out in December 1948: William Johnson was sent to the county jail for three to 23 months. Porter Charleston testified that “Mrs. Johnson ducked into my room” when she saw her husband coming up the stairs. Johnson fired one shot, the bullet going through Charleston’s right side without damaging any vital organs. …”23 As troubling as this story was, Charleston still garnered attention for his baseball prowess as well. The article stated that “At one time [Charleston] was rated the equal of the famed ‘Satchel’ Paige, according to Arnold (Lefty) Vann, manager of the Lloyd A.C. who has played against both men.”24
Ten years later, Charleston was seriously injured in an automobile accident. According to a newspaper report, “Charleston, 54, of 114 Flower St., considered one of the [greatest] Negro baseball stars of all time, was injured when the car he was driving collided with one operated by Dolores J. Chandler. … He was treated at Chester Hospital for cuts of the arm, face, leg and back. …”25
In another reflective piece that considered Negro League players who could have played major-league baseball, the Delaware County Daily Times asserted, “Porter Charleston, as a pitcher of note, who appeared at Smedley Field to play ball against Chester usually belted the ball out of the park over the centerfield flag pole with plenty to spare.”26
A 1968 article in the Daily Times noted that Charleston was to be included, for the first time, on the Delaware County Hall of Fame ballot and mentioned that he had played winter ball in Arizona and California. The article said, “Porter called himself primarily a fast ball pitcher – but I had a little bit of everything, he adds with a grin.”27 The writer quoted former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, who said that Charleston “had everything necessary to make it to the big leagues. He just came along a little too soon.”28 Charleston was finally inducted into the Delaware County Hall of Fame in 1970, at which time he was described as “the man called a fit rival for the legendary Satchel Paige.”29
Porter Charleston died at the age of 82 on June 11, 1986, and reportedly was buried at the Haven Memorial Cemetery in Chester, Pennsylvania. The uncertainties of his life remain. He was indeed a very good baseball player – he played in the Negro Leagues from 1927 to 1935, and his baseball talent brought him numerous appearances on semipro teams. In newspaper articles, he was described as a quiet man who worked for the city of Chester. While these reports are incomplete, he is remembered for his baseball play and for the reality that he, among others, did not play in the National or American Leagues simply because he was a Black man.
Unless otherwise noted, all Negro League statistics and records were taken from Seamheads.com’s Negro League Database.
1 Mexia, Texas, near the Fort Worth area, featured the Texas Negro League, the Colored Texas League, the South Texas Negro League, and the West Texas Colored League.
2 “Cubans Are Beaten in 2 Contests,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 10, 1927: 18.
3 W. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 3, 1927: 18.
4 It is not clear whether Porter Charleston batted right or left.
5 “Baltimore Bows Before Grays in 4 Close Tilts; Hilldale Here Friday,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 22, 1929: 16.
6 “Daisies to Show on Forbes Field,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 22, 1929: 16.
7 W. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 31, 1929: 5.
8 W. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 19, 1930: 16.
9 “Charl’ton Holds Sox to 3 Hits in Classic,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 9, 1931: 5.
10 Delaware County Records Center, Marriage Records 1885-1950, http://archives.co.delaware.pa.us/Archives/Marriage1885.aspx.
11 Frank Johnson, “Local Boxers Win All Lloyd AC Contests,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), August 3, 1949: 14.
12 W. Rollo Wilson, “Sports Shots,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 9, 1934: 14.
13 “Among Our Colored Citizens,” Delaware County Daily Times, August 9, 1934: 18.
14 “Local Sports,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 27, 1935: 16.
15 “Among Our Colored Citizens,” Delaware County Daily Times, February 13, 1935: 7.
16 “Crescents to Meet Boldens,” Delaware County Daily Times, August 4, 1936: 10.
17 Delaware County Daily Times, September 20, 1937: 30.
18 “Charleston to Pitch in Clash at Lloyd Field,” Delaware County Daily Times, August 11, 1939: 12.
19 “Charleston Stars as Clippers Win,” Delaware County Daily Times, July 2, 1941: 20.
20 Randy Dixon, “The Sports Bugle,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 15, 1942: 16.
21 The Editors, “How It Looks to Us,” Delaware County Daily Times, October 23, 1948. 1
22 “Former Negro Baseball Star Shot in Side,” Delaware County Daily Times, October 23, 1948: 1.
23 Chester Youth Pleads Guilty in Assault Case,” Delaware County Daily Times, December 31, 1948. 2.
24 “Former Negro Baseball Star Shot in Side.”
25 “7 Injured in County Accidents,” Delaware County Daily Times, June 16, 1958: 46.
26 “Old Timers Hall of Fame Rapped for Omitting Greats,” Delaware County Daily Times, January 12, 1967: 23.
27 John Plaisant, “Porter Charleston Fired Fast Ball 25 Years Too Soon,” Delaware County Daily Times, January 16, 1968: 32.
29 “Tunnell, Walker Lead Greats into Hall of Fame,” Delaware County Daily Times, January 6, 1970: 15.