It took Ed Charles a long time to get his chance, but he persisted, and made the most of it. Born into segregation and poverty in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1933, he was inspired by seeing Jackie Robinson in spring training with the Montreal Royals in 1946, a moment dramatized (with some artistic license) in the 2013 movie 42. Signed by the Boston Braves in 1952, Charles didn’t make the major leagues until a decade later with the Kansas City A’s. He played eight years in the bigs, the last three of them with the Mets, earning the nickname “The Glider” for his fluid, economical defense and providing a steadying veteran presence for an upstart team that won the World Series.
Before Roger Angell and Vin Scully, Charles was also hailed as “The Poet Laureate of Baseball,” having begun crafting verse while toiling in the minors. When he passed away on Thursday at the age of 84, his New York Times obituary called him “the heart and soul of the Miracle Mets of 1969.” That’s a life well lived.
One of nine children in a broken home, Charles could not afford a ticket to see the Dodgers and Royals (their top minor-league affiliate) play at Daytona’s City Island Park, but he watched through a chain-link fence in left field as baseball’s color line begin to crumble. Via Chris Lamb’s Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training:
We watched him play that day and finally believed what we had read in the papers, that one of us was out there on the ball field. When [spring training] was over, we kids followed Jackie as he walked with his teammates down to the train station, and when the train pulled out, we ran down the tracks listening for the sounds as far as we could. And when we finally couldn’t hear it any longer, we ran some more and finally stopped and put our ears to the tracks so we could feel the vibrations of that train carrying Jackie Robinson. We wanted to be a part of him as long as we could.
In the movie, the young Charles is depicted receiving an autographed ball from Robinson at the train station, but as Bruce Markusen wrote for The Hardball Times in 2013, that particular moment never happened. Nevertheless, Charles, who dropped out of school after eighth grade and finally returned after going to live with his older sister in St. Petersburg, became the captain of the Gibbs High School baseball team and signed a professional contract in 1952. Though they weren’t as innovative or aggressive as the Dodgers, the Braves (along with the Giants) were well ahead of the curve in integrating the majors. Rickey signed such a surplus of black talent that he dealt outfielder Sam Jethroe to Boston in 1949, and the following year, “Jet” won NL Rookie of the Year, the third of six black NL players to win the award in its first seven years.
While the Braves (who moved to Milwaukee in 1953) found room to bring Jethroe, George Crowe (1952 debut), Bill Bruton (1953), Jim Pendleton (1953), Hank Aaron (1954), and Wes Covington (1956) to the majors within a decade of Robinson’s arrival, Charles languished in the minors, first in Quebec but soon enough back in the segregated South, enduring the abuses and indignities that typified that era. A 1954-55 stint in the military interrupted his climb, and having converted from shortstop to second base, he lost out on a big-league job in 1956, when the Braves traded for future Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst. The team succeeded without Charles, winning back-to-back pennants in 1957-58, including a World Series in the former of those two years. Charles, by this time a third baseman, was now blocked by another future Hall of Famer, slugger Eddie Mathews.
In 1961, Charles took up writing poetry and, in December of that year, finally caught the break he needed when the Braves traded him to the Kansas City A’s in a five-player deal. The 29-year-old Charles won the third-base job the following spring and hit a robust .288/.356/.454 with 17 homers, 20 steals, and above-average defense at the hot corner. He made the Topps All-Rookie team. And check this out:
|3||Jung Ho Kang||Pirates||2015||28||467||128||3.4||18.4||2.9||3.8|
|10||Tadahito Iguchi||White Sox||2005||30||582||105||2.7||6.5||6.3||3.3|
|12||Akinori Iwamura||Devil Rays||2007||28||559||107||3.3||8.0||4.0||3.1|
Certainly, Charles didn’t face the pressure that Robinson or other integration pioneers — including Negro Leagues veterans Easter, Irvin, and Jethroe from that table — did upon reaching the majors, but he rose to his own long-awaited occasion nonetheless. Never mind that the A’s didn’t post anything close to a .500 record or finish above seventh place in a 10-team league during his five full seasons in Kansas City. He proved without a doubt that he could play at the highest level, hitting a combined .268/.337/.406 (105 wRC+) while averaging 11 homers, 12 steals, and 2.8 WAR per year during that run.
After a slow start to his 1967 season, the 34-year-old Charles was traded to the Mets on May 10 so that the A’s could make way for 23-year-old Sal Bando at third base. Charles scuffled that year, but he rebounded to hit .276/.328/.434 with 15 homers in just 117 games in 1968, good for a 130 wRC+ in “The Year of the Pitcher.” Both that mark and his 3.6 WAR ranked second on the Mets, who improved from 61-101 in 1967 to set a franchise record with 73 wins (against 89 losses) in 1968. Rookie pitcher Jerry Koosman bestowed his nickname that year, after a particularly impressive diving stab. As Charles recounted in 2009, the 25-year-old southpaw walked off the mound over to his position. “He was sort of flabbergasted that I’d made the play. He said, ‘You sort of glide to the ball. That’s it. You’re The Glider from now on.'”
Though Charles hit just .207/.286/.320 with three home runs in 61 games in 1969, two of those homers came off future Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Steve Carlton. While he lost his regular job to rookie Wayne Garrett, he settled into a platoon and served the team’s elder statesman, nearly a decade older than any member of their starting lineup. And while he only drove in 18 runs that season, five gave the team the lead. The Mets won 100 games that year, overcoming what was a 10-game deficit behind the Cubs on August 13, finally overtaking them on September 10 as part of a 24-7 season-ending run.
Charles sat during the inaugural NLCS against the Braves but started four of the five World Series games against the powerful Orioles, all against southpaws Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally. He went 2 for 4 against McNally in Game Two, with a seventh-inning double and a two-out ninth-inning single, coming around to score the go-ahead run. The Mets, who had lost Game One, never looked back. Fittingly, Charles was on the mound behind Koosman when the team recorded the final out to clinch its miraculous championship, photographed beaming and jumping into the air upon reaching the mound.
Charles never played in the majors again. The Mets released him after the 1969 season, and he became a promoter for Buddah Records, who had put out an album celebrating the team’s World Series win but specialized in bubblegum acts such as the 1910 Fruitgum Company. In 1972, he crossed paths with Robinson while both men filled out paperwork at New York’s Small Business Administration. Via Maruksen, the nervous Charles approached Robinson, thanking him for his pioneering efforts. Robinson smiled, saying, “You’re welcome. That means a lot to me.”
After a stint as an entrepreneur, Charles became a Midwestern scout for the Mets, notably finding Neil Allen, their future closer, and coached their Rookie-level Kingsport (Tenn.) affiliate from 1983 to -85. After passing the Civil Service test in 1985, he worked 60-hour weeks at a Bronx intake house run by the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice, performing a kind of triage on troubled and disadvantaged youths.
“I never tell them I played baseball,” he said in 2000. “But most of them find out and the question they ask most is, ‘Why are you here?’ I tell them, ‘I’m here because you’re here.’”
In 1997, Charles participated in some of the many events surrounding the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut. At a Long Island symposium, he read a poem that he’d written after Robinson passed away in 1973.
Yes, he made his mark for all to see
As he struggled determinately for dignity.
And the world is grateful for the legacy
That he left for all humanity.
Ed Charles left his own mark, a legacy for which we should be grateful.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.