Andrew McCutchen joined Mike Trout as a recipient of the NLBM's Oscar Charleston Award. - Justin K. Aller
Mike Trout was named MVP after all. Granted, he didn’t earn that distinction from the BBWAA, but the award that will sit on his mantle is just as meaningful, having been bestowed by an organization dedicated to the rich and diverse heritage of the national pastime.
On January 12, Trout and Andrew McCutchen will receive the Oscar Charleston Award, a distinction granted by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to the most valuable player in each league. The designation is part of the Legacy Awards, an annual event held by the museum to honor the best players of the present as well as some of the greats from a much too forgotten past. In addition to the MVP, the annual banquet also hands out several awards named after other great Negro League players, including Larry Doby, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Rube Foster (click here for a list of all award winners). Never heard of these immortals? That's why the NLBM was created...and its success is vital.
Even though some traditionalists in the mainstream media won't be happy to learn that stat geeks have infiltrated the NLBM, the institution's decision to honor Trout is notable beyond the contradiction to the BBWAA. What makes the Oscar Charleston Award worthy of attention is the link it creates between an under-appreciated golden era of baseball and players in uniform now.
Who was Oscar Charleston anyway? Regarded by many historians as the greatest all-around talent in the Negro Leagues (so, by extension, baseball history), Charleston played for over 26 years, ending his career in 1941, still six years before Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier. However, those who saw him play probably best remember his early years, when, as a 19-year old, he started building his reputation as an elite level center fielder with a dynamic combination of power, speed, and aggressiveness. Sound familiar? That description could just as well apply to Trout.
When Trout receives his award, it will be as much Charleston's honor as his own. Fans all around the game, even those who believe Miguel Cabrera was the MVP, are well aware of Trout's immense talent. And, as a result of the Legacy Awards, some will now become aware of Charleston's. Unfortunately, the ceremony, like the announcement, won't receive nearly as much attention as the controversial BBWAA decision and all of the thumb nosing that came along with it. It doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't.
Promoting the Oscar Charleston Award isn't about choosing sides in the A.L. MVP debate. A much more important objective is raising the profile of an institution dedicated to not only preserving a vibrant part of baseball history, but bringing it back to life. That's why every player, executive, team employee, and fan of the game, regardless of race or age, has an obligation to support the NLBM, whether monetarily, if they have the means, or by simply being aware of the great work it is doing on behalf of baseball history. However, that support is not something the baseball community owes the museum, or even the great players of the past. It's a gift we all owe ourselves.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a baseball fan is the game's rich heritage, which not only links past generations within the sport, but does the same for individual families and our nation's culture as a whole. Part of that link was broken by baseball's destructive policy of segregation, but now the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is doing its best to reconnect the legacy. It would be great if Bud Selig and all of the active and retired players did more to promote both the museum and the history it preserves, but in the meantime, fans can take the lead. So, instead of lamenting the outcome of the BBWAA's idea of most valuable, celebrate the criteria used by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. And, while you're at it, make a donation too. If so inclined, you can do it in Mike Trout's name.