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NORMAN "TURKEY" STEARNES: THE SILENT SLUGGER

The fact that so many rabid baseball fans did not see Norman “Turkey” Stearnes play professional baseball simply because of the color of his skin is a tragedy. Only a slender 170 or so pounds during the two decades he plied his trade on the diamond, Stearnes nonetheless was a feared slugger who regularly smacked prodigious homers and whose hitting prowess was by all accounts extraordinary. Here Larry Lester tells us about Stearnes and what some of the greats that played along side him in the Negro Leagues thought of him. This original artwork of Stearnes was created by Dick Perez.

Like a whisper in a hurricane or a snowball in a blizzard, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes was long unnoticed and unheralded. Until recently, the talents of this slender southpaw slugger remained unappreciated and underrated. He was baseball’s best kept secret during a career that lasted from 1920 to 1940.

A five-time All-Star selection to the East-West classic in Chicago, the modest Stearnes was a home run hitter with getaway speed. Head bobbing, neck stretched and knees loping, Stearnes ran the bases like a hunted turkey. Like any Thanksgiving strider, he had a quick first step and could easily shift directions at full speed.

This seldom seen original photograph of “Turkey” was taken in 1927 by photographer George Outland. Stearnes was the epitome of a team player. His attitude about playing baseball was summed up when he reminisced about his career shortly before his death: ‘I never counted my home runs. I hit so many, I never counted ‘em and I’ll tell you why. If they don’t win a ballgame, they didn’t amount to anything.’

“And he was a fast man, a great fielder.” Ted “Double Duty Radcliffe added. “In fact, the only man I saw could move faster in the outfield was Cool Papa Bell. When we barnstormed, Cool Papa moved Turkey out of center field. I believe he was the only man who was fast enough to do that.” 

Jamie “Cool Papa” Bell, knew Stearnes well having played with and against him many times through the years. Bell made the Hall of Fame in 1974. Six years later, Stearnes passed away. For years Bell strongly advocated that “Turkey” be enshrined along with him and other great Negro Leagues in Cooperstown. Turkey finally was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2000 by the Veterans Committee.

An excellent fielder, with long, floating strides, Turkey never looked rushed, covering more grass than the morning dew. He also had a strong arm, perhaps the best of any outfielder in the black leagues.

The son of Will S. Stearnes and Mary Everett, Turkey was born in Nashville, Tenn., in 1901 and was one of five children. He was a pitcher for Pearl High School in Nashville when his father died, forced the Turk to take up jobs like slopping pigs, cleaning, and driving delivery wagons filled with the necessary staples.

Like many Negro Leaguers, Stearnes spent most of his winters working a second job -- ironically, at an auto body plant owned by Detroit Tigers magnate Walter O. Briggs, earning roughly $6 a day.

Briggs made clear his policy against black ballplayers on his Tigers teams with the slogan “no jigs with Briggs.”  He held fast to his racist policy until his death in 1952. The Tigers wouldn’t sign their first minority player until 1958, 11 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Upon retirement as a player in 1945, Stearnes returned to Detroit and spent the balance of his working life at a Ford factory.

In the 1937 East-West All-Star Game, the Pittsburgh Courier gave this brief overview of his fielding talents: “The mighty ‘Turkey’ Stearnes also proved a real asset to the West. Turkey strutted around center field covering almost as much territory as the state of Texas. He didn’t get a clean hit himself, but he took plenty of possible hits away from the big stick fielders from the East.” 

“Turkey” was not only a great hitter but his fielding was first rate as well. The East squad chosen to play in the 1937 East-West All Star Game was fearsome. They beat the Western All Stars, 7 to 2, at Comiskey Park in Chicago but the papers reported that Stearnes slick fielding kept the game from being a runaway.

The big sticks that day were Willie Wells, Bill Wright, Buck Leonard, and Mule Suttles. The foursome combined for seven hits, scored five times and drove in four runs a 7-2 victory over the West. The damage would have been worse if not for some rally-ending heroics by the Turk.

Stearnes seldom took the collar at the plate. “That man could hit the ball as far as anybody, but they don’t say too much about him,” said Hall of Famer Bell. “And he was one of our best all-around players. He could field, he could hit, he could run. He had plenty of power.” 

Radcliffe concurred, saying, “He could hit real hard. In one game in Cuba, I saw him hit the ball over the center field wall and into a lake. That ball must have traveled 520 feet. I never saw a ball hit that far. Along with Oscar Charleston, Turkey was one of the greatest left-handed hitters I ever saw.” 

In the batter’s box, Stearnes seldom took pitches. In fact, if famed broadcaster Ernie Harwell had been announcing the Stars’ games back in the day, he might have said Stearnes seldom went “window shopping.”  He swung a 35-inch bat, pointing the toes of his right foot towards the heavens. ”He had a stance worse than [Yankees infielder] Gil McDougald or [White Sox outfielder)] Minnie Minoso or [Cardinals outfielder] Stan the Man [Musial],” said Satchel Paige. “But he was one of the greatest hitters we ever had. He was good as Josh [Gibson].” 

Satchel Paige was another of the great ballplayers who advocated for Stearnes for many years. He emphasized what a great hitter “Turkey” was, winning 6 batting titles and 3 unofficial home run titles and even compared him favorably with the legendary Josh Gibson.

Without a doubt, according to Michigan historian Dick Clark, Turkey Stearnes was the greatest black player in Detroit baseball history. Clark maintains that if there ever were an all-time Detroit outfield, the Turk would join Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Al Kaline. Stearnes would feel right at home with them. In fact, in 14 games he played against white pros, Stearnes hit .313 with four home runs. 

Let’s add that Stearnes was a big Tigers fan. “He never missed a game,” said his oldest daughter, Rosilyn Brown. “He always sat in the bleachers because he said that’s where the fun was.”

Stearnes won or shared six unofficial home run titles, in 1924, 1925, 1928, 1931, 1932, and 1940  “I never counted my home runs,” Turkey said of his dingers. “If it didn’t win a game, it didn’t matter.”  

Noted his daughter: “He was a very humble person and loved to talk about baseball. We used to think that he made up a lot of the stories and now we’re finding out that most of them, if not all, were, in fact, the truth. Amazing isn’t it?”

Yes, it is. As some token historians know, it is not Josh Gibson, Willard “Home Run” Brown, or Mule Suttles but Turkey Stearnes who earned the most career frequent flyer miles.

During his career, the unruffled Turkey quietly gobbled up three unofficial batting titles, in 1931, 1935, and 1939. In Negro League history, only Willard Brown won as many, 

In 1930, Stearnes spent a season with the New York-based Lincoln Giants, prompting Hall of Famer Sol White, in his “At the Oval” column to write, “Mr. Turkey Stearnes, the clouting demon from the West, didn’t do the unexpected when he slammed an offering of a Wilmington twirler high and far over the trees in center field. The Oval fans have been looking for one of those Turkey smashes, and they got an eyeful last Sunday. And Mr. Turkey did some trotting and strutting in center field, too. He went hither and yon in his garden, plucking everything and anything out of the air that looked like a baseball.”

With his combination of power and speed, Stearnes was  perhaps the best lead-off man in baseball history, including the electrifying Rickey Henderson. In fact, Stearnes is the only player in East-West All-Star history to start games batting in both the leadoff and cleanup positions.

On any occasion, Stearnes would take the dance out of a curve ball and the romance out of a fastball. His greatest days in the batter’s box came on four occasions: July 2, 1923; Sept. 3, 1927, July 25, 1931 and June 10, 1935. In 22 official at bats, he had 16 hits for a .727 average. The sweet sixteen hits included two doubles, two triples and eight home runs. His slugging percentage was over 2.000.

Oddly perhaps, Turkey never played on a winning team. Despite some personally sensational years, he led a bunch of no-names nowhere. So why did it take so long for the Turk to get into the Hall of Fame?

Well, Stearnes defies categorization. He was a slugging outfielder, who batted lead-off because of his speed. He hit some of the longest taters recorded, but his slender built wasn’t that of a typical slugger. He didn’t remind anyone of anybody, for he was unique in hitting style, batting stance and perceptible swiftness.

Although the tacit Turkey was a modest man, with immodest talent, his stats finally spoke loudly enough for his posthumous 2000 Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, 21 years after his death. He could have said, “Can you hear me now?”

 

COLLECTIBLES

1978 Laughlin’s Long Ago Black Stars card - 4

1987 Phil Dixon card - 35

1990 Negro League Stars card- 15

1994 NLBPA Ron Lewis Series II card - 7

1995 Negro League Legends Series II card – 7

1999 Greg Stokesberry Bobblehead Doll

2000 Hall of Fame plaque card

2000 Perez Steele Hall of Fame card - 249

2005 Helmar Negro Leaguers card - 15

 

HALL OF FAME

2000 NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME 

2007 MICHIGAN SPORTS HALL OF FAME

2009 LIMESTONE COUNTY HALL OF FAME

2010 TENNESSEE SPORTS HALL OF FAME

 

HONORS

1987, Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame, November 7, 1987, Detroit, MI

2000, Sports Illustrated’s 50 Greatest Sports Figures by States: 28th in Tennessee.

2001, USA Today Baseball Weekly’s Top 100 (2001); 25th place

2000, Turkey Stearnes Day, September 2, 2000 at Comerica Park, Detroit, Mich.

 

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