Stearnes, Norman “Turkey” 1901
Norman “Turkey” Stearnes 1901–1979
Negro League baseball player
One of the brightest stars in the Negro Leagues for more than twenty years, outfielder Norman “Turkey” Stearnes turned a unique playing style into a tool for greatness. Complementing his dynamic skill at the plate and finesse in the field, Stearnes led by example with a dignified, almost regal model of behavior. By successfully bridging those elements, Stearnes’ induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000 finally put the formal and official stamp of respect on his career that Stearnes so richly deserved.
Stearnes was born on May 8, 1901 in Nashville, Tennessee. He joined his first professional team, the Montgomery Grey Sox of the Negro Southern League, in 1921, when he was twenty years old. According to the Negro League Baseball website, Stearnes was a “fleet-footed power hitter with an unusual batting style.” On the website, former teammate Jimmie Crutchfield described Stearnes as a “quirky-jerky sort of guy who could hit the ball a mile. Turkey had a batting stance that you’d swear couldn’t let anybody hit a baseball at all. He’d stand up there looking like he was off balance. But, it was natural for him to stand that way, and you couldn’t criticize him for it when he was hitting everything they threw at him.” Equally as odd was the way Stearnes circled the bases, allegedly with his arms flailing, earning him the nickname “Turkey.”
The lefthander parlayed such an unusual style into an outstanding ability. Unfortunately, it was during an American era where the success of African-American baseball players lived in the shadow of white culture. Stearnes played professional baseball from 1921 to 1942. For half of that career, he roamed centerfield for the Detroit Stars. Stearnes hit 140 home runs and had a .352 batting average in his time with the Stars. He also led the league in home runs six times during his tenure. His statistics in the 1920s and 1930s clearly rivaled, if not surpassed, those of white big leaguers. In the 1920s, he hit better than..360, winning the league batting title four times.
Following his stint with Detroit, Stearnes joined the Chicago American Giants in 1932, where he played for several seasons. There, he earned four appearances in the East-West All-Star fame, not to mention the inaugural All-Star game in 1933. Stearnes later moved to Philadelphia where, he hit higher than. .360 again. He returned to Detroit for the 1937 season, where he had a..383 batting average and added yet another All-Star appearance.
Stearnes traveled from team to team throughout his twenty-year career. In addition to Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Stearnes also played for the Nashville Elite Giants, the Memphis Red Sox, the New York Lincoln Giants, the Kansas City Monarchs, Cole’s American Giants, the Detroit Black Sox, and the Toledo Cubs.
Quick of foot in the field and relentless at the plate, Stearnes not only impressed audiences, but earned the respect and adulation of Negro League teammates and opponents. Fellow league players remembered Stearnes as a great player, but one with a certain amount of quirks. “He was a peculiar guy,” former teammate Ray Sheppard told the New York Times. “He was a loner. He didn’t run
Born Norman Stearnes on May 8, 1901, in Nashville, TN; died September 4, 1979, in Detroit, Ml; married Nettie; children: Rosalyn Stearnes Brown.
Career: Baseball player. Signed with the Montgomery Grey Sox, 1921; played outfield for the Detroit Stars, 1923-31; signed with the Chicago American Giants, 1932; signed with the Philadelphia Stars, 1933; returned to Detroit Stars, 1937; also played for the Nashville Elite Giants, Memphis Red Sox, New York Lincoln Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Cole’s American Giants, Detroit Black Sox and the Toledo Cubs.
Awards: Three-time Negro League All-Star; four batting titles; led the Negro League in home runs six different times; inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame, 2000.
with anybody or fool around or drink. You couldn’t use his bat or glove. Sometimes he didn’t want a locker by you.” Negro League Hall of Famer William Johnson said in the New York Times, “Stearnes was very particular about his bat. If he made out, he’d sit there holding it and talking ‘I hit that good,’ he’d say.” Johnson added, “I believe sometimes he carried that bat to bed.’”
If his unusual demeanor with fellow ballplayers branded him “peculiar,” his on-field prowess impressed some of the Negro League’s best players. Batting for .340 or better throughout a career will do that. In the New York Times Negro League legend and Hall of Famer Satchel Paige described Stearnes as “one of the greatest hitters…as good as anybody.” At pitchblackbaseball.com, Negro League Star Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe compared Stearnes to James “Cool Papa” Bell: “Everyone knows that Cool Papa Bell was the fastest man. But Cool Papa Bell couldn’t field with Turkey Stearnes. He was faster, but Turkey Stearnes was one of the best fly ball men.” And even Bell himself had high praise for the left-handed hitting Stearnes. “If they don’t put him in the Hall of Fame, they probably shouldn’t put anyone in,” Bell was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
Not only was Stearnes a talented baseball player, but he also possessed limitless patience. Stearnes was a star athlete in a time when the white-only major leagues enjoyed the nation’s love and admiration. White professional players did so in large and lush baseball parks, before thousands of adoring fans and for, at that time, a handsome salary. Negro Leaguers played on dirt fields, traveling from city to city, sometimes as part of a circus-like show, just to get an audience. And while their play was equal, if not superior to the white players, their efforts were often lost on the general public. For some, this might be grounds to harbor a grudge, to become bitter or angry at the powers that would stunt the impressive abilities of the equally capable black players. But not Stearnes. “He wasn’t bitter,” Jerry Green wrote in the Detroit News. “There were a lot of things he didn’t like, but he wasn’t bitter… He loved baseball. He talked about baseball all the time. He was quiet and reserved. Whenever we had a conversation, it became baseball.”
And while he loved to talk baseball, Stearnes, despite his on-field success and the ability to hit the home run, was a humble creature. “I never counted my home runs,” Stearnes was quoted as saying on the UAW website. “If they didn’t win a ball game, they didn’t amount to anything…. That’s what I wanted, to win the game.”
Stearnes took his love for baseball well into his retirement. Stearnes left the game in 1942—after batting 181 home runs in 903 games and earning a batting average of .352—and took a job at a Ford plant that same year, at the age of 41. Stearnes become a fixture in the outfield bleachers at Tiger Stadium, often sitting with fans and doing what he loved the most: talking baseball. “I sit in the bleachers,” Stearnes told the New York Times. “I know a lot of boys and I have fun out there with them. We talk. We discuss things without fighting.” And of the game itself? Stearnes told the New York Times, “It’s a good game. It’s the best game known. You go to see it, you’ll like it.” Stearnes died on September 4, 1979, in Detroit.
Twenty years after his death, the Michigan State Senate petitioned the Hall of Fame to consider Stearnes for induction. State Senator Joe Young Jr., as quoted on the Michigan State Senate website, said, “He was a spectacular athlete.” In the spring of 2000 baseball’s Hall of Fame Induction Committee announced that Stearnes’ plaque would go into the Hall, alongside the game’s greatest players.
The Detroit News, July 20, 2000
The New York Times, July 23, 2000, pg. 27.
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