American National Biography Online
Stearnes, Turkey (8 May 1901-4 Sept. 1979), Negro League baseball
player, was born Norman Stearnes in Nashville, Tennessee, the
son of Will S. Stearnes and Mary Everett. Although his daughter
once said that he acquired his nickname because he flapped his
elbows when he ran, Stearnes believed a protruding stomach during
childhood was the reason. One of five children, he pitched for
Pearl High School until "around 15 or 16 years old," when his
father died. He then worked at any job he could find, including
slopping pigs, driving wagons, delivering groceries, and general cleaning.
In 1921 Stearnes played professionally with the Montgomery,
Alabama, Gray Sox in the Negro Southern League, a sort of black
minor league. After playing for a year in Memphis, Tennessee,
he was picked up by the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League,
one of the two major black leagues. The Stars players worked
in an automobile factory when they were not playing ball for
Tenny Blount, who owned the numbers racket in Detroit. The team
played black league games five days a week and semipro games
against white teams in Michigan and Canada the other two days.
The Stars' home, Mack Park, had a high fence in right field,
Stearnes recalled, and fell away to a deep center field. Despite
the size of the ballpark, Stearnes hit 17 home runs, second in
the league, and batted .365 during a sixty-game rookie season.
(The Negro Leagues played 40 to 60 games a season, or about one-third
as many as the white major leagues.) That fall the St. Louis
Browns of the American League came to Detroit for a series against
the Stars; it was quite unusual for a major league team to travel
in order to play against a Negro League team. The Stars won two
of the three games, with Stearnes batting .500 in twelve plate
appearances. The following year he led the league in home runs
with a relatively low total of 10 in 60 games, and he batted .358.
Physically, Stearnes was not a typical slugger. Weighing less
than 170 pounds, he whipped his short, 35-inch bat from an odd
left-handed stance, taking the toes of his right foot off the
ground. "Yeah, Turkey had a funny stance, but he could get [his
bat] around on you," sighed Satchel Paige. "He could hit it over
the left field fence, or the center field fence, or over the
right field fence. Turkey Stearnes was one of the greatest hitters
we had. He was as good as anybody ever played baseball." Also
a fast runner, he often batted leadoff and was a wide-ranging center fielder.
Stearnes let his bat talk--"he wasn't a good mixer," the players
said, "he never popped off." Sometimes he talked to his bat and
even took it to bed with him, it was said. When pitchers threw
at his head, he told them, "You make it harder for you. If the
ball comes across, I'm gonna hit that ball. You don't scare me."
For the rest of the 1920s, the glory years of black baseball,
Stearnes kept his batting average well over .300 and remained
among the leaders in home runs. His best power season was 1928,
when he drove 24 over the wall, the second highest total ever
in the history of the black leagues.
With the onset of the Great Depression, in 1930 Stearnes and
other midwestern Negro League players went east to try to make
more money. He briefly landed with the New York Lincoln Giants
but found pickings were just as slim there and returned to Detroit
by mid-1930. By then the Stars had moved to huge Hamtramck Park,
which had a foul line 450 feet extending from home plate. Soon
thereafter, Stearnes became the first player to hit a home run
over the park's outfield fence. He arrived in time to help the
Stars win the second-half pennant in the Negro National League
that season. The Stars then lost to St. Louis, the first-half
winner, in a seven-game playoff. Stearnes's St. Louis rival,
George "Mule" Suttles, batted .357 in the series; Stearnes led
all batters with a .467 average and knocked in 11 runs.
In 1931 Stearnes moved to Kansas City. Although he hit only
8 home runs that season, his record was good enough to lead the
league for the fourth time. The next season he joined the Chicago
American Giants, who played four blocks from the White Sox's
Comiskey Park on the South Side. Even though home runs were hard
to get in South Side Park, the Giants' huge ballpark, Stearnes
led the league in doubles, triples, homers, and steals--a feat
not equaled by any contemporary major leaguer.
When Suttles joined the Giants in 1933, the two great rivals
became teammates. Suttles hit cleanup, while Stearnes led off.
While Suttles's batting fell off in the new park, Stearnes flourished.
He batted .342 in 1933 and .374 in 1934 to lead the American
Giants to the pennant. They lost the Negro League World Series
to Philadelphia in seven games. Finally, in 1935 Stearnes batted
a rousing .434, one of the highest averages achieved in the Negro Leagues.
Stearnes played with the Philadelphia Stars in 1936, moved to
Detroit, then came back to Chicago for two years before ending
his career in Kansas City at the age of thirty-nine. He went
out with a bang. In 1939 he led the league in batting with a
.350 average and apparently in homers (no one else seems to have
matched his 2 home runs). In 1940 he topped everyone again with
5 home runs, the first player to end his career as a league homerun
champion. In 1946 Stearnes married Nettie Mae McArthur; they
had two daughters.
After he left baseball, Stearnes said, "I went to work." He
engaged in twenty-seven years of heavy labor, initially at $6
a day, on the rolling mills of the auto plants in Detroit, where he died.
During his career, Stearnes ranked first in the Negro League
in triples, second in home runs and doubles, and fifth in batting
average and stolen bases. He also won three batting crowns and
six homerun championships. Against white big leaguers he batted
.313 with 4 home runs in 14 games. Stearnes hit with consistency
as well as power, with a lifetime batting average of .352. "I
never counted my homers," he once said. "I hit so many, I never
counted them." The black leagues did not keep careful records
either, but later scholarship has determined that Stearnes was
probably one of the two top black homerun hitters of his era,
1923 to 1940. Suttles narrowly outslugged him in total homers,
190 to 181, although the renowned Josh Gibson might well have
been first if he had played more games. Reacting to the absence
of Stearnes from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, James "Cool
Papa" Bell said, "If they don't put Turkey Stearnes in the Hall
of Fame, they shouldn't put anybody in!"
For further reading, see Richard Bak, Turkey Stearnes and the
Detroit Stars (1994); John B. Holway, Blackball Stars (1988),
p. 248; and Dick Clark, "Norman 'Turkey' Stearnes," The Ballplayers
(1990), pp. 1039-40. Stearnes's statistical record is found in
The Baseball Encyclopedia, 9th ed. (1992), p. 2651. An obituary
is in the Detroit Free Press, 6 Sept. 1979.
John B. Holway
John B. Holway. "Stearnes, Turkey";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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