“Turkey Stearnes — that cat could play and hit. He could’ve made it.” — Thomas “Monk” Favors1
Over the years, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s research department routinely requested retired baseball players to submit a form whose details painted a picture of the player’s birth, family, and early years, and a sketch of his playing career and subsequent retirement. Fortunately, Norman Thomas Stearnes was among those who received this request, and in December 1971 the Hall obtained his submission. It is in Stearnes’ own handwriting, at the age of 70, that we learned that he was born on May 8, 1901, in Nashville, Tennessee. His parents were Will and Mary (Everett) Stearnes. He attended Belleview Elementary School and then Pearl High in Nashville.2
Stearnes’ own words in an invaluable interview with John Holway are the most appropriate to tell the story of his teenage years.
I wasn’t able to continue high school. I was around 15 or 16 years old when my father died and I had to go to work to help. We had quite a big family. At that time we had five kids in the family. … But you know how it is, you don’t make much money. … My mother was working, cooking for $7 a week. I just did any job that popped up, taking care of hogs and cows and everything like that. I worked at a grocery store, driving a wagon, delivering groceries. I also worked at the Baptist Publishing Board, a janitor mostly, running errands.”3
As with many youngsters, sports were an outlet for Stearnes from school and chores. “I learned to play baseball in high school. We had a lot of sandlots. All the schools around there had clubs. At that time I was a pitcher. They were getting me to play every Friday.”4 After he left school, Stearnes reflected that “I kept on playing sandlot baseball Saturdays and Sundays, and I was still trying to finish high school.”5 The player file that Stearnes submitted to the Hall of Fame included a box to indicate how he batted, right or left. Interestingly, he marked both, although throughout his career Stearnes hit (and threw) left-handed. Holway’s Blackball Stars sheds light on what may have happened. “Nat Rogers said Stearnes had been a natural right-handed hitter, ‘until he burned his arm when he was young, and he turned around to hit from the left side.’”6
In 1921, as he turned 20, Stearnes’ love of baseball and his emerging talent took him to Montgomery, Alabama, for the summer to play for the Montgomery Gray Sox in the Negro Southern League. The Gray Sox were among a handful of black teams in the South, serving as a kind of feeder system for the big-city Negro League teams up north.
“John Staples had the team. I played down there all summer with them, then came back home to school.”7 This was quite an introduction to professional baseball for Stearnes. “The Cuban Stars and all the big colored teams used to come through that way. We used to play them. [Cannonball Dick] Redding was with the Bacharach Giants. Well, the Bacharachs had the two best pitchers up here at that time, Redding and Harold Treadwell. … Oh, I hit Redding — I wore them both out.”8
An early sighting of Stearnes surfaced in the Birmingham Black Barons’ opener in 1921 against Montgomery in which, according to William Plott, “Turkey Stearnes made two nice throws to the plate.”9 Coincidentally, Montgomery won the Negro Southern League that year, sweeping Stearnes’ hometown Nashville squad four games to none.10 Mark Ribowsky, author of a history of the Negro Leagues, summed up his season well:
“In Montgomery, Alabama, a cobralike outfielder, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, was ripping up league pitching. All arms and legs, Stearnes was a pastiche of oddities; in his batting stance he leaned way forward and his back foot pointed straight up. When he ran, his elbows flapped in and out — thus his nickname. He choked up on a light, thin bat, yet he hit moonshot home runs. On Bruce Petway’s recommendation, in 1922 Tenny Blount became the first [Negro] National League owner to give Turkey Stearnes a contract.”11
When it came to his nickname, Stearnes offered a different story on its origins. He told Holway in the 1968 interview that it came from the potbelly he had as a kid.12
After the 1921 season, Norman returned to Nashville that autumn to resume his studies. He also continued to support his family through any work he could find. But the impressions Stearnes made in 1921 on the diamond stood him well, and he traveled to Memphis in 1922 to play for the NSL Red Sox. Another extended reminiscence from Stearnes tells how his play led to his long, storied career with the Detroit Stars.
In 1922 I played in Memphis, Tennessee. All those clubs down there were affiliated with the league up here [in the Midwest and East]. … The big-league colored teams had scouts, that’s how the Detroit Stars picked me up. Bruce Petway of the Stars was one of the finest catchers we had in colored baseball. He was sent down there to watch me; they had heard so much talk about me. I was pitching and playing first base. But they changed me to the outfield after I got up here, ’cause I was hitting too good. He begged me to come up here [Detroit] in ’22. I was trying to finish high school. That was my last year. I at least wanted to finish high school, because I knew I couldn’t go to college.13
Stearnes did indeed finish school in 1922, setting the stage for him to travel north in 1923 to play with the Stars. However, playing ball in the Negro Leagues was a financial risk, particularly for a young, unproven player if there wasn’t a regular job to go along with it. Again, Stearnes tells his own story, underscoring his love for the game alongside his fiscal responsibility:
“I came north in 1923, March 1. I came here to Detroit. I worked at the Briggs Manufacturing Company, the same man that owned the Tigers. All our gang. He gave us a job out there and we’d play semi-pro. We were painting the bodies of the cars. I was putting them into the drier myself. The white boys were painting. I’d put them on the drier for them. … In ’23 I was playing professional ball with the Detroit Stars out on Mack Avenue. Tenny Blount was the owner at that time. He was the policy king. That was the biggest thing doing around here in the Detroit among the colored. But he was one of the squarest men; I never worked for anyone better. If you worked, you got paid. Nothing but the best.”14
Although Detroit was a charter member of the eight-team Negro National League, regular-season games filled only a fraction of the schedule. Stearnes remarked on the Stars’ season:
“Saturday, Sunday, Mondays, Tuesday we’d play league games against Chicago, Kansas City, and them. Wednesday and Thursday, we’d play exhibition games with the white kids. We used to work Canada, all those places, the little leagues they got over there. Sometimes we’d go 300 miles. Everybody thought they could beat us, until they found out.”15
The origins of the Detroit Stars, Stearnes’ club from 1923 to 1930, merit telling. The Stars came into existence in 1919, widely acknowledged as a creation of Rube Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants. Foster’s entrepreneurialism and eventual plans for a Negro National League called for a network of teams in the Midwest. The Detroit connection, run by John T. “Tenny” Blount, was a natural one, given the city’s large African-American population and proximity to Chicago. Foster anointed Blount to handle the team. Blount in turn established a relationship with John A. Roesnik, owner of Mack Park, located at Mack and Fairview Avenues, four miles east of downtown Detroit. Mack Park became the home of the Stars until 1929, when it burned down.16
Detroit filled its schedule in its first year through barnstorming, but in 1920 it became a cog in the wheel of Foster’s inaugural Negro National League. As one of eight teams in the league, it was not quite so independent as the others. Contractually, Foster controlled the Stars’ player movement, which he used to ensure competitive balance across the league. In their pre-Stearnes years — 1920-22 — the Stars performed erratically. In 1920 they finished second to Foster’s American Giants. In 1921 and 1922, the Stars could manage only fifth- and fourth-place finishes). Petway, who scouted Stearnes in the NSL, became the Stars’ manager in 1922, succeeding Pete Hill. Petway would benefit from his recruitment of Stearnes; it would give him a leadoff hitter and fleet outfielder when he led the team to above-.500 records in the four seasons he and Stearnes were together (through 1925).
Stearnes’ rookie year in 1923 was one for the ages. Detroit Stars historian Richard Bak recorded Stearnes as in the lineup on April 29 (Opening Day against Indianapolis) and barely a month later — May 31 — he hit for the cycle in a 7-6 win against Toledo. The season was a magical one for Stearnes: three triples in a game, multiple-homer games, and a first look at his towering shots that were necessary, according to Bak, to clear “Mack Park’s tall right field fence, which was topped with a wire screen, requiring better than average lift to clear it. ‘You got to hit a tall fly ball,’ is the way Stearnes once described it.”17 The statistical line for Turkey in 1923 — 18 home runs, 89 RBIs, .366 batting average, .403 OBP, and a .723 slugging percentage (purportedly the highest ever for a Detroit Star) — represented an incredible coming-out party. However, despite Stearnes’ heroics and the power-hitting first baseman Edgar Wesley, the Stars finished only a distant third behind the Kansas City Monarchs, who went on to play Hilldale that autumn in the first Colored World Series.
Right out of the box, Stearnes became known for his power. He and Mule Suttles would share the headlines throughout the 1920s as the premier Negro League home-run hitters. They were precursors to Josh Gibson, yet by no means less accomplished. But while Suttles was a big, burly man, Stearnes’ build belied an ability to hit with authority.
Turkey explained his hitting ability this way: “I never did weigh over 168 pounds. Well, I have reached up to 175 my last few years in baseball. But people couldn’t understand how I hit the ball so hard and far. … I was strong in my shoulders; that was the difference.”18 Learning how to hit at Mack Park also helped.
Jimmy Crutchfield described Stearnes as a “quick-jerky sort of guy who could hit the ball a mile,” adding, “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.”19
The results were, in a word, awesome. “I remember one year, my first year with Detroit in 1923, I think I hit about 50-some [home runs],” Stearnes remarked. “But after I was up here for about a year, I hit so many that that’s the reason I didn’t count them.”20
Stearnes was proud of the fact that he was a complete ballplayer — a five-tool player before the term came into being. Historian Leslie A. Heaphy wrote that “Stearnes generally led off even though he had a fair amount of power. His speed and his high average made him a great choice at the top of the order. … He also had great speed and a strong arm.”21 But hitting homers was not that big a deal for him. “I’ll tell you why. If they didn’t win a ball game, they didn’t amount to anything. It didn’t make any difference if I hit four or five over the grandstand. It didn’t make any difference to me, as long as I hit them to try to win the game. That’s what I wanted, to win the game.”22
The completion of the NNL’s fourth season in 1923 was by no means the end of baseball that year for Stearnes or many of his teammates and competitors. Emblematic of the times, postseason barnstorming was the norm for black and white players alike. It could be as lucrative as their regular-season paychecks and it offered a level playing field for white and black players to test their skills against one another. That autumn, after the Stars completed league play, they participated in a three-game exhibition with the American League St. Louis Browns.
The Browns had just finished their season in Detroit against Tigers, and with the promise of a decent share of the gate receipts, stayed to take on Detroit’s second “professional” team. As often was the case in these impromptu matchups, both teams supplemented their rosters to heighten interest among the fans and competitiveness against their opponent. The Stars brought in Oscar Charleston and John Beckwith for the three-game set that began on October 8, making for a strong lineup — Stearnes (batting third) and then Charleston, Beckwith, and Edgar Wesley.23
After the dust settled, it was widely acknowledged that Turkey Stearnes and Oscar Charleston helped the Detroit Stars win two out of three. The Negro Leaguers won the first game, 7-6. In the second game, “Oscar and the Stars’ 22-year-old hot-shot rookie center fielder, Norman ‘Turkey’ Stearnes clubbed five extra-base hits off Browns 16-game winner Elam Vangilder. In that contest … Stearnes had a home run and a triple, and the Stars won again 7-6.” The Browns saved face and won the last game, 11-8.24
Not all black squads fared as well against major-league teams, but play was so competitive that it eventually led to a formal prohibition of games. According to historian Jeffrey S. Williams, “Commissioner Landis banned Major League teams from playing in off-season games. Landis later put limitations on playing barnstorming contests after October . The impetus behind the limitations on barnstorming was due, at least in part, to losses against Negro League teams. The players responded by forming clubs made up of major and minor leaguers from various organizations [under a range of monikers]. … Major Leaguers often played under assumed names or the contents weren’t publicized.”25 Stearnes’ participation in winter league ball throughout the 1920s would offer a prime example of ballplayers circumventing Landis’s prohibition.
Stearnes’ debut in 1923 augured his emergence as the face of the Stars franchise through the rest of the decade. Unfortunately for Detroit Stars fans, the club never attracted enough talent to make it competitive with the fiscally stronger Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, and St. Louis Stars, the premier teams of the Midwest. During Stearnes’ tenure with Detroit, the team never finished higher than third overall and won just one half-season championship (in 1930). The only premier player and eventual Hall of Famer on the team for any length of time with Stearnes was Andy Cooper, who won 138 games for the Stars from 1920 to 1930. Blount and then Roesink, who followed him as owner, did little to attract talent to beef up the roster.
In 1924, Stearnes hit .348 with an OPS of .996 in 61 games for the third-place Stars. In 1925 his OPS exceeded 1.000 and would stay above that plateau for the remainder of his time with the Stars. In league play over each of the next five years (1926-30), Turkey would hit over .350 (with one exception) with an OPS north of 1.000, and average 18 homers.
Most ballplayers want to win — white or black — so why was Stearnes satisfied to stay with the Stars rather than seek greener pastures? As noted earlier, players liked Stars owner Blount as well as his successor, Detroit entrepreneur Roesink, who bought the Stars in 1925 and owned them until their 1930 midseason collapse due to the Depression. According to Bak, “Although Roesink would later inspire the wrath of many Black Bottom fans, players generally considered the haberdasher a first-class owner. They were well paid and continued to travel by train, even as some NNL teams made the switch to more cost-effective touring cars and buses.”26
In 1925 the NNL switched play to create first- and second-half division winners, which would then engage in a playoff at the end of the season for the league championship. Done to generate more fan interest and greater revenue from a playoff series, the potential for Detroit to have two bites of the apple at winning was realized only once, in 1930, when it won the second-half championship, but lost to the St. Louis Stars in the playoffs.
Despite Detroit’s mediocre play, Stearnes did not labor in obscurity. He was a fan favorite and earned the respect of his peers. A 1992 Detroit News feature on the Stars reflected that “Lawrence Carter, who used to write a column for the Detroit News about old times in the city’s black community, wrote fondly of the way Turkey used to play. ‘He was one of the darlings of the crowd,’ wrote Carter. ‘When Turkey swung and missed, it would set up a Pentecostal wind. … It was a great time.’”27
Ted Radcliffe, a teammate of Stearnes in 1928 and 1929, reminisced about his time in Detroit. “We used to fill that Mack Park on Sundays. … They’d be lined up on the streets when we opened the gate. We could only get seven or eight thousand in the place, but there were some days that we’d outdraw the Tigers.”28
What Stearnes was not was a self-promoter. In fact, for some, his personality could be aloof. “Turkey was a peculiar guy. He was a loner,” teammate Ray Sheppard said. “He didn’t rush with anybody or fool around or drink. You couldn’t use his bat or glove. Some time he didn’t want a locker near you.”29 According to fellow Detroit Star Dick Seay, “Turkey wasn’t a good mixer. After the game, he left the park, that was it. You have to get out and meet the public. He wasn’t the type.”30
Buck O’Neil noted that Stearnes was also obsessed about his bat. “Turkey carried around his bats, a thirty-four incher and a thirty-five incher, in a special bat case, like they were violins. One time, after a tough loss, the Monarchs were in the hotel eating dinner, and the manager, Frank Duncan, asked me to go check on the gobbler — that’s another thing we called Turkey, you see. So I knocked on the Gobbler’s door, and he said, ‘Come in,’ and there he is, sitting in the middle of his bed in his pajamas talking to his bats.”31
The Negro National League of the 1920s in which Detroit was a fixture was otherwise a fluid consortium of teams that came and went. More than 20 franchises participated in the league’s 12 campaigns from 1920 to 1931, but only three — the Chicago American Giants, the Kansas City Monarchs, and the Detroit Stars — competed every year. (The St. Louis Giants were inaugural NNL members and then became the St. Louis Stars in 1922 under new ownership but essentially with the same team and also lasted until the end.) In those 12 years, the American Giants, Monarchs, and St. Louis Stars were the only teams to win the pennant.
Stearnes would experience postseason play only once with the Stars, in 1930, when Detroit lost in the playoffs to St. Louis. His autumns after the league’s season ended otherwise became an opportunity to play in the winter leagues. Many went to Cuba over the winter, and Stearnes played there one year. Records show him with the 1924-25 Santa Clara/Matanzas team that finished third in the league. Compared with the well-manned Almendares league champions, Stearnes’ Santa Clara/Matanzas side had relatively few imports to help compete.32
Instead of Cuba, it was California where Stearnes would become a winter regular. He would play in the California Winter League (CWL) nine years, first appearing in the box scores during the 1922-23 season for the St. Louis Stars. (He was 21 at the time and on the cusp of beginning his long tenure with Detroit.) The Stars had moved out west to play an independent schedule at the conclusion of the NNL season.
Stearnes returned to California in 1923-24, again with St. Louis, which finished first in a four-team league that included Universal Studio, Pirrone’s All-Stars, and San Diego. With an average over .300, Stearnes contributed to a strong hitting attack that complemented the pitching of Andy Cooper and Bob McClure.
Turkey opted to play in Cuba for the 1924-25 winter season and his next recorded California stint was in 1926-27, when he played for the Royal Giants alongside Willie Wells, Willie Foster, Rap Dixon, Biz Mackey, and Joe Rogan. He led the league in home runs. The powerhouse Giants won the league and split the playoff series with Shell Oil to become co-champions.33
The 1927-28 California Winter League season began with the initially distressing news that Commissioner Landis would ban major- and minor-league players from competing against blacks in Southern California’s winter league. As it happened, “[M]ajor leaguers were eventually limited to playing only 30 days after the end of the major league season, while minor leaguers were not affected at all.”34 Once the dust settled, winter league play commenced with the Royal Giants, Pirrone All-Stars, Orange County, and the Cleveland Stars from back east. Stearnes this time played with Cleveland, teaming with Wells, Cooper, and Frank Duncan, among others. It was one of Stearnes’ best California campaigns: He ensured that the Stars were competitive (finishing second) and, according to William McNeil, led the league in homers (7) and had a robust batting average of .377.35 He was back again in 1928-29 with Cleveland; his superlative hitting helped the team to a first-place finish and championship win against Shell Oil.36
Stearnes did not play in California in the winter of 1929-30 but returned in 1930-31with the Nashville Elite Giants. In an early-season matchup, the Elite Giants defeated Pirrone’s All-Stars 8-6, a game notable for Pirrone’s lineup of major leaguers Babe Herman, Irish Meusel, Al Wingo, and Roxy Walters, who were able to play before complying with Landis’s “30-day” ruling. Nashville won the league that winter and then the playoff with San Diego. Stearnes led the league in batting, hits, and home runs (.377/49/8).37
The following winter, 1934-35, was equally memorable. James A. Riley’s biography of Willie Wells highlighted: “After the disappointment of the [1934 NNL] playoff loss, Willie and the team’s two great sluggers, Turkey Stearnes and Mule Suttles, journeyed to California to join Tom Wilson’s Nashville Elite Giants for the Coast Winter League.”38 Stearnes and Suttles each hit 16 home runs to lead the CWL on a team reputedly considered the greatest Negro League team ever to play in that circuit.39
In his last year in California, 1935-36, Stearnes played alongside Suttles one more time for Wilson’s Royal Giants, who led the league by a mile. Paige and Chet Brewer anchored the rotation.40
The California Winter League was a big deal for Stearnes — money, fame, and a chance to compete against white ballplayers made the extended season worthwhile. But the NNL regular season remained front and center for him, first in his time with the Stars and then as he and all Negro Leaguers navigated the changed landscape brought about by the cataclysmic events of 1929.
When Wall Street crashed in October 1929, with it came great financial instability for the Negro Leagues that would upend play for the next several years. On top of that, the Stars suffered a calamity that would contribute even further to the team’s eventual demise. Before a July 7, 1929, Sunday afternoon doubleheader with Kansas City, a lit cigarette ignited debris under Mack Park’s stands and set them afire. The Detroit Free Press headline told the story: “Fear-Stricken Spectators Leap Upon Those Beneath; Many Injured in Mad Rush to Safety.”41
Bak’s history of the Stars states that “the ballplayers, who lost everything when the clubhouses were destroyed, were fully compensated by Roesink. But the fans were bitter (no one died, but over 100 were injured in the mayhem, and the owner refused to issue refunds), and paid him back at the box office.”42 The team completed the season at Dequindre Park, but finished below .500, although Stearnes hit well again.
The next year, 1930, saw the Stars play in a new ballpark built by Roesink in Hamtramck, a small city largely surrounded by Detroit. The park’s left-field fence was 315 feet from home plate, and it was 407 feet to right with a 10-foot-high corrugated steel fence that ringed the ballpark. According to Bak, “The cavernous center-field pasture and finely graded infield greatly aided fielders and the pitching staff. … But it also influenced Turkey Stearnes’ decision to jump to the New York Lincoln Giants before the 1930 campaign began. He returned in mid-season, but most of his power now translated into triples instead of home runs.”43
Stearnes’ only stint with an Eastern club merits a little more attention. Holway elaborated on the reason for his departure. “In 1930, the Depression struck, and Turkey went east, to the New York Lincoln Giants, in search of more money. He played 20 games there … before returning to Detroit.”44 The New York Age noted his comings and goings with the Giants, a team built around its player-manager, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. “Turkey Stearnes, formerly of Detroit, will be [Lloyd’s] new centerfielder.”45 While with the team only a short time, Stearnes did not disappoint the locals. At a game in early May, “Stearnes made two seemingly impossible catches, causing double plays.”46 And then, the paper abruptly noted the end of Stearnes’ New York sojourn in June: “Clint Thomas has been shifted to centerfield and Turkey Stearnes has rejoined the Detroit Stars.”47
Stearnes returned to the Stars lineup on June 21 against St. Louis.48 His presence ignited the Stars, who had finished fourth in the season’s first half but won the second-half title for the first time.
Half-season winners Detroit and St. Louis (with the likes of Suttles, Wells, and Bell) began a seven-game playoff on September 13 in St Louis. Detroit lost the opener, 5-4, despite a two-run homer by Stearnes in the first. Detroit won the second game, 11-7, and Stearnes had five hits. St Louis ended up winning the series four games to three, despite Stearnes’ excellent play.49 The 1930 season was Roesink’s last as owner. With the Depression undercutting his businesses and the disposable income of fans to attend games, he sold the team to Everett Watson at a bargain-basement price.
The Negro National League staggered into 1931, only to fold three months into the season. Stearnes, who was credited with a sixth home-run title with the Stars, was signed by Kansas City owner J.L. Wilkinson after the league’s collapse. Wilkinson had prudently withdrawn the Monarchs from the league that year to more lucratively barnstorm.
With the state of the Negro Leagues in great disarray come 1932, the heretofore backwater Negro Southern League gained new status and formed an 11-team league including the Chicago American Giants. Stearnes found a home with Chicago, batting .315 with an OPS of .890. The American Giants defeated Stearnes’ hometown Nashville Elite Giants four games to three for the championship.
In 1933 Stearnes was in his second year with the Chicago American Giants when the team joined the new Negro National League organized by Gus Greenlee. Stearnes played alongside Wells, Suttles, Steel Arm Davis, Quincy Trouppe, and Willie Foster, winning the first-half championship over the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Crawfords tied Nashville for the second-half championship and defeated Nashville in a playoff. In a controversial move, “as league president, Greenlee awarded the 1933 championship to the Crawfords without playing a series with first half champion American Giants.”50
It was during his time with Chicago that manager Dave Malarcher of the American Giants tried to get Stearnes to adjust his approach to hitting. The two clashed because of Turkey’s unwillingness to bunt when called upon. “Now that you are here … we’re going to diversify your play,” Malarcher insisted. Stearnes’ stubbornness apparently gave way in the end. Well into Stearnes’ career, Malarcher reflected, “he developed into a really diversified player after that. Turkey could bunt, and he could pull them down to first base — and fly. And when his time came to hit, he could really plaster them.”51
Why bunt, Stearnes may have asked. Buck Leonard would have agreed. “I’ve seen Stearnes hit them out of Chicago through the wind — the wind blows steady in Chicago, especially over to the old American Giants park, but he could hit them straight through the wind and over the fence.”52 In fact, that year, the Chicago Defender wrote in an article headlined “Stearnes Hits 41st Homer53 in Game,” “Turkey Stearnes’ 41st homer of the season climaxed a double win for Cole’s American Giants of Chicago over the Nashville Elite Giants, which … gives the Cole crew 28 straight wins.”54
Conceived by Gus Greenlee, the Pittsburgh Crawfords owner, the East-West Negro League All-Star Game debuted in 1933, in the same year and in the same city and ballpark as the first major-league All-Star Game. Fan interest was great for the game, scheduled to take place in Comiskey Park in Chicago on September 10. Voting for the teams took place via the major African-American newspapers around the country. Robert Peterson in Only the Ball Was White noted, “Stearnes was good enough to play in his thirties in four of the first five East-West games [and once more, in 1939], black baseball’s biggest attraction.”55
By 1933 Stearnes no longer sported a Detroit Stars uniform and, in fact, wore the uniforms in his All-Star appearances of his Stars’ traditional rivals of the 1920s, the American Giants and Monarchs. Although he was no longer in his prime, Negro League fans appreciated their long-standing favorites and “rewarded for their long, hard labors, the top vote getters were ageing heroes like Turkey Stearnes [leading all outfielders in the voting] … [and] Oscar Charleston.”56
Stearnes led off for the West in the inaugural game and went 2-for-5, driving in Sam Bankhead in the bottom of the third for the first run scored in the East-West classic. He hit a double in the bottom of the seventh and was driven in by Steel Arm Davis. The West won, 11-7.
Stearnes again led outfielders in the voting for the 1934 game, but was hitless in four at-bats in a game for the ages — a 1-0 victory by the East with Paige besting Willie Foster in the final frames when Bell scored on a bloop hit over second base by Jud Wilson in the eighth for the only tally.
Barnstorming was still a part of the Negro Leaguer’s year, and Stearnes was part of baseball lore in 1934 when he played for the Kansas City Monarchs against the House of David in the Denver Post Tournament, an all-white series until that year. Stearnes led the Monarchs with eight hits in the seven-game series, but Kansas City lost to the House of David, spurred by three wins by none other than Satchel Paige, who pitched for the Monarchs’ opponent in this series.57
Stearnes appeared in the East-West Classic a third straight year in 1935, pinch-hitting in the 13-inning contest won by Mule Suttles’ three-run homer for the West. He played again in 1937, and although 0-for-4 in a 7-2 East victory, he drew the attention of the Pittsburgh Courier, which reported, “The mighty Turkey Stearnes also proved a real asset to the West. Turkey strutted around centerfield 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.”58 Stearnes was in the lineup one more time, playing in a Monarchs uniform in the second 1939 All Star game, in New York. He batted sixth and went 1-for-3 with an RBI.59
Stearnes played two more years for the American Giants and then jumped to the Philadelphia Stars in 1936 at the age of 35. His manager in Philadelphia, Webster McDonald, was not happy with Stearnes. “He was just ornery. … A good player, but he had a one-track mind. A good hitter, but he always thought one way.”60 It probably did not help that the team finished dead last.
Wistful for his adopted hometown, Stearnes returned in 1937 to the reconstituted Detroit Stars (reestablished in 1933 from the remnants of the Indianapolis ABCs) in the Negro American (Western) League. Partway into the season, the Chicago American Giants lured him back to the Windy City. American Giants historian Paul DeBono reported that “Stearnes did appear in a few games for the American Giants after the struggling Detroit Stars franchise closed up shop.”61 Stearnes helped Chicago win a share of the first-half title with Kansas City (the Giants lost in a playoff against the Monarchs) and then win the second half outright, only to lose to the Monarchs in a seven-game championship series. Postseason barnstorming saw Stearnes then migrate to the Monarchs to play the Homestead Grays.
In 1938 Turkey began the season with the American Giants, but had his contract purchased by the Monarchs, where Stearnes remained through 1940 at the age of 39. By then Stearnes, of his own telling, had arranged for post-career employment by opting to remain in the city that had launched him: Detroit. Stearnes reflected: “I enjoyed playing, and when I quit, I went to work. I worked from 1938 to 1964, that’s 27 years — and I mean there was 27 years put in there, too. I was making six dollars a day in 1938, the rolling mills in Detroit.”62
His hometown of Nashville did not figure in his retirement plans. In a 2001 interview with the Nashville City Paper, his widow, 82-year-old Nettie Stearnes, said: “He didn’t talk about Nashville very much. I was in high school at the time he was playing. He never mentioned anything about his father because he was rarely with him. He talked about how good his mother was and didn’t talk much about his life as a child. I grew up in Birmingham, where my uncle, Ted ‘Double Duty’ Radcliffe, was manager of the Birmingham Black Barons. Norman came over one night for dinner and that’s when I first met him. But I didn’t marry him until 1946.”63
Even after his career was over, baseball was never far from Stearnes’ mind. “My dad spent most of his days in retirement taking a bus and going to Tiger Stadium on his own,” said his younger daughter, Joyce Stearnes Thompson. “He would sit in the bleachers at the games that were a ritual with him. He always sat in the bleachers because he thought those were the normal everyday people. So he wanted to be around people that were more like him.’”64 Her sister agreed, “He really wasn’t a very public person,” said Rosilyn Brown, who was born in 1946, the year her father hung up his spikes. ‘He wasn’t the type of person who liked to draw attention to himself or his accomplishments.”65
There would be one more baseball sighting of Stearnes when, in 1945, Branch Rickey helped form the United States Negro Baseball League (USL) with Gus Greenlee as a way of discovering potential major-league talent from the Negro League player pool. At the ripe old age of 44, Stearnes played with the Toledo Cubs in the USL and was the field captain. Headlines from the May 20 season opener with Toledo defeating Hilldale 10-4 showed Stearnes “leading the hitting attack.”66
To his peers, as they reflected on each other’s careers, there was no doubt that Stearnes was an outstanding player — an all-time Negro League star. About his relentless hitting, Paige said, “Yeah, Turkey had a funny stance at the plate, but he could get around on you. I tried to pitch him on the inside, but he could hit it over the right field fence, he could hit it over the left field fence, or the center field fence. So I pitched him outside and low, where he’d have to pick it up to hit it over the fence. Turkey Stearnes was one of the greatest hitters we ever had. He was as good as Josh [Gibson]. He was as good as anybody ever played ball.” Cool Papa Bell agreed: “They didn’t take him out for any left-handed pitcher.”67
Did he have a batting weakness? According to some, it was the offspeed stuff. Sammy T. Hughes thought otherwise: “Slow pitch. He used to hit that fast ball good. And he always looked for it.”68
And don’t forget his fielding. Jim Canada boasted, “He was a show; people would go to see him play. He put on a lot of shows out there in the outfield, too. Hard chances, he’d make them look easy, and easy chances, he’d made them look hard.”69 Radcliffe seconded that: “Cool Papa Bell was the fastest man … but [he] couldn’t field with Turkey Stearnes. He was faster, but Turkey Stearnes was one of the best fly ball men.”70
“I got to meet Stearnes at a reunion of Negro Leagues players in 1974 or 1975 [it was actually the July 4, 1979, weekend, according to Turkey’s daughters Joyce and Rosilyn] in Kentucky,” Monte Irvin recalled. “He had come from Detroit, where to make ends meet during the offseason, he had worked for years in automobile plants. He had cancer when I met him [although Irvin would not have known this at the time].”71
Stearnes died on September 4, 1979, at age 78. “To the last, he refused to complain about being born too soon,” historian Bak wrote. “I never heard him say anything about it,” not being inducted into the Hall of Fame, his widow, Nettie, told Bak. “He was a quiet man, but I guess he felt good that avenues were being opened up for our race.”72
“Stearnes’ election [to the Hall of Fame in 2000] came as a bolt out of the blue,” Bak wrote. “The veterans committee … had routinely ignored him since 1971, the year Negro Leaguers first started being inducted. This despite the claims of Satchel Paige and other contemporaries who regularly named Turkey as one of the game’s all-time best, black or white. … What was behind the turnaround? … A good old-fashioned media blitz.”73
In fact, Turkey made it during the second major push to recognize the premier talent of the Negro Leagues, after the Hall’s special committee inducted nine players in the 1970s with two more selected by the Veterans Committee in the 1980s. Mandated to select one Negro League player annually from 1995 to 2001, the Veterans Committee chose Stearnes as the 17th Negro League inductee in 2000. Bak noted that some believed he was selected over the likes of Biz Mackey and Mule Suttles, favorites of Buck O’Neil, the Veterans Committee chair, because in fact O’Neil was ill and not able to vote in the 2000 selection process.74
Where does Stearnes rank in Negro League annals? His wife’s uncle, Double Duty Radcliffe, gets the last word: “This is my All-Time All-Star team of Negro Baseball. … My left fielders are Turkey Stearnes and Willard Brown. … [Turkey was] one of the greatest ballplayers that ever played. He hit the ball as far as Josh and often. He was six foot and didn’t but weigh 165 pounds, but he had as much power as anyone who ever played. He was fast, too. Willie Mays, nobody could play any more outfield — nobody.”75
This biography was reviewed by Andrew Sharp and Len Levin and fact-checked by Chris Rainey. It was originally published in June 2020. Turkey’s daughters, Rosilyn and Joyce, also reviewed the biography to ensure its accuracy (updated version in September 2020).
Seamheads.com is used as the database of record unless otherwise noted.
1 Brent Kelley, The Negro Leagues Revised: Conversations with 66 More Baseball Heroes ((Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2000), 103.
2 Untitled document, Turkey Stearnes player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, 1.
3 John B. Holway, Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers (Westport, Connecticut: Meckler Books, 1988), 250.
4 Holway, Blackball Stars, 250.
5 Holway, Blackball Stars, 250.
6 Holway, Blackball Stars, 250, 251.
7 Holway, Blackball Stars, 250, 251.
8 Holway, Blackball Stars, 250, 251.
9 William J. Plott, Black Baseball’s Last Team Standing: The Birmingham Black Barons, 1919-1962 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2019), 22.
12 Holway, Blackball Stars, 251.
13 Holway, Blackball Stars, 251.
14 Holway, Blackball Stars, 251.
15 Holway, Blackball Stars, 251.
16 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 57.
17 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 95.
18 Holway, Blackball Stars, 250.
19 “Turkey Stearnes: A Quirky Batting Style Kept Him at the Top,” NLB.com, September 30, 1999.
20 Thom Loverro, The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball (New York: Facts on File, 2003), 277.
21 Leslie A. Heaphy, The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960(Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2003), 72.
22 Loverro, 277.
23 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 105.
24 Jeremy Beer, Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 152.
25 Jeffrey S. Williams, “Winning in the Crucible of White-Hot Competition,” in Todd Peterson, ed., The Negro Leaguers Were Major Leaguers: Historians Reappraise Black Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2020), 76.
26 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 180.
27 George Cantor, “Stars of the Past,” Detroit News, September 16, 1992: 12A.
28 Cantor: 1A.
29 Holway, Blackball Stars, 252.
30 Holway, Blackball Stars, 252.
31 Buck O’Neil with Steve Wulf and David Conrads, I Was Right on Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 10.
32 Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2003), 161.
33 William F. McNeil, The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2002), 111, 114, 117.
34 McNeil, 123.
35 McNeil, 127.
36 McNeil, 133.
37 McNeil, 146, 148.
38 James A. Riley, Dandy, Day, and the Devil (Cocoa, Florida: TK Publishers, 1987), 129.
39 McNeil, 170.
40 McNeil, 179.
41 “100 Injured in Panic as Blazing Baseball Grandstand Collapses,” Detroit Free Press, July 8, 1929: 1.
42 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 187.
43 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 187-188.
44 Holway, Blackball Stars, 254.
45 “No Organized Baseball in East for 1930, According to Reports,” New York Age, February 8, 1930: 6.
46 “Holland’s Pitching Saves the Day for the Lincoln Giants, Cannady and Stearnes Star in Victory over Phila. Professionals,” New York Age, May 3, 1930: 6.
47 “House of David Falls Before the Heavy Batting of Lincoln Giants,” New York Age, June 28, 1930: 6.
48 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 189.
49 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 192.
50 Jim Bankes, The Pittsburgh Crawfords (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2001), 71.
51 Holway, Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, Revised Edition (New York: Da Capo, 1992), 51-52.
52 Holway, Blackball Stars, 260.
53 Seamheads credits Stearnes with 7 home runs. The 41 homers cited by the Chicago Defender likely reflected a running total but not fully documented list of home runs from all games that Stearnes played that year, both in the league and via barnstorming.
54 “Stearnes Hits 41st Homer in Game,” Chicago Defender, August 26, 1933: 11.
55 Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: McGraw-Hill, 1984), 249.
57 Heaphy, Negro Leagues, 148.
58 Chester L. Washington, “‘Sez Ches,’ Sun Still Rises in East,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 14, 1937: 17.
59 Larry Lester, Black Baseball’s National Showcase: The East-West All-Star Game, 1933-1953 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 36-139.
60 Holway, Blackball Stars, 262.
61 Paul DeBono, The Chicago American Giants (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2007), 143.
62 Holway, Blackball Stars, 263.
63 Bill Traughber, “Turkey,” Nashville City Paper, July 27, 2001: 1.
64 Traughber; 2.
65 Bak, “Baseball Hall of Fame Settles the Score: After Decades of Neglect, Turkey Stearnes Gets His Due,” Hour, May 2000, 42.
66 Heaphy, The Negro Leagues, 198, 200.
67 Holway, Blackball Stars, 249, 256.
68 Holway, Blackball Stars, 257.
69 Lawrence D. Hogan, Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African American Baseball (Washington: National Geographic Society, 2006), 198.
70 Holway, Blackball Stars, 250.
71 Monte Irvin with Phil Pepe, Few and Chosen: Defining Negro League Greatness (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007), 108.
72 Bak, Turkey Stearnes, 215.
73 Bak, “Baseball Hall of Fame Settles the Score.”
74 Bak, “Baseball Hall of Fame Settles the Score.”
75 Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, 36 Years of Pitching and Catching in Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Minneapolis: McNary Publishing, 1994), 239-240.