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"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."
--Double Duty Radcliffe


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Negro Leaguer of the Month

Negro Leaguer of the Month
August, 2000

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes
HT:
6'-0"; WT: 165 lbs
Batted:
Left; Threw: Left
Position: CF
Career:
1923-1942
Teams:
Montgomery Grey Sox, Nashville Elite Giants, Memphis Red Sox, Detroit Stars, New York Lincoln Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants
Born: May 8, 1901 in Nashville, TN
Died: September 4, 1979 in Detroit, MI

Turkey, according to fellow Negro Leaguers, "played a whole lotta center field." In other words, he had great range. Turkey, who got his nickname from the way he ran, had great foot speed, and caught everything he got to. Many compared him favorably to Willie Mays.

It was hitting the long ball, though, that Turkey was most noted for. Built slender and muscular, like a left-handed Eric Davis, Stearnes used an odd batting stance, somewhat like a combination of Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski, to produce tremendous bat speed. Stearnes is credited with hitting more career homers (181) in Negro League play than Josh Gibson.

Stearnes hit for a high average, too! According to one report, Stearnes once collected seven consecutive hits of the nearly unhittable Satchel Paige, and he also hit over .350 against Major Leaguers in exhibitions. The man could hit! And Turkey didn't just hit great numbers of homers (he led his league seven times!), but he also hit them far!

"Oh, he broke the record at Hamtramck Stadium! (in Detroit)" remembered Double Duty Radcliffe, who played with Stearnes with the Detroit Stars in '28 and '29.

Stearnes grew up in Nashville and went to Pearl High School where he played pitcher on the baseball team.

Stearnes first played for money with his hometown Nashville Elite Giants of the Negro Southern League. In 1921, Stearnes played with the independent Montgomery (Alabama) Grey Sox, who also boasted Steel Arm Dickey, but Turkey struggled at bat in limited time.

In 1923, Stearnes made it to the big time--the Negro National League--with the Detroit Stars, and played with them for seven years straight, and nine seasons over his career. With Detroit, Stearnes became one of the top power hitters in baseball, averaging a homer every 16 at bats, the same rate that Hank Aaron and Lou Gehrig boasted.

In '23, Stearnes batted .362 with 17 homers in 279 league at bats, a rate that would give him between 35 and 40 in a full Major League season. Stearnes followed with great years in Detroit with marks of .350 and 8 homers in '24, .364 and 19 in '25, .387 and 19 in '26., .358 and 19 in '27, .322 and 23 in '28 and .402 and 16 in '29. Meanwhile, Stearnes played winter ball most years, and once belted four homers in one game in the California Winter League.

Against all competition (league and non-league opponents including white semi-pros), Turkey often eclipsed the 50-homer mark in his prime. “I hit so many, I never counted them,” he told Negro League historian John Holway.

After short stints with the New York Lincoln Giants and Kansas City Monarchs, Stearnes spent several seasons with the Chicago American Giants where he continued to slug over .500.

In the first East-West All-Star game in 1933, Stearnes was the leading vote-getter among outfielders, and drew more votes that all players except pitcher Willie Foster and first baseman Oscar Charleston. Leading off and representing the Chicago American Giants, Stearnes went two for five with a double as his West squad won, 11-7.

In 1934, Stearnes was recruited to play with the Kansas City Monarchs when they entered the Denver Post Tournament. Though they lost in the final to the white House of David team (with the addition of Satchel Paige!), Stearnes was named the best player of the tournament, leading his team with eight hits and three doubles in seven games. Each player on the Monarchs made $150 in prize money for their work, about $2500 in today's dollars!

Stearnes played in the East-West Game again in '34, '35, '37 and '39, all representing the American Giants, and batted .211 in 19 East-West at bats. in '33, Stearnes was credited with being the first batter to strike out in the East-West Game (against pitcher Sam Streeter), and collecting the first RBI (driving in Sam Bankhead in the third inning).

Stearnes played his final seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs in '39 and '40, joining Ted Strong and Willard Brown in the outfield, one of the hardest-hitting trios in league history.

Turkey was a quiet man who didn't "run with the other ball players much," according to teammates, but instead concentrated fully on baseball. Turkey had a few idiosyncrasies, including talking to his bat and not allowing anyone else to use it, and was known as a vicious slider.

Turkey married the niece of Negro League star Double Duty Radcliffe.

This soft-spoken superstar finally received the recognition he deserved when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in July, 2000.

 

XXX