Detroit Negro Leagues star Turkey Stearnes now rates among baseball’s greatest hitters

The official record of baseball in the negro leagues is not as complete as that of the segregated white major leagues, unfortunately. But in the nearly 1,000 league games Norman “Turkey” Stearnes appeared in for which we have boxscores, he batted .349 with a slugging percentage over .600, both of which rate in the top ten all-time for major league baseball.

Now that Major League Baseball has ruled that negro leagues stats are part of the official major league record, on equal footing with the numbers from the American and National Leagues and other professional “major” leagues, Stearnes rates in the top 10 in several career offensive categories. Namely: batting average (7th at .349), slugging (5th at .616), and OPS (seventh at 1.034).

There are probably three men who have a serious claim to being the best hitter in the history of the negro leagues: Stearnes, Oscar Charleston, and Josh Gibson. Contemporaries, Charleston and Stearnes were in the same leagues for about five seasons, and Stearnes outhit Oscar, .359 to .339, though Turkey was five years younger. 

Stearnes was wiry with long legs, knobby knees, and high cheekbones. He had thinning hair at a young age, and he wore his cap back on his head in that way that many old-time ballplayers did in the 1920s, when he was a star for the Detroit Stars. He won at least five home run titles and captured a pair of batting titles in Detroit, where he was lauded as “The Black Ty Cobb.”

Stearnes came from modest beginnings in Tennessee, and seemed destined for life as a poor farmer until he proved his value as a ballplayer in sandlot leagues around Nashviille. A teammate got him a job with a team in Memphis, and from there he was discovered by a scout and traveled north to Michigan. But Turkey wasn’t in the money yet: he first worked on the production line at the Briggs Manufacturing Company, where he painted automobiles. It was 1922, and the man with the funny trot found enough time to play baseball and get a contract with the Stars, who were in the Negro National League.

Author Mark Ribowsky, who has written three excellent books on the history of the negro leagues, called Stearnes a “cobralike outfielder” and described him like this:

“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.”

Stearnes would have been an outstanding player in the white major leagues. He reportedly had a strong throwing arm from center field. Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who played against Stearnes, compared him to Cool Papa Bell:

“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,” Radcliffe said. 

Turkey played from 1923 to 1940, and his 186 home runs are the most in negro leagues history, though we only have about 600 games of boxscores for Gibson. When he was 38, Stearnes hit .330 and led the Negro American League in home runs.

After he left baseball, Turkey spent nearly three decades working in auto plants in Detroit, basically anonymous. Most of his co-workers had no idea that “Norman” had once been one of Detroit’s greatest baseball players. Stearnes liked to take the bus to watch games at Tiger Stadium, preferring to sit in the center field bleachers with the “regular people.” He died at the age of 78 in 1979, more than two decades before the Hall of Fame finally inducted him.

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