A lot of children acquire embarrassing nicknames, but they usually don’t stick. But little Norman Stearnes liked his nickname and he gladly carried it thoughout his life, including a career as one of the greatest players to ever grace a baseball diamond.
Never heard of him? It isn’t surprising. Norman, playing under the name “Turkey Stearnes,” played in leagues that rarely got the attention they deserved. These were the negro leagues, dotted with talented ballplayers who never got the chance to show their skills against white competition in the major leagues. Playing in tucked away ballparks, or at big league parks when the white teams were on the road, the players of the negro leagues toiled in a “shadow game” that usually offered meager pay, rugged travel and living conditions, and little to no fanfare. But some of the players in the negro leagues were so good, it didn’t matter that no one ever really saw them.
“He was one of the greatest hitters we ever had,” Satchel Paige said of Stearnes. Ol’ Satch faced his share of batters and he knew a good one when he saw one. Stearnes had more success than most against the Hall of Fame fastballer. In one stretch, Turkey laced seven straight hits off of Paige. When he came to the plate in his next game facing Satchel, the wiry pitcher strolled off the mound and casually rolled the baseball toward the plate. “See if you can hit that!” he yelped.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Stearnes was a rambunctious child and he was often scooting and running in every direction. A relative noted that young Norman walked like a turkey. A nickname was born. By his late teens, Stearnes was a sought-after prospect playing ball in the south for Nashville. The Detroit Stars sent a scout to watch him play, and after a doubleheader in which Turkey reportedly went 6-for-9 with 11 RBI and three home runs, the young outfielder was offered a bonus to sign a Stars contract right there. It was 1923 and making a living playing a child’s game was a heck of a lucky stroke for a man with Stearnes dark skin. But luck was never really involved.
Stearnes was a remarkable physical talent. He had excellent eye sight, possessed lightning quick hands, and he was able to do just about anything with a baseball bat. He was famous for his unique batting style: perched in the left-hand batters’ box, he held his hands out over the plate with the bat tilted slightly toward the catcher; his front (right foot) was open so far that his belly button was pointing right at the pitcher. Stearnes almost stood straight up with his torso facing the pitcher head on. Oddly, he also pointed his lead toe to the sky. It was a wide-open, unorthodox batting style that was similar to one later used by Rod Carew. Like Carew, Turkey hit for a high average, batting between .340 and .410 in six of his first seven seasons, all with Detroit. But Stearnes also had great power, fueled by his powerful wrists. In the short negro league seasons (usually between 60 and 90 games), he averaged about 18-20 home runs. He was considered one of the most dangerous power hitters in the negro leagues in the 1920s and 1930s. He paced the negro leagues in homers seven times, while hitting .400 three times.
In 1931, the Stars could not afford to pay Stearnes salary and he jumped around a bit before landing with the Chicago American Giants. In his mid-to-late 30s, Stearnes was still a devastating hitter, helping Chicago and later Kansas City to four pennants in all.
There’s no telling exactly how well Stearnes would have done in the major leagues against white competition, but the evidence is strong that he would have excelled. His numbers were often so far ahead of his competition, and he also fared well in exhibition games against major league teams. Cool Papa Bell, he fastest man to play in the negro leagues, once commented “If you don’t put Turkey Stearnes in the Hall of Fame, they shouldn’t put anybody in.”
Stearnes was a quiet man who never made much of a fuss over not getting his due appreciation. He was frequently underpaid, and in many of his off-seasons from playing ball, he worked in auto plants in Detroit. At one point he was employed by Walter Briggs, the owner of several auto plants and the owner of the Detroit Tigers.
Stearnes retired from baseball in 1943, worked in a tank factory during the war, and survived his old age on a meager automobile pension and the kindness of family. He died in 1979 in Detroit, nearly 21 years before the veterans committee elected him to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Stearnes is the only negro leaguer in the Hall of Fame who played most of his career in Detroit.