Turkey Stearnes excelled in 'unorthodox' way
By: Bill Ladson | @ladsonbill24
Of the Negro Leagues players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes arguably is the most underrated. You don't hear his name in the same light as Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige.
Stearnes didn't hit tape-measure shots like Gibson nor was he considered the fastest man to ever play the game like Cool Papa Bell. But Stearnes was respected by his counterparts.
"Cool Papa Bell said, 'If Turkey is not in the Hall of Fame, then no one deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.' That pretty much tells you how good Turkey Stearnes was," said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro League Baseball Museum. "It's probably one of the greatest endorsements you can get."
Here's why a brighter spotlight should shine on Stearnes: He was the Rickey Henderson of the Negro Leagues. Stearnes was a five-tool player, mostly with the Detroit Stars from 1923-31. He was arguably one of the best leadoff hitters in Negro League history. A .415 on-base percentage backs that up, according to Seamheads.com's Negro Leagues Database.
Stearnes had an unorthodox way of playing the game. His batting stance was a sight to see. If you thought Ichiro Suzuki's batting stance was unorthodox, consider this image of the left-handed-hitting Stearnes when he stepped into the batter's box: he had an open stance with his right heel twisted and his big toe pointed straight up.
"The thing about the Negro Leagues was, it was a great place to experiment. It was a place for unorthodox styles and trying something different," said Thom Loverro, who wrote "The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball." "It just lends itself to more creative ways to playing baseball as opposed to the established Major League structure."
With that stance, Stearnes won six home run titles and was a perennial .300 hitter during his 20-year career. Even more amazing: A past-his-prime Stearnes still managed to play in four of the first five East-West All-Star Games in the 1930s.
Nicknamed "Turkey" because he ran the bases like a turkey, Stearnes could fly. According to Seamheads.com's Negro Leagues Database, Stearnes stole 143 bases during his career.
"Everything about him at the plate was unorthodox, but highly effective," Kendrick said. "Everything that Turkey did probably goes against the book in terms of how to approach hitting. But that unorthodox fashion worked beautifully for him and he is one of the greatest hitters."
Overlooked was Stearnes' defensive prowess. Opponents didn't dare take an extra base on his throwing arm. His speed helped him make great catches in the gap. No wonder he received praise from Bell.
Born in 1901, Stearnes had to start working at age 15 after his father died, but he continued to pursue his baseball dreams. Like most Negro Leagues players during that period, Stearnes was a walking vagabond. His Negro Leagues baseball career started with the Nashville Elite Giants in '20. The following season, he joined the Montgomery Grey Sox before going to the Memphis Red Sox in '22.
The next season, Stars manager Bruce Petway convinced Stearnes to join the roster, and it was in Detroit where Stearnes became known as an all-around outfielder who, according to historian James A. Riley in his book "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues," "would slide hard into an infielder trying to apply the tag."
Stearnes never played baseball in the Major Leagues. He was 45 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in April 1947. According to his daughter, Rosilyn Stearnes-Brown, her father was never bitter. He played baseball for the love of the game.
"He loved what he was doing and he was really good at it," Brown told the Detroit Historical Society. "He just appreciated the fact that he could play."