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Turkey Stearnes, Negro Leagues legend

It's nearly Thanksgiving, so let's celebrate baseball's greatest Turkey
(TURKEY STEARNES 1923 DETROIT STARS BY GRAIG KREINDLER FROM THE COLLECTION OF JAY CALDWELL)
@gemmakaneko
November 24, 2020

It's Thanksgiving, and while not everybody likes the idea of eating turkey, there is a way to make turkey awesome: Using it as a nickname for baseball players. There have been two players in MLB history nicknamed Turkey. Turkey Gross was a shortstop for the Red Sox in 1925. Turkey

It's Thanksgiving, and while not everybody likes the idea of eating turkey, there is a way to make turkey awesome: Using it as a nickname for baseball players.

There have been two players in MLB history nicknamed Turkey. Turkey Gross was a shortstop for the Red Sox in 1925. Turkey Tyson played in one game for the Phillies in 1944. He had one at-bat in the only Major League game he ever played in his life, but for some reason, he didn't get the Moonlight Graham treatment. (Cool nicknames have power, guys.)

But Norman "Turkey" Stearnes didn't even play in one MLB game. He spent his 20-year career entirely in the Negro Leagues, debuting in 1920 and retiring in 1942, just five years before integration. Satchel Paige called him "one of the greatest hitters we ever had. He was as good as Josh [Gibson]. He was as good as anybody who ever played ball." He hit .344/.396/.618 -- in terms of just career batting average, that puts him alongside Ted Williams.

Stearnes spent most of his career with the Detroit Stars, and according to author Ron Bak, in 1930, he "almost singlehandedly propelled the Detroit Stars to a playoff with the St. Louis Stars for the Negro National League Pennant." But in 20 seasons he never played for a title-winning team. Though he got five hits in the second game of the series, Detroit fell to St. Louis, four games to three.

He hit the most home runs in Negro Leagues history, with 176. This probably has a lot to do with his habit of talking to his bat.

Stearnes tended to think of his bats as living things, extensions of his own arms, and he would carry the best of them around in violin cases. He carried around different size bats for different situations. After games, back at the hotel, teammates would overhear him thanking his bats for delivering big hits or admonishing them for popping up. "If I had used you," one teammate recalls him saying to a bigger bat, "I would have hit a home run." He was known to threaten a bat that slumped with an ax, and thought to sleep with a bat that had been particularly good that day.

His trot around the bases might have been a little ungainly, though. According to his wife, Nettie, that's why they called him "Turkey."

"They called him 'Turkey' because of the way he ran around the bases, flapping his arms … The ballplayers used to have races before the games. Norman was very fast. He'd win every time."

But was he as fast as fellow Negro Leaguer Cool Papa Bell, who once told Bob Costas he might be faster than the speed of light?

"Cool Papa WAS faster," the great catcher Double Duty Radcliffe said near the end of his life. "But Turkey could go get those fly balls better than even Cool Papa. You couldn't hit a ball over his head."

Radcliffe also said that no one should be in the Hall of Fame if Stearnes wasn't in it. Luckily for Cooperstown, he was finally inducted in 2000.

Gemma Kaneko has been a writer for Cut4 since the end of her term as Witch President in 2014. She is the proudest Tigers fan in New York City.