Negro League Star Named To Baseball Hall Of Fame

By John and Margo Posey
Updated: October 28, 2008

Norman Turkey Stearnes
Norman(Turkey)Stearnes Photo Courtesy Negro Baseball League Museum

DALLAS, TEXAS_ Norman (Turkey) Stearnes, one of the greatest Negro League baseball players, was named as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame class of 2000 by the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee. Stearnes, who died in 1979, will finally received the recognition his career merited.

“Turkey Stearnes was one of the greatest hitters we ever had,” said the late Satchel Paige. “He as was good as anybody who ever played ball.”

Born May 8, 1901, Stearnes grew up and learned baseball in a poor area in Nashville, Tenn. But by the early 1920s, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Stearnes had moved north to play with the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League. Stearnes also had stints with the Nashville Eilte Giants, Memphis Red Sox, Detroit Black Sox, Kansas City Monarchs, Philadelphia Stars, and Chicago American Giants during his 19-year career.

A Negro League All-Star, Stearnes averaged .359 and hit 185 home runs during his career . He won six home run crowns and three batting titles with the Stars. The swift center fielder also ranks among the League’s career leaders in doubles, triples, and batting average.

His baserunning style — with arms flapping — earned Stearnes his “Turkey” nickname, his wife Nettie said of the fast center fielder.

Turkey Stearnes never played on a pennant winner in his tenure with the Stars, which folded along with the Negro National League in 1931. The following year he joined the Chicago American Giants and led them to the first two championships in a newly reconstituted Negro National League. In 1933, Stearnes was voted the starting center fielder in the first annual East-West All-Star game, played at Comiskey Park.

After leaving the American Giants, Stearnes drifted from team to team, including brief stints with the famed Kansas City Monarchs. He retired in 1945 as one of the three leading home run hitters in Negro League history,along with Mule Suttles and Josh Gibson.

“There’s no ball player I know that hit more home runs than Turkey Stearnes. And he was one of the best all-round ball players,” Cool Papa Bell once commented on the man who played the same position. “Everybody knows he was a great outfielder. He could field, throw, run, hit.”

While Cool Papa Bell was considered the fastest man to ever play in the Negro Leagues, Stearnes was widely respected for his abilities by his Negro League peers. Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neal lobbied for years for Stearnes to be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“If they don’t put Turkey in the Hall of Fame,” Cool Papa Bell stated after his own induction, “they should take me out.”

Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who played with Stearnes, believed the Negro Leagues star was the equal of the white Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame members from his era.

“He played in Detroit at the same time as Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann and Heinie Manush and Charlie Gehringer were with the Tigers — and all four of them ended up in Cooperstown. But I saw him play and back then Turkey Stearnes didn’t have to care for nobody. ” Negro League great Buck O’Neal used his considerable influence on the Hall’s Veteran’s Committee to select Stearnes over several other candidates.

Like many Negro Leaguers, Stearnes spent most of his winters working a second job – ironically, at an auto body plant owned by Detroit Tigers owner Walter Briggs. Briggs made clear his policy against black ballplayers with the slogan “no jigs with Briggs.” He held fast to that policy until the time of his death in 1952.

Despite the racism of Briggs, Stearnes was a regular in the center field bleachers at Tiger Stadium, where he quietly told questioners that the player who reminded him most of himself was Al Kaline. Turkey Stearnes died on September 4, 1979, at the age of 78.

Lawrence Carter, who wrote a column for the Detroit News about old times in the black community, fondly remembered Turkey Stearnes. “When Turkey swung and missed,” he wrote, “it would set up a great Pentecostal wind in Mack Park. Turkey’s reputation even attracted white fans to the park. It was a great time.”