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Norman "Turkey" Stearnes

Norman Thomas Stearnes
Nickname: Turkey

Career: 1923-1942
Positions: cf, lf, 1b
Teams: Nashville Elite Giants (1920), Montgomery Grey Sox (1921), Memphis Red Sox (1922), Detroit Stars (1923-1931, 1933, 1937), New York Lincoln Giants (1930), Kansas City Monarchs (1931, 1934, 1938-1941), Cole's American Giants (1932-1935), Philadelphia Stars (1936), Chicago American Giants (1938), Detroit Black Sox (1942) Toledo Cubs (1945)
Bats: Left
Throws: Left
Height: 6'   Weight: 175
Born: May 8, 1901, Nashville, Tennessee
Died: September 4, 1979, Detroit, Michigan
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (2000)

A left-handed power threat, Turkey Stearnes played "long ball" for twenty years in the black major leagues. After three seasons with teams in the Negro Southern League, Stearnes joined the Detroit Stars in 1923 and was credited with swatting 35 home runs in his Negro National League debut, followed by 50 home runs in 1924. These totals were for achieved against all levels of opposition, as were his 35 homers in 1937. In addition to hitting the long ball, Turkey was a great outfielder, with good speed and range. He also utilized his speed on the bases, leading the league in both triples and stolen bases at least once each during his career, while earning a reputation for his willingness to slide hard into an infielder trying to apply the tag.

Stearnes had an unique stance, with his front foot turned heel down and toe pointed straight up, but although not a heavy man, he was a natural hitter with powerful shoulders. Playing in Mack Park, a hitter's park, was an asset to the gifted slugger. During his first three seasons with the Detroit Stars, he led the Negro National League in homers against league competition, with 17, 10, and 18, respectively. In 1928 he again topped the league, with 24 homers in 88 games. In addition to hitting tape-measure home runs, he raked Negro National League pitching for averages of .365, .358, .369, .375, 346, .326, 378, .340, and .350 during his nine years with Detroit, 1923-31.

In 1931 the Stars encountered financial difficulties and could not pay his salary, and Stearnes left the team, eventually landing with the Chicago American Giants, where his presence helped them annex a pennant in two different leagues during his first two seasons with the team. In 1932 they won the Negro Southern League pennant, and the following year, with Stearnes batting in the leadoff spot to utilize his speed and contributing a .387 batting average, Chicago captured the new Negro National League's first flag. His sterling play made him the top vote-getter among outfielders and warranted a starting position in the first East-West All Star game, held in Comiskey Park that season. He played center field, batted leadoff, and collected 2 hits in the West's victory in that first contest. After this initial All Star appearance, the veteran outfielder played in three additional games, 1934-1935 and 1937.

In 1935 he is credited with a league high .430 batting average while with the American Giants. After playing with the Royal Giants in the 1935 winter, he left Chicago for a season to play with the Philadelphia Stars but returned in 1937, when the American Giants lost a playoff to the Kansas City Monarchs for the Negro American League title. The next season he shifted to the Monarchs and helped them to consecutive pennants in 1940-1941.

Before he became a slugging outfielder, he was a schoolboy pitcher as a student at Pearl High School in his hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. At age fifteen, the budding ballplayer left school for the workplace after his father died. However, he continued his baseball pursuits, playing with the southern teams, including the Nashville Elite Giants and the Montgomery Grey Sox, before being discovered by Detroit Stars' manager Bruce Petway in 1923. Stearnes went to Detroit, working for the Briggs Manufacturing Company and playing for the Stars. Many years later, after he retired from baseball, he returned to Detroit and worked in the rolling mills of the city until 1964.

During his career he also played winter ball in Cuba and California, but the slugger never learned to bunt until Dave Malarcher taught him the art after Stearnes joined the American Giants. He closed out his career as one of the most prolific long ball hitters in the Negro Leagues, with 185 home runs in league play, 7 home run titles, and a .359 league batting average. As another indicator of his hitting prowess, he was credited with a .351 batting average in exhibitions against major leaguers.

Stearnes was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes photo

Norman "Turkey"