Chances are you’ve never heard of Turkey Stearnes.
You might think I am trying to make a joke, pulling an obscure player out of the moth balls and poking fun of his name.
I am taking this moment to honor someone who should have been a legend in baseball history… someone who if he were born a few decades later, would have played in the major leagues and probably have been a star… maybe even lead a team to the pennant.
Instead he has become a shadowy footnote, unnoted by many baseball experts.
Norman Stearnes was born in Nashville in 1901. In the various articles I’ve read about his life, there isn’t a consensus of how he earned his nickname. Most seem to think he had an awkward running style that resembled a turkey. Another theory was he had a protruding gut as a child and looked like a turkey walking about.
Either way, it is safe to say Turkey was a cooler name than Norman.
Like most stars of the Negro Leagues, he bounced around from team to team, beginning his career in Montgomery, making stops for Memphis, the New York Lincoln Giants, Philadelphia Stars, Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarachs (where he helped win two pennants) and for various other teams and leagues in America and Cuba.
But his legacy was as a member of the Detroit Stars, whom he played for over 12 seasons in three different tours between 1923 and 1937.
In the mid 1920s, he was one of the top sluggers in the Negro Leagues. A lean tall left handed power hitter, he crushed 35 homers in 1923 and 50 in 1924. He was a lock to hit double digit homers in each league he played for… even the ones that only played 30 some odd games.
And he did this with one of the strangest batting stances ever recorded.
According to people who saw him play, his big toe would be pointed straight up and his right heel twisted around.
I would love to have seen film of this stance, if for no other reason than to see my friend Gar Ryness, The Batting Stance Guy, mimic it on his site.
Satchel Paige used to make fun of his stance… but he knew it worked.
“He was as good as Josh,” Paige was quoted as saying. Of course that would be in reference to Josh Gibson… considered to be the greatest Negro League hitter of them all.
He constantly batted .300 or higher and was also one of the fastest players in the game. A gifted base stealer, he turned many doubles into triples over his career.
And when he played against white teams in exhibitions, he hit .351.
Of course he did all of this in obscurity.
In the 1930s when the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, Goose Goslin, Frankie Frisch, Bill Terry and Chuck Klein were dominating the majors, it was Stearnes who was cleaning up in the Negro Leagues.
Imagine if he played along side some of those legends.
Which team would he have helped win the pennant?
It’s a good bet he would have been a Tiger, especially since the Tigers owner would hire Stearnes in the off season to work in his mill.
Which Hall of Fame pitcher would he have hit a big homer off of?
We’ll never know.
And as I wrote in the Dream Team for Dr King post, the greatest baseball tragedy about segregation was that history and posterity was denied great baseball and legendary match ups.
Turkey Stearnes will never be included in a great World Series confrontation like Grover Cleveland Alexander striking out Tony Lazzeri.
Baseball has tried to make it up to Stearnes and his legacy.
He is a member of the Hall of Fame. There is a plaque in his honor at Comerica Park in Detroit. This year the Tigers honored Stearnes by having his family on hand and his grandson threw out the first pitch.
But all of that was posthumous. And I bet most fans walk right past his plaque at Cooperstown. Most have no idea that plaque in Detroit even exist (as they see and take pictures of the statue of Ty Cobb.)
And I am sure the Stearnes family got a nice hand… but not the standing ovation that the survivors of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or even Bobby Murcer would receive.
He deserved better.
And the best I can do is write this blog post.
So on this day, baseball fans, give thanks that we live in a time where players come from all over the world to play our great game… and no matter that their color, or race, or nationality or language is… they can excel on the field.
And give a thought to Turkey Stearnes and what could have been with his career.
After all… it IS Turkey Day.