By In Baseball

No. 58: Turkey Stearnes

They called him Turkey because of the way he ran. Norman Stearnes would bob his head when he ran, and he would flap his arms a little bit, and after watching that there was really nothing else to call him but Turkey.

The thing about the way he ran, though, is that it was an illusion. Much about Turkey Stearnes was an illusion. He might have looked funny, but he was fast. Absurdly fast. He was a leadoff hitter pretty much his entire life. He played a huge center field. Many of his contemporaries said that among Negro Leaguers only Cool Papa Bell was faster. “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.”

Then, there was the way Turkey Stearnes hit. He had this crazy stance, wide open. He looked like he was hitting for the first time and was not entirely sure of what the rules. Again. An illusion.

Turkey Stearnes hit more home runs in the Negro Leagues than any other player.

You could win a few bar bets with that one. Ask anyone who hit the most home runs in Negro Leagues history and they are all but guaranteed to say Josh Gibson. If they are a little bit shrewder about Negro Leagues baseball, they might say Oscar Charleston or Home Run Brown. But no matter how deep into the Negro Leagues numbers researchers excavate, Turkey Stearnes comes out on top. Still, even among baseball fans, he is almost unknown. It’s a shame. He would make a great movie.

Negro Leagues statistics are, as everyone knows, dodgy and incomplete. They probably conceal as much as they reveal. A few years ago, a Hall of Fame Negro Leagues committee dived into the black newspapers looking for whatever box scores and game summaries they could find and they found documented evidence of 176 Turkey Stearnes’ home runs. That is many more than they could find for Gibson (107), Charleston (141) or Mule Suttles (129).

Then, the home run record did not mean much to Stearnes himself.

“I hit so many, I never counted them,” he told the author John B. Holway. “And I’ll tell you why: If they did not win a ball game, they didn’t amount to anything.”

Norman Stearnes was born in Nashville, 1901. Norman’s father died when he was 15, and he went to work to help support the family. He was a janitor, worked on farms, delivered groceries. On the weekends, he played baseball. He taught himself the game, and because of this there were countless wonderful things about him. The way he ran. The way he hit. The way he talked to his bats. It feels like there is something lost when games become standardized and homogenized and overcoached. Everyone starts to look the same, pitch the same, hit the same, run the same, tackle the same, shoot the same, throw the same, putt the same, serve the same.

Maybe innovation gets lost. No one in America would ever teach a player to stand on one leg at the plate like Sadaharu Oh or to unfurl on the mound like Bob Gibson or run like Turkey Stearnes. But more to the point, no one would even LET THEM do those things now. A coach would get them at a young age and correct that behavior, teach them the “right” way to play. In most cases, that’s probably right. But every now and again, I suspect, our aversion to things that look too different cost us a Fosbury Flop or Kent Tekulve submarine pitch or Jamaal Wilkes unblockable behind the head jumper.

Turkey Stearnes was not a big man — he never did weigh more than 170 or 175 pounds — but he had natural power. Sometimes, late in life, he would watch Carl Yastrzemski play ball and he would say, “Yeah, that’s what I was like.” His batting stance was something to behold. He was a left-handed hitter, and he would have his right foot planted way to the right, a stance so open that he was almost facing the pitcher. That foot would be pointed upward — that’s to say his heel was in the dirt and his toes pointed toward the sky. He choked up on the bat, a little bit like how Barry Bonds did late in his career. And when he turned on a pitch, it was like a cobra striking.

“He could get around on you,” Satchel Paige told Holway. “He was as good as Josh.”

Stearnes came to Detroit in 1923 and, in the games uncovered by researchers, that year he hit .362 and slugged .710. Stearnes led the Negro Leagues in home runs for the first time in 1923 — he would lead the leagues six more times before he was done. He hit .400 in 1928. His 23 home runs s in 1927 is the most for ANY season in the semi-official record of Negro Leagues baseball. Stearnes figured that when you counted all games, including the barnstorming games and the games against white players, he probably hit 50 or 60 homers more or less every year. That, he said, was why he did not count them.

Yes, he talked to his bats. 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. It goes without saying that he never let anyone use one of his bats.

Turkey Stearnes was at his best for mediocre teams in the 1920s and so — like Bullet Rogan — has largely been forgotten even by Negro Leagues enthusiasts. Most of the Negro Leaguers who have broken into mainstream baseball conversation — Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin, Buck O’Neil — played in the 1930s and 1940s. They were in the generation just before integration and so their sadness is palpable. If only we could have seen them when they were young.

But Stearnes was long retired by the time Jackie Robinson crossed the color line. It had been 15 or 20 years since he had been at his best — even in 1947 many people had forgotten. He stayed in Detroit; he was a big Tigers fan. He would sit in the bleachers and sometimes tell stories about his playing days. He was as apt as any former ballplayer to complain about the new players and exaggerate the old days, but he always modest about his own play.

Still, when Negro Leaguers started getting elected into the Hall of Fame — beginning with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Turkey did believe he would get the call. He waited by the phone on election days. They years passed.

1971: Satchel Paige
1972: Josh Gibson
1973: Monte Irvin
1974: Cool Papa Bell
1975: Judy Johnson
1976: Oscar Charleston
1977: Martin Dihigo and Pop Lloyd

And then the faucet turned off. Negro Leagues players stopped getting elected — there was a sense in the 1970s that adding more than those eight players would water down the Hall of Fame.*

*One of the great ironies of the Hall of Fame involves Rube Foster — a great pitcher, a great manager and the man most responsible for FOUNDING the Negro Leagues — who was not elected in that first batch. Buck O’Neil, who was as close to Satchel Paige as anybody, believed deeply that Foster, not Paige, should have been the first Negro Leagues player elected to the Hall of Fame.

Rube Foster was finally elected in 1981. The irony? Tom Yawkey, the Boston Red Sox owner whose team never won a World Series and who held out until 1959 before integrating his team, was elected to the Hall in 1980.

In 1979, Turkey Stearnes went to the first big Negro Leagues reunion. He was already very sick. He died two months later. He was so fast, he hit leadoff and play center field. He was so powerful, he hit more home runs than any Negro Leagues player ever. It would be more than two decades after his death before he was finally elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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36 Responses to No. 58: Turkey Stearnes

  1. Owen says:

    Great story as always, Joe. It really is sad when guys miss out on getting elected in their lifetimes.

  2. SteveG says:

    Some of these players, such characters, such amazing talents and so little known. Why? Because they were black.

    So sad, so very sad.

  3. College Wolf says:

    Over/Under a May 1st completion date for this? Not that I’m complaining!

  4. Alejo says:

    “It feels like there is something lost when games become standardized and homogenized and overcoached. Everyone starts to look the same, pitch the same, hit the same, run the same, tackle the same, shoot the same, throw the same, putt the same, serve the same.”

    It’s funny you say that. Arguably, sabermetrics and media pressure have been doing that to baseball during the last 20 years. It is certain that we will not see another Turkey, that’s the way it is, but it is also probable that we will not see another Reggie, another Billy Martin or another Ichiro. Have you seen the pounding Yasiel Puig has been getting?

    Today a player becomes a God for getting walks. That is statistically sound, but boring as hell. No wonder baseball TV ratings are so low.

    I think there is a difference between data analysis and innovation. Data driven approaches are based on choosing something among other possibilities. Innovation means to invent new things, unseen and untested. Famously, Apple under Jobs avoided data driven approaches.

    • I don’t really see what sabermetrics have to do with it. Sabermetrics are about accurately measuring a player’s contribution to the game. If he runs like Turkey Stearnes but he hits .400, sabermetrics will have no problem with him. In fact, one of the common moans about sabermetrics from old school types is that it tries to reduce the game to what appears on paper – that is to say, it focuses on the results. Seems to me that it’s older scouts who would be more likely to focus on potentially less relevant things like the exact method.

    • I think you overestimate the impact of saber metrics. Dan Uggla walks a lot, but the fans are ready to run him out of town. Teams and fans are aware of, and use saber metrics, but that doesn’t mean an Andre Dawson or a Jim Rice will get overlooked. They’re just be some extra context on what they do /don’t do well. There are still lots of players that don’t walk.

      Now, I agree on the coaching. Coaches need to understand, at the youth level, the difference between style and poor mechanics. But, most don’t. They go to a pitching or hitting clinic, don’t really know any different, and then adopt exactly the form recommended. I’ve been guilty of this myself for hitting. So, I have other coaches coach the hitters. I was more of a see ball/hit ball hacker when I played. That was my style, and I really can’t get any modern styles to work for me. So, I realized that I really can’t teach hitting. So, I teach pitchers. Everyone has their own arm slot, preference for mound position, windup approach, etc. I try to preserve as much of their preference as possible, while adding good mechanics to the mix. Young pitchers are much more likely to succeed with some tweaks, rather than throwing out everything they do and attempting to install some cookie cutter formula.

      My best example was a moderately talented boy who threw side arm. His Dad said that he hadn’t gotten much of an opportunity to pitch with other teams. I asked him if the other coaches had tried to change his arm angle. He told me yes, every previous coach tried to get him to throw more overhand. All I did was insist that he keep his elbow up and follow through. He ended up being a very effective pitcher. His arm angle was very tough for young players to deal with, and the late movement of the ball, with his natural delivery, was very awkward for the average hitter. Of course, better hitters could deal with him because he didn’t throw very hard, but he ate a lot of innings for us and helped keep our top pitchers arms fresh.

    • JB says:

      Don’t blame sabermetrics for walks or the hitters. Blame the pitchers and their coaches for boring baseball. Once they figure out how much walks hurt them, they will be coming more around the plate and hitters will have more to swing at.

    • Tom Wright says:

      This is actually pretty much the opposite of what sabermetrics have done. Recall that Billy Beane’s favorite comment was,”We’re not selling jeans here;” in other words, no one cares what the guy looks like as long as he wins games. In fact, Moneyball profiles the A’s as they pick up a pitcher with a club foot (Jim Mecir), a submariner that the White Sox wanted no part of (Chad Bradford), a fat catcher who looked like a badger (Jeremy Brown), and a double-jointed pitcher with a freaky delivery who was nicknamed “The Creature” (David Beck). Not all of them worked, but you can’t fault Moneyball for taking the quirk out of the game.

      There will always be traits that are lauded and perhaps traits that are unfairly marginalized (Ted Williams used to be vilified for not swinging at pitches with RISP, even if he pitches were balls and there was no way that Williams couldn’t hit them, on the grounds that he wasn’t being aggressive enough), but it’s hard to say that Moneyball has enforced some sort of universality of players on the game.

      • DjangoZ says:


        Sabermetrics focuses on results, NOT how you get there. Which should lead to more variety, not less.

        • Alejo says:

          Guys, if you think sabermetrics haven’t changed the way the game is played, how players approach each at bat, how scouts look for talent nowadays… the you haven’t been following.

          Times change and the game changes with it. Sabermetrics are an important innovation, but, as all teams have embraced it, its value as a strategical weapon has blunted.

          World series for the A’s thanks to advanced stats: 0 (nada)

          World Series for the A’s with Reggie Jackson striking out like mad: 3

          World series for Boston thanks to sabermetrics: at least 1. for the other more recent ones money played a bigger role.

          World series for BoSox without sabermetrics: 0

          • Alejo,
            That’s because Beane’s famous ” My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

            Of course sabermetrics have changed the way the industry looks at the game, but it didn’t do it by “standarizing” looks/players.

            We ask you, where have you been?

  5. Ian says:

    Nice article Joe. I’m learning a lot about the Negro leagues. Thank you.

  6. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Another great article. Thank you. I knew very little about him.

    My No. 58 is Tim Keefe.

  7. Wilbur says:

    If “Innovation means to invent new things, unseen and untested”, then Bill James is the greatest innovator in baseball history.

  8. Gareth Owen says:

    I love sell these pieces of the Baseball 100, but I love the Negro Leagues bits the best. I think Buck would be happy at how your helping keep these guys’ memories alive, in the best possible ways.

    My number 58 is LL Bean.

  9. tombando says:

    All hail Vlady–last of the originals! You can’t teach what that guy did. “Here Vlad–you gotta walk more. You’ll suck otherwise—” Riiiiiiiiiiiiggghhhht.

    Roberto Clemente you’re TERRIBLE here let’s git yew some battin’ lessons from Mr Wynn and Gene Tenace. They’ll learn ya yessir—

    Puig’s getting Garveyed there Alejo, simple as that. Group of spinmeisters wanna have the final say on everything baseball-related. And if you don’t toe the company line, you’re shouted down the second you say ‘Jack Morris belongs’ and ‘Hall of Fame’ in the same sentence. Puig will be as good as he’s ever gonna be regardless of what is said about him by anyone in ze statborg community, good or bad. I always liked how Big Cat Galarraga was treated as a joke or a product of Coors field, then he goes to Atlanta and basically has the same exact seasons, despite cancer, playing in Hotlanta, etc. He can’t do that—he don’t walk enough–! Hmmm guess what guys he DID. But anyways back to Mr Stearnes here.

    Joe Poz is right, he couldn’t exist like that now just because the cleanup committee woulda knocked it outta him by 14 or so. And the Saberheads? Egads….

    ‘He don’t walk enough’. Clemente don’t walk enough. Rice don’t walk enough. Traynor don’t walk enough. Dawson, Manush, Cuyler, Sam Rice, it just goes on and on. Throw away the man’s entire career in knee jerk zealot fashion because of that there K-W total.

    Good thing they aren’t actually in charge of, you know, baseball teams. You’d have 38 Mark Bellhorns in one division alone. And matching attendence figures. Prob. make their collective heads explode.


    • Ian R. says:

      1) Andres Galarraga actually walked a fair amount, especially later in his career. Not a ton, but enough to post respectable on-base percentages. Also, yes, he had a couple more awesome years in Atlanta. What’s your point?

      2) Sabermetrics aren’t about “toeing the company line.” Statistically-inclined analysts and fans disagree with each other all the time. The vast majority of sabermetrically-inclined folks believe that Jack Morris is not a Hall of Famer because Jack Morris falls well short of the standards of the Hall of Fame.

      3) Most sabermetricians would acknowledge that Roberto Clemente was a tremendous player (and a tremendous human being). He made up for his relatively low walk rates with very high batting averages and tremendous defense.

      4) Dawson caught some flack when he was on the ballot because there were several more deserving players (Raines, Trammell, etc.), but few “saberheads” would argue that he shouldn’t be in at all. As much as some rmetrics have called his offense into question because of his low career OBP, other metrics have helped us appreciate how great he was in the field.

      5) Rice’s problem isn’t that he didn’t walk enough – his career OBP is OK. Rice’s problem is that his career was relatively short, and his overall production during that short career comes up shy of the very, very high standards of the Hall of Fame.

      6) Sabermetrically-inclined executives really do control a lot of actual baseball teams. Baseball, interestingly enough, has not become unwatchable.

      • DjangoZ says:

        That is one of the most articulate and rational responses I have ever read online in response to a troll.

        • Ian R. says:

          tombando may have been trolling, but many of the points he raised are objections that people really make to sabermetrics. I figured it was worth a response – even a troll comment can spark some interesting discussion.

          Also, thank you.

    • SBMcManus says:

      The idea that the advanced stats hate Puig is ridiculous. Fangraphs has him as the 18th best outfielder in all of baseball last year based on WAR, and that’s in only 100 games. Pro-rated up to a standard 150-160 game season, they would have had him as the 4th best outfielder in all of baseball behind Trout, McCutchen, and Gomez.

      The people that hate Puig are the crusty old-school types, NOT the advanced stats people.

      • invitro says:

        “The people that hate Puig are the crusty old-school types,”

        And people who happen to be driving near him when he’s driving.

      • Ian R. says:

        Likewise, baseball-reference has Puig as a 5 WAR player last year, which is an All-Star season – and, again, that’s in just 104 games.

        There are legitimate questions about whether he can keep it up – small sample size, of course – but no saber-inclined fan would say that he wasn’t a valuable player in 2013.

    • Spencer says:


      You forgot about Jeff Kent!

  10. I wouldn’t say people “hate” Puig because of his play. If they hate him, it’s because of his perceived arrogance despite having played slightly more than 1/2 of a MLB season. His treatment of Luis Gonazalez got a lot of play. I’m guessing it had more to do with him being pretty dense about baseball history, probably owing to him being from Cuba. But it didn’t look good. Mattingly hasn’t always been his biggest supporter either. Puig drives him nuts getting thrown out on the basepaths and regularly air mailing the cutoff man. This is stuff that drives every manager crazy. Now, obviously some of that is balanced with the HRs, the times he actually pulls off the risky extra base, and the times his overthrowing the cutoff man turns into a spectacular out. But one presumes that he’ll learn when to go for it and when to hit the cutoff man. It’s all about maturity and learning.

    I do think Puig is one of those guys thats a little hard to root for. He seems like a spoiled little kid. But, a lot of guys not nearly as talented start out that way. The game, and your teammates, will keep you humble. So, I think he’ll grow up and be just fine. It remains to be seen whether he will be a future HOF type player.

    • I think Puig is a very simple guy with very little education, sophistication and knowledge of the english language, and this makes him very uncomfortable. Nothing I mentioned before makes him a bad guy or a lesser man, this is just to explain his attitude.

      He seems an extremely competitive guy with a huge chip on his shoulder that is trying to make sense of the very big change in his life. Understand that this is a guy that comes from a place where the newest car is 40+ years old and no luxuries at all. Give him some time.

      And I just wish he left the NL West.

  11. Wilbur says:

    Could it be Puig is similar to Babe Ruth? A wild stallion penned up in his formative years, turned loose on the world with a tremendous zest for living life and playing baseball without limits?

  12. […] baseball player of all time). The other two are Willie Wells and Turkey Stearnes (Posnanski gives Stearnes the #58 ranking in his all-time list of baseball greats).                            […]

  13. […] He was as good as anybody who ever played ball”. Further reading on Stearnes can be found here and […]

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