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.