Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes (May 8, 1901 – September 4, 1979) was an African American outfielder in the Negro leagues, who played most of his prime with the Detroit Stars. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Stearnes acquired his nickname at an early age from his unusual running style. He began his career in professional baseball in 1920 with the Nashville Giants, then played for the Detroit Stars, beginning in 1923. In 1931, the Stars failed to pay Stearnes his salary because of the Great Depression, so he moved from team to team for the remainder of his career, retiring in 1942 as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs.
Stearnes is considered by some as one of the great all-around players in the history of baseball, but because of his race and his quiet personality, he never received the recognition that many believe he deserved. He batted over .400 three times and led the Negro leagues in home runs seven times. He is credited with 176 home runs in his Negro league career, the all-time Negro league record, and 50 more than second-place Mule Suttles. Since Negro league seasons were very short, sometimes lasting fewer than 30 games, it is unclear how many home runs Stearnes might have hit in a 154-game major league season. The 175-pound Stearnes was a fast baserunner despite his awkward-looking running form, and was one of the best outfielders of his generation. In 2001, writer Bill James ranked Stearnes as the 25th greatest baseball player of all-time and the best left fielder in the Negro leagues.
Stearnes’ known career statistics include a .344 batting average, 176 home runs, 750 games, and a .621 slugging percentage.
Other work and later life
Despite his accomplishments, Stearnes had to work winters in Detroit’s auto plants to survive, primarily in a factory owned by Walter Briggs, who was the owner of the Detroit Tigers, a team he couldn’t play for because of his skin color.
Stearnes was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, 21 years after his death in Detroit. His wife, Nettie Mae, a schoolteacher, who was instrumental in her husband’s posthumous induction, died in 2014.
A plaque in Stearnes’ honor is on display outside the centerfield gate at the Tigers’ home field, Comerica Park.
Photo of Stearnes shortly before his death.
James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Dave Mesrey, “New photos of Negro Leagues legend Turkey Stearnes discovered nearly 40 years after his death“, The Official Blog of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, May 8, 2018.
Christine Ferretti, “Historic Hamtramck Stadium’s off-season may finally end“, Detroit News, December 30, 2016. Besides profiling one of the few remaining baseball parks where Negro League Baseball played, it ncludes link to “Remembering Negro Leagues Baseball”.