Friday, November 15, 2013

Turkey Stearnes, From Gray Sox to Cooperstown

To this point we have seen what Stearnes wasn't, now we shall see what he was. A city doesn't embrace a player for no reason, and the River Regions affinity for Turkey Stearnes is no different.

Norman Stearnes

The city of Montgomery likely adopted him as their own toward the end of his Gray Sox tenure - the Sox won the Southern Negro League pennant by defeating the Nashville Elite Giants in a cool four game sweep.

The GraySox had a reputation for being one of the top negro league teams in the nation that year, sporting great players at every position.

Its quite possible Stearnes one listed homer came from that huge title series, when every hit counted and the teams likely made sure to bring the score book, keeping a running tally of stats to send out to the major national newspapers that covered the Championship Series.

Stearnes stats are the only ones listed for the Montgomery Gray Sox of 1921. This is likely owing to the fact that he is a Hall of Famer, his career having been researched to complete his stat line at Cooperstown.

Being Champ means post-season appearances!


Turkey raps four hits, steals base in first game
After the victory against Nashville, the GraySox were league champs.

They then went north to play an exhibition series against the StLouis Giants, the winner of the Negro Southern championship against the Negro National Leagues regulars. The Giants were led by Oscar Charleston, himself a future Hall of Famer, and ran a nice second in the NNL that season.
Oscar Charleston


For Montgomery Turkey Stearnes starred in this series, batting cleanup or leading off and doing a great job of it.

The Giants took the series first three games.  Stearnes still managed five hits in the defeats.

Homerun in game four for Stearnes
Being an exhibition the stats don't count towards Stearnes Gray Sox totals, but it gives a good window into how the team looked and the numbers Stearnes could produce in a big series.

It may well be that the Gray Sox were showcasing the young lefty outfielder Stearnes as a prospect, likely getting a hefty finders fee for dealing his contract to a northern team with a larger budget.

 Either way, Stearnes was proving what he had in the series, no matter where he hit. If there was such a thing as a "breakout moment" for Stearnes, it was this series. He was wearing the Montgomery uniform for the last time but had firmly cemented his legacy in the city.

pictured with Detroit
He spent a year with Memphis in 1922, Norman then signed with the Detroit Stars in '23 and there rose to greatness during the baseball golden age of the roaring twenties. His best home run season was 1928, when he hit 24 long balls - at that time the second highest total in Negro League history.

The 1930s would see Turkey become more nomadic. Along with partial seasons in Detroit he would also play for some of the greatest organizations in the Negro Leagues.

He would also become an All-Star, partaking in the first East-West Negro League All-Star Game in 1933.

Teams like the famous Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants and Philadelphia Stars would reap the benefits of Turkeys career .344 batting average.

His accomplishments with the American Giants of the Negro Southern League may have helped remind fans of his early seasons on smaller teams in the south. At this point Norman probably played more games AGAINST Montgomery than he did while with the Gray Sox.

On the broader national stage, he played alongside other well known names like Pop Lloyd, Double Duty Radcliffe, Bill Foster, Mule Suttles, Quincy Trouppe, Willie Wells, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Buck O'Neil, Willie Brown and in his final season he teamed with the great Satchel Paige on the KC Monarchs.

Here is the story of just one of the East-West AllStar Games Turkey Stearnes appeared in.


 After baseball, Norman worked at an auto plant in Detroit and lived with his wife Nettie May Stearnes. Its said he never missed a Tigers home game, sitting in the bleachers every day of the season.

Bill James ranks him as one of the top 25 outfielders of all time, and the #1 Negro League left fielder, however Cooperstown lists him as a centerfielder. I have seen him use centerfielder as an inscription with his autograph, and am inclined to say he felt he was a centerfielder by trade.

The Detroit Tigers have installed a plaque in his name at Comerica Park to recognize his time with the Detroit Stars, as well as his Hall of Fame career.

Montgomery is not mentioned on that plaque, nor the one at the Baseball Hall of Fame.


Norman Thomas Stearnes
Born: May 8, 1901, Nashville, Tennessee
Died: September 4, 1979, Detroit, Michigan
Bats: Left
Throws: Left
Elected to the Hall of Fame by Veterans Committee: 2000
A quiet Southerner who spent his summers blasting long balls for the Detroit Stars and his winters laboring in the Motor City's auto plants to make ends meet, Turkey Stearnes was one of the most prolific home-run hitters in the Negro leagues. He led the Negro National League in homers six times and reportedly hit at least 140 roundtrippers in 585 career games. A swift, athletic center fielder, Stearnes also collected a slew of doubles and triples with his unusual left-handed stroke.

While most every source gives the same story for his nickname - that he flapped his arms when he ran - Norman himself said that when he gained the name as a youth when he had a "protruding" stomach! 

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