Saturday, May 28, 2016

Skitz Bombed, Talkin Turkey Stearnes




The Biscuits were drubbed 10-1 by the Generals. The beating was bad enough that even a player commented to me that we "might need a little help in the bullpen" soon. I felt that was a bit of an understatement, though to be fair the starting pitcher had already surrendered five runs before the pen got into the game.

The History Night was good, though the dignitaries weren't able to be there for their first pitches. The stuff I submitted worked well for between innings video stuff, very Ken-Burns-ish. I liked it and was really glad to help out. I think the original plan of using Faux-back uniforms would have really helped it out, fans love to see the Skitz in different uniforms!

Saturday is a doubleheader that Montgomery really needs to win both ends of to keep their first half playoff hopes alive. Gates open at 4:30 for Biscuits History Night. There will be former Biscuits players in attendance!

MY BAD
Shows you what I know, Brad Boxberger was brought into the game in the middle of an inning, shooting down my "rehab guy needs to start an inning" theory. Boxberger pitched well, giving up one hit and striking out one. I noticed Brad pitched with his mouth open on every pitch, looking a lot like an excited kid.
  Glad someone was having fun out there!


LIFE OF THE PARTY
Not sure who these guys were, but they really wanted their picture taken! They were having fun on Thursty Thirsday and were pretty much in charge of their section, I suspect they are Huntingdon College students, not sure why! haha




Todays history nod is a repost about a Montgomery favorite, one with much myth and misconception surrounding his playing days in our area, Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes.

TALKIN TURKEY STEARNES

Turkey Stearnes is one of the most famous negro leaguers from our area, known even to fans just moderately familiar with the Alabama River Region baseball history. I studied his career and found out he isnt exactly what the legends say he is, he certainly isnt from the Montgomery area and he had a few things going on that even those who have heard of him maybe don't realize!


HERE WE GO
When Montgomery and the Biscuits celebrated Montgomery Baseball Leadership Heritage Day, (back in 2013) one of the main players noted was Turkey Stearnes.

Satch faced Stearnes often
As well it should be, as Turkey Stearnes was one of the best to don the Montgomery GraySox uniform, or any other for that matter. "If you don't put Turkey Stearnes in the Hall of Fame, they shouldn't put anybody" was how Cool Papa Bell felt, and he knew a thing or two about great hitting.

Legend has it that Satchel Paige gave up six consecutive hits to Stearnes. When he faced him the seventh time, Satchel rolled the ball along the ground to the plate saying "Let's see you hit that one!"



 WHY THE LONG FACE?
My complaint about the "event"?

Its that there was exactly one picture of Stearnes used by the city, the newspaper and all other media covering the event, stolen from the BaseballHall.org website. And it is a particularly bad photo....
NOT the only known photo of Turkey Stearnes!

So, in order to make things better for future generations who hopefully plan their events a little farther in advance, I thought I would offer other images of one the few Montgomery players to have a berth in the Hall of Fame.
Norman T. Stearnes, Hall of Famer
Stearnes in 1971 w/grandson
  THE REAL TURKEY STEARNES
Stearnes, whose real name is Norman T. Stearnes (no the "T." does not stand for turkey!) was born in 1901 in Nashville Tn. - not Montgomery in spite of many considering him a Montgomery native.

In his twenty year career in baseball, Turkey would be known as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, a four time All-Star and one of the top two all-time Negro league home run leaders, depending on who's stats we trust its either him or Mule Suttles.

Stearnes hit a homer every 16 at bats, an equal rate to Hank Aaron and Lou Gehrig.

His outfield play was usually in centerfield and always exemplary - Willie Mays often received comparisons to Stearnes defense.

He was a multiple AllStar, won pennants, batting titles, led the league in homers, triples, doubles and stolen bases.

Sixty years after his last game in 1940 the premier leadoff hitter of the Negro Leagues 1920-30s heyday was finally given a pass to Cooperstown.




MONTGOMERY MISCONCEPTIONS...
While many mistakenly think of Stearnes as having come from Montgomery, even more think he played his first pro games here - including otherwise well-educated baseball websites like MiLB.com, NegroLeagueBaseball.com and many others who have no excuse for not checking their facts.

In actuality Norman started his baseball career in Nashville, contributing 35 plate appearances while batting .265. This is very contrary to the idea of him turning pro and coming here in his first tilt. Even the term of "professional" is debatable, as the Montgomery team was with the Independent Negro League for the 1921 season.

In all, he spent only a single summer in Montgomery. The City of Montgomery press release erroneously states that he began his playing career here, as do many otherwise reliable sources, but the reality is he spent a year for hometown Nashville BEFORE signing on with the Grey Sox of Montgomery in the Negro Southern League at the age of 20 years old.


ONE HOMERUN?
rare photo of Stearnes in '27
Known records show him making a meager 18 trips to the plate for the 1921 GreySox, rapping just one lone home run towards his career total of 176 (or, alternatively 183, or maybe 181 depending on your source.)

Negro leagues famously didnt keep full statistics, and Stearnes likely posts numbers now lost to history, as did '21 GreySox teammate Steel Arm Dickey. Stearns himself said "I never counted my home runs, I had so many. If we didn't win it didn't matter."


In spite of his legendary status in the area, Stearnes wasn't exactly what we would call Montgomerys most prolific player - his one home run accounts for exactly half of the hits he records with the Mgm team, which usually played at College Hill Park, located on what is now the ASU campus.

That one home run, however, was the first professional home run of his long and storied Hall of Fame career. Perhaps that is why its a common misconception that he played his first games here, as well as one of the reasons Montgomery adopted him into their baseball pantheon.

In a bio of Stearnes on PitchBlack.com its said he struggled in limited at bats with the Montgomery team, which sounds alot more like what one would expect from a 20 yr old rookie with a funky batting stance on a pennant winning team loaded with talent - which the Gray Sox very much were.

FUNKY STANCE IN THREE PARTS
I have never seen anyone imitate Turkey Stearnes batting stance - unorthodox would be an understatement! Sadly, I have not seen a photo or even an illustration of Stearnes at the plate. However several descriptions give us the following details...

1. Stearnes, a lefty, stood in the middle of the left handed batters box with what we today would call an "open" stance - his bellybutton facing the pitcher, at the time pretty much unheard of.
2. Stearnes would hold his bat with both arms straight in front of him, pointing the bat straight up into the air over home plate and letting the barrel lean slightly toward the pitcher.
3. Most unusual of all, Stearnes would plant his right foot heel down on the ground and point his toes skyward while waiting for the pitcher to deliver the ball.

Of Turkey stearnes hitting stance Satchel Paige was quoted he "hit with his right foot in the bucket and twisted his right heel and pointed his big toe up." Stearnes had one of the most unusual hitting styles in history, but his legendary speed and talent for getting the bat through the hitting zone led him to a career .344 batting average.

WE DEMAND A RE-COUNT!
TURKEY STEARNES stats with Montgomery Gray Sox in 1921, from Baseball Reference dot com.

18 plate appearances
3 runs scored
2 hits
1 home run
3 runs batted in
3 stolen bases
.111 Batting Average
.278 Slugging Percentage
5 total bases

Uhhh, really? Someone get on the horn and ask them how a guy hits a home run and steals three bags but only has 5 total bases. I think we have to ask for a recount on those totals. A homer is four bags, three steals bring us to seven total bases and there is yet another hit listed, so he HAD to have at least 8 TB.

Just another example of how little people have fact checked Turkey Stearnes info and rely on what they are told in spite of what can plainly be seen.




THAT'S OUR TURKEY
Norman Stearnes

The city of Montgomery likely adopted him as their own at the end of his GraySox 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!


BIG SERIES FOR TURKEY


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.









THEN OFF TO GREATNESS
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.


POSTGAME

 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.

From BaseballHall.org

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
Biography: 
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.


LAST BUT NOT LEAST
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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