No. 101: Turkey Stearnes

Less than a month until the publication of The Baseball 100, my countdown of the 100 greatest baseball players, and I wanted to give you all a little bonus: No. 101. This is the player I most regret leaving off the list. I imagine this will be in the paperback so … enjoy the early bonus!

Before I get to that, an update on the preorder offers:

Rainy Day Books: If you preorder from Rainy Day by tomorrow midnight (Wednesday, Sept. 1), I will sign and inscribe the book with anything you want. Perfect for birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, Halloween gifts or ways to humiliate me. I do have to tell you that this offer has been successful beyond my wildest dreams. The Baseball 100 is already the most preordered book ever at Rainy Day and one of the most preordered books for any independent bookstore. Incredible! And my reward will be spending something like 20 consecutive hours signing and inscribing books. So, you know … yay me. Again, there are two days left on this offer.

I should add that if you will be in the Kansas City area on Sept. 29, I will be doing a special Baseball 100 conversation with none other than my friend, the legend, Bill James. If you know Bill or his work (and of course you do) you will know that he might have some disagreements with my list. It’s going to be a blast. Tickets are included if you buy the book from Rainy Day.

Bookplate and event offer: If you would rather preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books a Million, another independent bookstore, or anyplace else, there’s a special offer for you too. All you have to do is buy the book by Sept. 28, then go to this link, fill out your name, address and show proof of purchase and you will get a free signed bookplate to put in your book. You will also receive access to an exclusive Zoom event, just for you. Again, this is the link for the bookplate and event.

Now, here’s No. 101: Norman “Turkey” Stearnes.

They called him Turkey because of the way he ran. Norman Stearnes in full flight would bob his head and flap his arms just a bit, and after watching that there was really nothing else for the other players to do but 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 run funny, but he was blazing fast. He was a leadoff hitter pretty much his entire life. He played a huge center field. When Negro Leaguers would talk about speed, they always began (as you know) with the peerless Cool Papa Bell, the man so fast that he could turn out the light and be under the covers before the room got dark.

Turkey Stearnes was almost as fast as Cool Papa Bell.

“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.”

More illusions: Turkey Stearnes had this crazy, wide-open batting stance. Remember Tony Bautista?

Yeah, Stearnes’ stance was a little something like that but from the left side. Turkey looked a bit like he had arrived at the game by accident and asked a spectator, “Pray tell, what sport it this?” And that someone then handed him a bat and told him to try and hit the ball.

But with that stance, Turkey Stearnes became one of the greatest power hitters in the history of baseball.

Negro Leagues statistics are, as everyone knows, still incomplete. They can conceal as much as they reveal. But according to the brilliant research from the folks at Seamheads, the top five home run hitters in the Negro Leagues were:

  1. Josh Gibson

  2. Oscar Charleston

  3. Turkey Stearnes

  4. Mule Suttles

  5. Willie Wells

Legends. All of them. But while the fame of Gibson and Charleston has only grown in recent years, Turkey Stearnes has largely been forgotten. Even in his time, he was often overlooked. And it’s a shame because he was as colorful and brilliant as anyone who played in the Negro Leagues; there should be a movie about him.

“How many home runs do you think you hit?” the author John B. Holway asked a year or two before Stearnes died.

“I hit so many,” Turkey said, “I never counted them.”

Norman Stearnes was born in Nashville, 1901. His father died when he was 15, and he went to work to help support the family as a janitor, a farmhand, a grocery store stocker. He only played ball on the weekends.

And he was entirely self-taught — this is what led to the many wonderful quirks that made him such a unique baseball player. Let’s take just a moment to lament how homogenized the game has become. Nobody teaches themselves on the sandlots now. Kids are taught to hit the same, pitch the same, field the same, throw the same. And, no question, they’re taught better fundamentals.

But so many wonders of baseball like Bob Gibson’s violent windup or Stan Musial’s peek-a-boo batting stance or Mel Ott’s leg-up-in-the-air style are all but gone.

Some travel coach undoubtedly would have seen Turkey Stearnes run when he was 10 and would have told him to calm down all that flapping and bobbing. That would have been the end of that. And baseball would be just a little bit less colorful because of it.

Turkey Stearnes was not a big man (he never did weigh more than 170 or 175 pounds) but he had natural power. He lived until 1979, and that meant that he got to watch the similarly sized Carl Yastrzemski hit 400 home runs and win a couple of MVP awards. And when he watched Yaz, he would say: “Yeah, that’s what I was like.”

Let’s talk a little bit more about the batting stance. As a left-handed hitter, he would plant his right foot WAY to the right, almost like he was facing the pitcher for an old-West gunfight. But it was even weirder than that. He would plant his right heel in the dirt and point his toes up toward the sky. He said that gave him leverage.

He also choked up on the bat, much like how Barry Bonds did late in his career. This allowed him to turn on fastballs with a cobra-quick swing.

“He could get around on you,” Satchel Paige said.

Stearnes came to Detroit in 1923 and, according to Seamheads research, he hit .366 and slugged .723 with 20 doubles, 15 triples and 18 home runs in just 72 games. He was credited with the home run title that year though Seamheads has found that Heavy Johnson and Candy Jim Taylor actually hit more. He did lead the league in triples. But then, he ALWAYS led the league in triples … he led the league six times, which is the record for black or white baseball.

He led the league in triples again in ‘24, of course, finished one homer behind Oscar Charleston in ‘25, hit .383 and led the league in doubles in ‘26. It was like this year every year; he always led the league or almost led the league in major categories. And if you counted all of the barnstorming games, all the exhibition games, all the games against white players, he probably cranked 50 or 60 homers more or less every year, which is why he stopped counting.

That was OK, though, because Stearnes wasn’t interested in just hitting home runs.“If (the home runs) did not win a ball game,” he always said, “they didn’t amount to anything.”

I will admit that my favorite part of the Turkey Stearnes story is that he talked to his bats. He thought of baseball bats as living, breathing things — in this way, he was a lot like another great left-handed slugger, Johnny Mize. In 1940, when he was still playing for the Cardinals, Mize had 43 different bats, one for every occasion. When the clubhouse folks complained that they couldn’t travel with 43 bats, Mize grumped: “How do you expect me to work without my tools?”

Stearnes was like that … but even more so. He also had multiple bats, and he would carry them in violin cases to be sure that they were well preserved. Then, back at the hotel, teammates would sometimes overhear him thanking his bats for delivering big hits or reprimand bats for failing to deliver in the big moments or admonishing himself for choosing the wrong bat for the occasion.

“I used you and only hit the ball up against the fence,” Buck O’Neil recalled him saying to one bat, and then Turkey turned to the other. “If I had picked you, I would have hit a home run.” He was known to threaten a bat that slumped with an ax.

Turkey Stearnes was at his best for mediocre teams; he didn’t star for famous teams the way Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige did. That is one of the reasons he was overlooked. He also came along earlier than a lot of the stars people remember; he played in the 1920s while Gibson, Leonard, Paige, Monte Irvin and others played in the 1930s and ‘40s. Those players just missed integration and so their sadness is palpable; we think about what might have been.

But star players like Turkey Stearnes, Bullet Rogan, Mule Suttles, John Beckwith, Jud Wilson — they were largely forgotten by the time Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers in ‘47. Stearnes himself had been retired for years by then. 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 was always modest about his own accomplishments. And, to be bluntly honest, not a lot of people asked.

When Negro Leaguers started getting elected into the Hall of Fame — beginning with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Turkey Starnes did believe he would get the call. He waited by the phone on election days. The 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. for a while Negro Leagues players stopped getting elected — there was a sense in the 1970s that adding more than those eight Negro Leagues players would water down the Hall of Fame. This, sadly, was happening at the same time that the Hall of Fame was adding just about every white player who picked up a bat for the New York Giants in the 1920s or early ‘30s.

In 1979, Turkey Stearnes went to the first big Negro Leagues reunion. The other players saw that he was already very sick. He died two months later. It would be more than two decades after Turkey’s death that one of the greatest to ever play the game was finally elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.