Sports, Thrill of Victory

The best athlete Nashville never knew: Turkey Stearnes

A lot has happened to our city’s beloved AAA baseball team, the Nashville Sounds, in the last 15 months. They enter the 2015 season with a new stadium, new logo, new major league affiliate in the Oakland A’s, new front office staff, a new manager, and an entirely new roster of players hoping to get their shot at the big leagues.

With all that change comes a lot of new faces to learn for Nashville sports fans. Getting to know the guys in the minor leagues has been a passion of baseball fans for generations, so once they become household names they will know they got to see them play “back when….”

All of the new changes to the baseball scene in Nashville reminded us here at Sports & Entertainment Nashville that our city has been blessed to see some of the truly great players of the last few generations play before they became All-Stars and names known across the globe. It also reminded us of a story we did a few years back about the best baseball player to ever play in Nashville, and how so few ever even knew his name.

As we get ready for a new season of excitement from our new-look Nashville sounds, it is only fitting to also take a look back and finally get to know Nashville’s greatest baseball player too.

In 2001, baseball historian Bill James rated Stearnes as the 25th-best baseball player of all time. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 2001, baseball historian Bill James rated Stearnes as the 25th-best baseball player of all time. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

If a first glance at the young ballplayer elicited a reaction, it was probably a laugh. He was barely six feet tall and 165 pounds and had an awkward running style, arms flapping outwards like a turkey, which happened to be his nickname. He had one of the ugliest batting stances ever; he hit from the left side with his front heel planted in the dirt and his toe turned to the sky, hands out over the plate, torso pointing towards the pitcher, bat cocked back slightly towards the catcher.

But once he swung the bat, jaws hit the floor.

Despite his small frame, a pair of broad shoulders enabled him to hit a baseball 500 feet. Even with his gangly running style, he was fast enough that he often hit leadoff. That speed, coupled with a strong arm and soft hands, made him a great center fielder.

He was what baseball scouts call “a five-tool player.” In today’s market, a Major League team would pay millions to sign him at 18 if it had the chance, which it may not have gotten immediately given the premium he put on education as a teenager.

If he played today, he’d be a household name among baseball fans, maybe even the best in the game.

Instead, he’s the best athlete Nashville ever produced who’s still virtually anonymous in his hometown.

Talent only gets you so far; the ditches along the highway to greatness are littered with athletes who didn’t have the maturity, character, work ethic or common sense to realize their potential. With Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes, these things were never issues. He didn’t smoke, drink or stay out late. In an era where most players didn’t do off-season conditioning, Stearnes did push-ups and sit-ups and ran frequently during the fall and winter. All those things translated to success then, just as they would now.

Stearnes, pictured here as a member of the Detroit Stars, where he spent the prime of his career. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Stearnes, pictured here as a member of the Detroit Stars, where he spent the prime of his career. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

So, why have you never heard of Turkey Stearnes? Because he was a black man playing baseball before World War II, when the white major leagues refused to admit blacks.

Born May 8, 1901, Stearnes garnered attention as an outfielder and pitcher at Nashville’s Pearl High School. One of five kids, he quit school at 15 to work after his father died, but continued to play baseball as Negro league scouts watched attentively. The Detroit Stars wanted him to come play for them in the early 1920s, but Stearnes wanted to finish high school first, which he did at 21.

In the meantime, Stearnes had played some for Montgomery and Memphis, two Negro minor league franchises. Detroit, considered a Negro major league team, persisted, and Stearnes signed there for the 1923 campaign after he’d completed his education.

That first year in the Motor City, Stearnes was a holy terror, hitting .362, slugging .710, smashing 17 home runs and knocking in 85 runs in just 69 games. His production dipped slightly the next year, but it was followed by three-straight 19 home run seasons, and then a .321, 24-homer, 85-RBI campaign in 81 games in 1928.

Stearnes played for Detroit until 1931, when Mack Park, the Stars’ home field, burned down. Record-keeping from the Negro leagues was spotty, and so Stearnes’ actual stats vary slightly depending on whose records you consult. Historian Richard Bak, in his excellent book “Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars,” says Stearnes played 585 games with Detroit, hit .353, and clubbed 140 home runs.

The prime of Stearnes’ career extended until 1935, when Stearnes, playing in Chicago, was 34 years old. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in a short season, he smacked six home runs in 37 games, got on base at an incredible .527 clip, and slugged .709.

Age started to catch up to him from there; in 1936, Stearnes hit below .300 (.294) for only the second time in his life. His production dropped off markedly from there, as he played parts of four more seasons with Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit before retiring after age 39.

When Mack Park burned down, Stearnes joined the Kansas City Monarchs. Here, he’s fourth from the left on the back row. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When Mack Park burned down, Stearnes joined the Kansas City Monarchs. Here, he’s fourth from the left on the back row. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

His career was impressive: according to Baseball-Reference.com, in 750 games, he hit 176 home runs and batted .344, with a .397 on-base percentage and a slugging mark of .621. (By comparison, Hank Aaron had a lifetime on-base percentage of .374, and slugged .555.) He led the league in home runs seven times and hit over .400 three times.

That may just be the tip of it; the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum records that Stearnes hit 35 homers his first season, and 50 in his second. Baseball-Reference records just 17 and eight, respectively, those two seasons. Likely, those figures include some of the hundreds of exhibition games in which Stearnes played for which we have no good records.

The million-dollar question is, how great would Turkey Stearnes have been playing with whites in the major leagues?

There’s some evidence that we’ve been looking at it backwards: in Bak’s book, he credits baseball researcher John Holway for documenting 445 exhibition games played between barnstorming groups of Negro leaguers and their white counterparts between 1886 and 1948. Black teams won 269 of the 445 games (there were four ties) for a .601 winning percentage.

In some cases, that doesn’t do justice to the black players. Games with white teams could be hard to get, and if you embarrassed a white club, you might not get another. If black teams had a comfortable lead, pitchers would often groove fastballs, and an outfielder might not give his best effort in chasing down a fly ball.

Stearnes’ batting stance, which was more extreme during his playing days than shown here, was one of the stranger ones in baseball history. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Stearnes’ batting stance, which was more extreme during his playing days than shown here, was one of the stranger ones in baseball history. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

This is not to say that there weren’t some caveats. Negro league teams usually only carried 14 or 15 players, and so Stearnes obviously benefitted from getting hits off some thin and overworked pitching staffs.

So, we’ll never have a great answer to the question. But if you take what he did in those 12 Negro league seasons in the peak of his career and prorate his numbers to 154-game seasons (that was the duration of major league seasons at the time), he’d average 35 home runs, 127 RBIs, 130 runs and 21 stolen bases, with a .361 average, and an on-base percentage of over .400. Those numbers compare favorably with the best players to ever play baseball.

There’s other evidence for Stearnes’ greatness. According to the Detroit News, in the 14 exhibition games that Stearnes played against white major leaguers, he hit .313 with four home runs. He got seven straight hits off Satchel Paige — whom Joe DiMaggio called the best pitcher he ever faced — prompting Paige to roll the ball towards the plate and say, “See if you can hit this!” the next time they faced each other. Ted “Double Duty” Ratcliffe, his manager, called him the best center fielder in the history of the Negro leagues.

There were comparisons to Willie Mays. Bill James, perhaps the most respected baseball historian of our time, rated Stearnes the 25th-best baseball player ever in his 2001 book, “The New Bill James Historical Abstract.” Cool Papa Bell, another contemporary, said, “If they don’t put Turkey Stearnes in the Hall of Fame, they shouldn’t put anybody in.”

Turkey Stearnes, shown here with one of his grandchildren, attended Nashville’s Pearl High School, but stayed in Detroit after his playing career was finished until his death in 1979. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Turkey Stearnes, shown here with one of his grandchildren, attended Nashville’s Pearl High School, but stayed in Detroit after his playing career was finished until his death in 1979. / Photo courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Baseball finally started showing proper homage when it inducted Robinson into its Hall in 1962, but progress was slow. Paige, whom some consider the greatest pitcher ever of any color, wasn’t inducted until 1971. It was even slower for Stearnes: eight Negro league players who never played a major league game would be elected to the Hall before Stearnes’ passing in 1979.

How could this happen?

It’s been said that bad publicity is good publicity. In Stearnes’ case, an almost complete lack of publicity of any sort may have proven that to be true. There are colorful anecdotes about other Negro league players that probably helped them gain fame later, but not so much about Stearnes. A devoutly religious and extraordinarily quiet man, he never gave anyone much to talk about outside his play. There’s a story about him chasing off a patron who snuck into a game one time, and others that he would take his bat to the outfield with him to prevent anyone else from hitting with it, but that’s about it.

Finally, in 2000, the Hall inducted Stearnes into its hallowed grounds. Even then, while the other inductees got 45 minutes to give speeches, his widow was given five. Another decade would pass before the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame similarly honored him.

But of all the injustices, perhaps the biggest is that most Nashvillians have no clue who he is, let alone that he’s one of ours. Here’s hoping that Music City will find more ways to respect and honor Stearnes going forward.