Although everyone seems to think of Josh Gibson as the ultimate Negro League power hitter, he doesn’t hold the home run title. A few sources cite Mule Suttles as the home run champion. Most, however, give the honor to Turkey Stearnes.
Norman Thomas Stearnes was born in 1901 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was something of a baseball prodigy becoming a local star in the black neighborhoods of Nashville. His running style was considered unorthodox and the nickname “Turkey” was added to him (much like Ron Cey’s running style got him the nickname “Penguin.”). By 1920 he was playing the outfield for the Nashville Giants, a segregated team that was not considered a top-tier black team.
In 1921 he moved to Montgomery, Alabama to play for the Gray Sox and then in 1922 he was with the Memphis Red Sox. Neither was considered a major player in black baseball (although Memphis would eventually become one). In 1923, Stearnes moved north to play for the Detroit Stars, one of the teams in Rube Foster’s Negro National League. He was an instant star, clubbing 17 documented home runs in 69 games. For the rest of the 1920s he led the Stars in home runs and is credited with leading the NNL in at least 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1929.
By 1930, the Stars were having trouble meeting payroll and Stearnes left them after 30 or so games for the Lincoln Giants, a team which folded following the season. Back with Detroit in 1931, he again encountered a team with payroll problems. He bailed out toward the end of the season, playing a few games with the Kansas City Monarchs. The 1932 season saw him with the Chicago American Giants, where he stayed through 1935. His .441 batting average over 37 games is the documented NNL (new version) high for 1935, giving him his only documented batting title.
In 1936 he moved on to the Philadelphia Stars (they were paying better than the American Giants), didn’t do as well as before (he was 35). He went back to Chicago (now a member of the Negro American League) to begin 1937. The NAL in 1937 used a split season format and had a postseason playoff between the top teams of each half. Stearnes’ American Giants won the second half, but then lost the playoff to Kansas City.
The year 1938 saw him leave the American Giants during the season and hook up with the Monarchs. He remained through 1940, helping Kansas City to NAL pennants in 1939 and 1940. He was 39 in 1940 and fading. He returned to Detroit and worked in the rolling mills of the area until he retired in 1964. He died in Detroit in 1979. In 2000, he was chosen for the Hall of Fame.
How good was he? As usual with Negro League players it’s impossible to answer that question. His statistics are incomplete and the sources disagree. The Negro League Museum credits him with 183 home runs, seven home run titles, and a batting average of .359. The Baseball Reference.com bullpen site gives him 185 home runs and an average of .345. Using the latter numbers (which originate in the research done for the Hall of Fame 2006 election of Negro League players) he has 1209 hits, 712 runs scored, and 387 walks in 914 documented games. He is given credit for 203 doubles, 104 triples, 183 home runs, 718 RBIs, and 129 stolen bases. His batting average is .345 with a slugging percentage of .619. No OBP is given but if you take the number of walks and at bats and the number of hits and walks (How many hit batsman and catcher interference can there be?) you can get an approximate OBP of .419. That provides an approximate OPS of .1.038. With out other info OPS+ isn’t possible to determine. The Baseball Reference.com bullpen also gives a 162 game average for his career. For a 162 game season he would average 214 hits, 126 runs, 36 doubles, 18 triples, 32 home runs, 127 RBIs, 23 stolen bases, and 69 walks (no strikeout numbers are available). Not a bad set of numbers, and as stressed earlier, very incomplete.
Turkey Stearnes is considered one of the greatest power hitters of the Negro Leagues. His average is also excellent and his RBI numbers are very good. The numbers are admittedly incomplete, but what we have indicate that he was a very good player and a deserving Hall of Famer.