Posts Tagged ‘Turkey Stearnes’

The Lincolns

February 16, 2017
Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

When we think of Negro League teams, most think of the later Negro League teams such as the Crawfords, the Grays, or the Eagles. But way back before the founding of the first of the famous Negro Leagues, the Negro National League of the 1920s, there were other leagues and other teams. One of the more dominant of the early 20th Century teams was the Lincoln Giants of New York.

There is a bit of question about their origins. Their Wikipedia page indicates that an ancestry can be traced back to Nebraska in the 1890s, but doesn’t indicate how they got to New York. More conventional sources indicate that Jess McMahon (of the current WWE wrestling McMahon’s) was a prominent sports promoter in New York with extensive interests in Harlem. In 1911 he joined with Sol White to form the Lincoln Giants. It was a formidable team that immediately began to dominate black baseball in New York. With Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd, Louis Santop, Smokey Joe Williams, and the likes of Spottswood Poles, Bill Pettus, and Cannonball Dick Redding (God, I love old-time nicknames) they dominated Eastern black baseball into 1914. In 1913 they played an unofficial black championship against the pride of the Midwestern black leagues, the Chicago American Giants, led by Rube Foster. The exact number of games and wins in the series is in some question, but there is agreement that the Lincolns won the series.

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

By 1914, McMahon was in financial trouble. He sold the Lincoln Giants, but retained the contracts of several of the big stars. He formed a new team, the Lincoln Stars, and competed directly with his old team. The Stars lasted to 1917, folded, and most of the remaining former Giants went back to their old club.

According to the Seamheads website, the Lincoln Giants were still doing well in the 1914-17 period, but fell off some due to the loss of many of their stars. By this point Smokey Joe Williams was doubling as ace pitcher and manager. It was the height of his Hall of Fame career. But the team ran up against a formidable foe off the diamond. Nat Strong (see my post “The Schedule Man” of 20 August 2015) controlled scheduling for black baseball in New York at the time and the Lincolns wanted to play more games than Strong was willing to schedule. They attempted to schedule some games without going through Strong, and were thrown out of the existing league structure in New York. Barnstorming followed.

With the founding Foster’s Negro National League, the eastern teams found it to their advantage to form their own league, the Eastern Colored League, in 1923. The Lincolns were a significant member of the league. They never won a league championship, finishing as high as third in 1924. By 1928 the ECL was on life support. A changing economy, weak teams, chaos at the top of the league (again another story for another time), and the dominance of Foster’s NNL, caused it to collapse.

The remnants of the ECL formed a new league, the American Negro League in 1929. It lasted one year. The Lincoln Giants held on one more year in a declining economy and finally folded after the 1930 season.

During their existence, the New York Lincoln Giants were dominant in the East. They won unofficial championships most of the decade of the 19-teens and led Strong’s New York league most years (which is why they thought they could challenge him). They provided Eastern black baseball with some of the greatest players of the era in Lloyd, Wood, Santop, Redding, and later Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes. Not a bad legacy.

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

Turkey Stearnes

February 23, 2015
Turkey Stearnes

Turkey Stearnes

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.

Stearnes grave. There is no marker. The "20" indicates the 20th grave in the line

Stearnes grave. There is no marker. The “20” indicates the 20th grave in the line

 

Thoughts on Enshrining 3 Managers

December 10, 2013
Baseball's newest Hall of Famers (from MLB.com)

Baseball’s newest Hall of Famers (from MLB.com)

So the Veteran’s Committee has put Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame. Although I stated earlier I wouldn’t vote for Cox myself, I have no problem with the three making it to Cooperstown (as if the Committee cares what I think). Here’s a few thoughts on the newest election.

Again, Marvin Miller failed to make the Hall of Fame. According to reports the three winners were unanimously elected and no other candidate received more than six votes (out of 18). I’m surprised that Miller got at most six votes. There were six players on the committee, but I have no idea if any or all of them voted for Miller. So Far I’m unable to find out exactly how many votes anyone other than the three managers received.

And it’s not at all strange that a player was not elected. I went back to 2000 (the entire 21st Century, depending on what you do with 2000) and looked at the Veteran’s Committee inductees. It’s an interesting group. First, I need to remind you that the Committee was, for a  while, not a yearly institution, so in some of those 15 years there was no Committee and thus no one had a chance of election. For the purposes of this comment, I’ve excluded the 17 Negro League players and executives elected in 2006 because they were elected by a separate committee set up specifically to enshrine Negro League members. Only four players have been elected. They are Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo, Bid McPhee, and Deacon White. Two of the players span the 1960s, the other two play in the 1800s. On the other hand, the Committee has elected two Negro Leaguers (Turkey Stearnes and Hilton Smith), seven managers (including the three just chosen), and seven contributors (executives, commissioners, umpires, etc.). So recently, the Veteran’s Committee has been shorting players.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It may mean that we’ve almost gotten to the end of those players who genuinely deserve Hall of Fame status. It may mean that the selection committee will continue to put up players and the election committee will continue to turn down almost all of them. I want to see what the various ballots look like over the next dozen or so years (remember there are 3 committees, so a dozen years would be four of each). If the same people keep making the list and keep failing election it should indicate that the various Veteran’s Committees have determined that the era for which they vote is devoid of quality candidates for enshrinement. Of course evolving lists and new stat methods can change this very much. The problem is that the pressure to elect someone, anyone, can be great. After all if you go five years without electing someone, then people begin to ask “why do we have a Veteran’s Committee?” This could lead to more marginal players elected or, more likely from what we’ve seen lately, more managers, umpires, owners, and executives making the trek to Cooperstown for enshrinement. Although I admit that the contributors have a major role in baseball and should be commemorated in Cooperstown, let’s not get carried away and start putting in everybody who ever umped a game or owned a team.

I also found out something about the Veteran’s Committee rules. According to MLB.com the members of the committee are restricted to voting for not more than five candidates (like the writers and the 10 candidate rule). As with the writers ballot this tends to depress the election results, which may not be bad, but I really wish they’d let the committee members vote for as many as they want. After all, they can vote for as few as they want, including no one.

So congratulations to Cox, LaRussa, and Torre. Now we wait for the Spink and Frick Awards and the big ballot writer’s selections. Those should be interesting, particularly the latter.

The First Negro League All-Star Game

February 18, 2013
Steel Arm Davis

Steel Arm Davis

In an earlier previous post I remarked on the formation and history of the East-West All-Star Game. As with most all-star games some of them are very good and others stink up the place. For my money one of the very best East-West games was the first one in 1933.

Held on 10 September in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the game consisted of two fan chosen teams that cut across league lines to create two geographically chosen teams. The East starting team had an infield (from first to third) of: Oscar Charleston (Crawfords), John Henry Russell (Crawfords), Dick Lundy (Stars), and Jud Wilson (Stars). The outfield was from left to right: Vic Harris (Crawfords), Cool Papa Bell (Crawfords), and Rap Dixon (Stars). The battery had Biz Mackey (Stars) catching, and Sam Streeter (Crawfords) pitching. The bench consisted of eight players (a few of them not from either the Crawfords or the Stars) including future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Andy Cooper, Judy Johnson and catcher Josh Gibson.

The West team was equally stellar. The infield (again first to third) was Mule Suttles (American Giants), LeRoy Morney (Buckeyes), Willie Wells (American Giants), and Alex Radcliffe (American Giants). From left to right the outfield was Steel Arm Davis (American Giants), Turkey Stearnes (American Giants), and Sam Bankhead (Elite Giants). The battery consisted of  catcher Willie Brown and pitcher Willie Foster (both of the American Giants). The bench comprised seven players (most from either the Nashville Elite Giants or the Kansas City Monarchs) with Newt Allen being the most noted. The West team did not substitute during the game (the only time that occured in the East-West Game), so the subs got the day off.

Steel Arm Davis recorded the first out on a fly from Cool Papa Bell and the East went in order in the first. In the top of the second, Jud Wilson singled to record the first hit, but did not score. The game remained scoreless into the bottom of the third when Sam Bankhead singled, went to second on an out and scored on Turkey Stearnes’ single. The fourth inning saw six runs scored, three by each team. The botom of the third included a two-run home run by Mule Suttles, the first homer in East-West history. The East got two more in the fifth on a single, a hit bastsman, another single, and Wilson’s two run single. That put the East up 5-4. It was their last lead.

The West took the lead for good in the bottom of the sixth on two singles sandwiched around consecutive doubles. They picked up three more in the seventh and a final run in the eighth. By the top of the ninth, the East led 11-5 and were coasting. A single, an error, and two sacrifice flies brought the game to 11-7 with Josh Gibson coming up. He hit a long fly to end the game.

The big heroes were Foster, who pitched the only complete game in East-West history, and Suttles who was two for four with three RBIs, two runs scored, a double, and a home run. More than that, the game was a huge success among fans. It made it certain that the game would be continued.

The Core of the Hall: Notes

July 6, 2012

The post just below this one touches on the 50 people who I think most belong in the Hall of Fame (of those already enshrined). The public comments have been positive, but I’ve also received a handful of private comments (and emails) with questions about the list. This is an attempt to answer those.

1. SportsPhD in his comment below notes a paucity of 19th Century players and speculates that I’m purposefully leaving off players who were active primarily before the advent of the mound. He is correct. I think the change in pitching distance and motion have so effected the game that players before and after those changes must be viewed in entirely different categories. And, yes, there is a certain amount of justice in placing Campanella above Anson.

2. A number of comments have asked why so many Negro Leaguers, especially Turkey Stearnes and Martin DiHigo. I am entirely comfortable in believing that five Negro League players are among the 50 finest players ever. Look at the National League in the 1950s and you’ll note that guys like Aaron, Mays, Clemente, and Frank Robinson are on my list. I don’t think it unreasonable to believe that five players from the period 1920-1950 who were Negro League stars should be included. If you can find four in ten years, surely you can find five in thirty. As to DiHigo I placed him here because of his playing ability, his versatility, and his impact on the game among Latin players. He is instrumental on growing the game in Latin America (as is Clemente) and when coupled with his skills that puts him on my list. Stearnes is a little harder to justify and frankly was one of the last people I included. Most sources claim he is the leader in home runs among Negro Leaguers. That probably is worth adding him, even at the expense of guys like Buck Leonard and John Henry Lloyd.

3. Most people, including those who made public comment on the first Core post, indicate they might have changed a half dozen or so. Actually I think that’s really good. It means that, at least among those people who read this blog, there is a fairly solid consensus as to the top 40 or so players.

4. Someone asked if I was sorry to have to leave off current players or Hall eligible (or in the case of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose ineligible) players. Yes, I was. I’d love to put Albert Pujols on the list as well as Greg Maddux and possibly Rose although I’d have to think long and hard about Charlie Hustle. I’m not sure I see him as a top 50 without reference to the gambling issue. Maybe, maybe not.

5. I was asked “If Campanella was the last man on, who was the last man off?” The answer is Eddie Murray. I really miss putting Murray on the list and I have to admit that a personal prejudice may have gotten in the way here. I always liked Murray, but I loved Campy. I guess in the end that made a difference.

6. Someone asked “If you could cut it down to 10 who would you pick?” Pass.

All this typed for the information of those who asked. This way I don’t have to write up a dozen different responses to a dozen different emails.

My Best Negro League Roster

February 28, 2011

A friend of mine who reads this blog called me up the other day. He suggested I post what was, in my opinion, the best Negro League team. I went into a long discourse about why that wasn’t possible because of lack of stats and collaborating info and anything else I could come up with to get out of it. He finally cut me off with a simple, “Wing it.” So for the edification of anyone who happens to run across this, and to cap a long group of Negro League posts, here’s my list of the best Negro League players, with appropriate caveats (You knew those were coming, didn’t you?).

First, I took only guys who played the majority of their careers in the Negro Leagues. In other words guys like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were out, as were Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. Second, I did a 25 man roster with a manager and an owner, and a couple of special add ons. I included 2 players at each infield position, 6 outfielders, 3 catchers, and 8 pitchers (at least two of which had to be left-handed). I know that almost no Negro League team ever actually had 25 men on its roster and that if they did they weren’t aligned as I’ve aligned my team. But this is the way I wanted to do it. I have an aversion to comparing players in the pre-mound era with those whose career is mostly after the advent of the mound and the 60’6″ pitching distance.  I simply think the game is so different you can’t compare players (feel free to disagree). That led to a real problem for me, Frank Grant. I think he is probably one of the half-dozen or so greatest black players ever, but that’s unquantifiable to me. So I had to leave him out, and wish I didn’t.

So here we go. All players are listed alphabetically by position. That means there is no indication that I think the guy listed first is better, although he may be a lot better. Don’t expect a lot of surprises, and keep the snickers to yourselves.

Catcher: Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop. This was actually pretty easy. There seems to be a consensus between statheads, historians, and old Negro League players that these three were head and shoulders above the other catchers in Negro League play. Fleet Walker was also a catcher, but I don’t think he was the quality of these three and he also fails to meet the post-mound criteria. Sorry, Fleet.

1st Base: Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles. There were two problems here. The first was the necessity of leaving out Buck O’Neill. I don’t suppose there is a more important Negro Leaguer (except for Jackie Robinson), but the information on him makes it evident that he wasn’t really at the top of the line of Negro League first basemen. The second problem is that Mule Suttles spent a lot of time in the outfield. But it was common for Negro League players to do “double duty” in the field, so Suttles at first isn’t actually a bad idea.

2nd Base: Newt Allen, Bingo DeMoss. I think I had more trouble settling on the second basemen than on any other position (OK, maybe pitcher). First, I wanted to put Grant in, but just couldn’t because of the problems mentioned above. I also think it might be the weakest position in Negro League play. The list of truly great players here is awfully short. I think these two are probably the best, but I could be talked into someone else.

3rd Base: Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson. Again an easy pick. There seems to be universal agreement that Dandridge was a fielder unlike any other in the history of the Negro Leagues, and that Johnson could outhit anyone who played the position. Who am I to argue with universal agreement?

Shortstop: John Henry Lloyd, Willie Wells. Lloyd was an easy pick. If Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop who ever shortstopped, says he’s pleased to be compared with Lloyd, I’m gonna take him at his word. Wells was also pretty easy. Again there seems to be a consensus among the sources that he was a terrific shortstop.

Outfield: Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Oscar Charleston, Martin DiHigo, Turkey Stearnes, Christobal Torriente. First, I didn’t worry about getting two each Right, Center, and Left. I ended up with two Right Fielders (Brown, DiHigo), one in Left (Stearnes), and the rest are Center Fielders. One of the things about studying and researching for this list is how quickly you find out Bell is seriously overrated. Now I don’t mean to imply Bell wasn’t a heck of a ballplayer; he was. He may have been the very best Negro League outfielder ever. But there seems to be this idea that he was just head and shoulders above the others (Charleston and Torriente). From what I read, I just don’t see that. Maybe he was better, but if so not by much. Certainly he wasn’t better by the amount a lot of people seem to want to think. It reminds me of what I call the “Derek Jeter Aura”. Is Jeter the best shortstop who started his career in the last 15 or so years? Yes. Is he the  greatest since the position was invented (as some would have us believe)?  Not even close, but try telling that to legions of his fans. And Bell seems to be running through that same situation. Personally, I think Charleston was better (and again that’s a personal opinion, not bolstered by much in the way of facts) and I’m not sure that DiHigo wasn’t the finest Negro League outfielder of the lot (or maybe he wasn’t, it’s tough to tell). I am fairly sure that DiHigo is the most under appreciated of the lot.

Pitcher: Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Leon Day, Bill Foster, Luis Mendez, Satchel Paige, Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith. This may have been the hardest of the lists to determine. First, there aren’t a lot of really good left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues, so finding two (and one-quarter of the list being left-handed didn’t seem unreasonable) became a pain. Next, there were more than six righty’s that had to be considered. I hated to leave any off, but this list is my best guess.

Manager: Rube Foster. OK, he had to be here somewhere. He seems to have been a better pitcher than manager and a better manager than executive, but the founder of the Negro Leagues ought to be here.

Owner:  Cum Posey. I said that both second and pitching caused me the most problem. That’s true of players, but finding the best owner to put on the team was almost a nightmare. Who do you take? J.L. Wilkinson owned the most famous team (the Monarchs), Effa Manley of Newark was probably the most famous owner, Gus Greenlee owned the best team (the Crawfords). I looked at all of them and chose Posey, the man who owned the Grays. I think the Grays were the most consistantly successful team in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. I decided that made Posey the owner.

One of a kind: Double Duty Radcliffe. Radcliffe was known to pitch one game of a double-header, then catch the other game. You have to be kidding me. 

Post Negro League Career: Charley Pride. One of the great things about being married to my wife is that every morning I get to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Now I may be wrong about this, but “Just Between You and Me,” as far as I can tell, Pride had the best non-sports related career of any Negro Leaguer.

A Charley Pride baseball card

The musical information shown here tells me this card is a fake, but I just couldn’t resist putting it up for show and tell.

Here’s hoping you’ve learned something from this sojourn into the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. Failing that, I hope you enjoyed them. With the end of Black History Month, I’ll think I’ll take up something else.