Negro Leagues legend Satchel Paige called Turkey Stearnes “one of the greatest hitters we ever had. He was as good as Josh [Gibson]. He was as good as anybody who ever played ball”.
Off the field, Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes had a quiet, unassuming personality. Teammate Paul Stevens recalled “[he was] very quiet. About all he would say were ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – he was never a fellow to pop off.”
But Stearnes was far from reserved on the ball field.
Born May 8, 1901, in Nashville, Stearnes was a five-tool player and five time All-Star selection to the Negro Leagues East-West All-Star Classic. He is said to have earned the nickname “Turkey” because of the unusual way he ran, which resembled that of a turkey, with his arms flapping. However, Stearnes himself claimed it was because he had a potbelly as a child.
Regardless of how the nickname came about, Stearnes was widely recognized as one of the game’s all-time great players during his career. Negro Leaguer Jim Canada, who played against Stearnes said: “He hit the ball nine miles. He was a show, people would go to see him play.”
Stearnes could win games with both his arms and his legs. A swift center fielder who excelled on the bases, Stearnes led the Negro National League in batting average twice and is credited with 129 stolen bases.
"That man could hit the ball as far as anybody," Cool Papa Bell said. "And he was one of our best all-around players. He could field, he could hit, he could run. He had plenty of power."
As with many Negro League stars, Stearnes played for a variety of teams during his career, including the Chicago American Giants – with whom he won the Negro Southern League pennant in 1932 and the Negro National League pennant in 1933. It was during his time with the American Giants that Stearnes was selected to play in the first East-West All-Star Game, where he received more votes than any other outfielder.
Negro Leaguer Jimmie Crutchfield described his former teammate as a "quicky-jerky sort of guy who could hit the ball a mile. Turkey had a batting stance that you'd swear couldn't let anybody hit a baseball at all. He'd stand up there looking like he was off balance. But, it was natural for him to stand that way, and you couldn't criticize him for it when he was hitting everything they threw at him!"
Stearnes passed away on Sept. 4, 1979. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.