Negro League great Cool Papa Bell once said, “If they don’t put Turkey Stearnes in the Hall of Fame, they shouldn’t put anybody in.” Satchel Paige called Stearnes “one of the greatest hitters we ever had. He was as good as anybody ever played ball.” Stearnes was the complete player, a lefthanded batter who, said Paige, “hit with his right foot in the bucket and twisted his right heel and pointed his big toe up.” Research confirms that he had a .350 career batting average, a .664 slugging average, and 172 home runs in 750 games. In the short Negro League seasons, he hit as many as 24 HR in 310 at-bats, and led the league seven times.
Stearnes joined the Negro National League Detroit Stars in 1923, and, batting third, hit .353 and tied for the league lead with 17 HR. He won the NNL HR title four of the next five seasons, and was among the leaders in doubles, triples, and batting and slugging averages throughout the 1920s. With a change of ownership in Detroit in 1930, he joined the great New York Lincoln Giants, playing his customary centerfield and batting fourth. He was hitting .323 with a league-high four HR when he was lured back to Detroit by a team that needed his leadership and box office appeal. During the second half, he hit .353 and led Detroit to a playoff with St. Louis for the pennant. In the seven-game series, he hit .481 with three HR and 11 RBI. One shot in St. Louis off ace Ted Trent went well over 500 feet. But Stearne’s heroic efforts could not prevent a St. Louis victory.
Stearnes jumped to the Kansas City Monarchs when Detroit failed to pay his salary late in the Depression year of 1931. He again led the league in HR with eight, and hit .350. With the collapse of the NNL, he joined the Chicago American Giants in the newly formed East-West League. Manager Dave Malarcher batted Stearnes leadoff to take full advantage of his talents. He hit five HR – enough to lead the league – and helped Chicago to the championship. When the American Giants folded after 1935, he joined the Philadelphia Stars, hitting .350 with nine HR in 100 at-bats. He returned to Detroit for a season when the Stars rejoined the league in 1937, and played again for Chicago and Kansas City.
Stearnes was voted to the West squad for the East-West all-star game in four of its first five years. He was the top vote-getter among outfielders in 1933.