Friday, June 14, 2024

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, Mack Park, and the Detroit Stars

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes

The Negro National League (NNL), America's first successful Black baseball league, was the brainchild of Andrew "Rube" Foster, who was born in Calvert, Texas in 1879. He grew up playing sandlot baseball in the Deep South. A gifted pitcher, Foster was a much sought after player for neighborhood and regional teams. He became a vagabond ballplayer and barnstormed throughout the South, scratching out a living on the mound rather than the land. Like many Black Americans, Foster was drawn to the North by the Great Migration for jobs and a better life.

In 1910, Foster had the foresight to realize that the Chicago area, and other Midwestern cities had sizeable Black populations which could support their own city teams. He organized, owned, and managed the Chicago American Giants. The American Giants were a barnstorming team that picked up games whenever and wherever they could, or they hosted exhibitions which allowed local teams and factory teams to compete against a professional team and split the gate profits after expenses were paid out.

Rube, as he became known professionally, also pitched for the American Giants until 1916. At the age of thirty-seven, his weight became a problem, and he lost his snap. Foster decided to hire younger men to take over the hurling chores, so he could devote his full attention to managing and scheduling the team.

When World War I ended in 1919, Foster acted on his dream to create a professional Negro league modeled after the White major leagues. He installed a new team in Detroit and hired known numbers [illegal lottery] operator John T. "Tenny" Blount to manage the team which Foster dubbed The Detroit Stars. Foster also owned the Dayton Marcos from Dayton, Ohio; he hired someone to manage that team for him also. From these three charter teams, the fledgling NNL was born. Soon four other teams rounded out the league though teams came and went over the life of the league.

For the next decade, the Detroit Stars played at Mack Park on Fairview and Mack Avenues in the middle of a White, working-class, German neighborhood on Detroit's near Eastside. It was a short four-mile trolley ride from Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood to the ball park. The Stars performed before mixed crowds and had fans on both sides of the color line.

Mack Park was constructed in 1914 by Joe Roesink, an avid sports fan from Grand Rapids, who ran a chain of successful haberdasheries [men's clothing stores]. He leased his field to the NNL Detroit Stars, so Detroit could have its own Black team. Roesink also got 25% of the gate.

On most weekends, as many as 8,000 people could be squeezed into the bleachers with another 2,000 in the grandstand. The ball park was a single-decked structure made of fir lumber planking and tin sheeting over the grandstand. The expensive seats were padded stadium seats under the grandstand. The cheap seats were in the bleachers where spectators had to contend with the elements and teeming crowds. Surprisingly, crowds tended to get along well for the most part. 

Mack Park was a left-handed hitters' ball park. Right center field was 279' from home plate, the right field power alley was only 265'. The left field fence was 358', left center field was 390', and center field was 405'. Statistics indicate that NNL batters hit 128% more home runs in Mack Park than in any other Negro league park. Soon, the Stars were to have their first superstar who would take full advantage of that.


In an aside, on Sunday, July 7, 1929, the Detroit Stars were to play a double-header against the Kansas City Monarchs. Two days of heavy rain had soaked Mack Park. Owner and operator John Roesink wanted to get these two games in before he had to issue rain checks and lose money. The skies cleared and 2,000 fans were inside the ball park anxious to see some good baseball. 

Standing water surrounded first and second base. A common practice in those days was to use blazing gasoline to evaporate standing water. [Wouldn't spreading sand be safer and more effective?]

Roesink telephoned a nearby gas station ordering 40 gallons of gas, but the ball park did not have an approved storage tank for that amount, so they filled eight, five-gallon gas cans and stored them under the grandstand along the first base line where the team club houses and the ground keeper's lodging were.

Two gas cans were taken to the infield and emptied on the standing water around first and second base. Before the field was set ablaze, an explosion was heard under the grandstand and someone shouted "FIRE!" Smoke and fire began to rise from the stands and a full-blown panic broke out. 

Only three days after the 4th of July, it seems likely someone threw a powerful firework like an M-80 or Cherry Bomb under the stands, but the fire marshal surmised someone dropped a hot cigarette butt under the stands starting the blaze. That theory did not explain the many reports of an explosion and a cloud of black smoke rising before the conflagration. Nobody was ever charged with arson.

Fans were trapped in the stands by a chicken wire barrier to protect them from stray foul balls. Quick-thinking ball players pulled down the wire barrier with some difficulty, allowing fans to pour onto the field, but they were now stuck on the gasoline soaked field. Players from both teams bravely battered down a section of wooden wall enclosing the ball park so fans could escape the flames.

Sixty-one people went to the hospital with thirty cases of broken arms, legs, and other injuries. Miraculously, nobody lost their life. Damage to the park was estimated to be $12,000. Five cars were also lost in the fire. The Stars played out the rest of their season at Dequindre Field at Dequindre and Modern streets on Detroit's far Eastside.

For the 1930 season, Roesink built a new $30,000 ball park for the Stars in Hamtramck, Michigan, located at 3201 Dan Street. Originally named Roesink Stadium, this ball park had a 315' left field fence and a 407' right field fence. Now, right-handed batters had the homerun advantage. Soon, the ball park became known as Hamtramck Stadium.



Over the lifetime of The Detroit Stars, many great ballplayers donned the uniform, but one player stood above the rest as the Stars' greatest player. His name was Norman "Turkey" Stearnes from Nashville, Tennessee. The agile and quick Stearnes played first base and pitched for the semipro Southern Negro League in 1920 for the Montgomery Grey Soxs and in 1921 for the Memphis Red Soxs. Scouts from Detroit liked what they saw in the left-handed thrower and batter.

Detroit Stars management offered Stearnes a contract for the 1922 season, but he turned it down so he could finish high school at the age of twenty-one. When his father died, Norman Stearnes had to quit school and get a job to help his mother support their family. But Stearnes returned when he could and graduated late. In 1922, he earned his diploma, much to the joy of his mother. She was determined that Norman get an education. 

The achievement is all the more remarkable because in the 1920s, most males and females of both races quit school in the eighth grade when they were fourteen so they could get working papers. Times were always hard and money was to be made.

Stearnes signed with the Detroit Stars for the 1923 season at $200 a month. He soon earned the nickname "Turkey" because of the peculiar way he ran with his arms flapping. But in a foot race, at 5'11" and 175#s, Stearnes was one of the fastest men in the league.

He sported broad shoulders and had a powerful, whiplike swing that could connect with the ball and hit home runs to any field in any park he played in. Remember that in the 1920s and 1930s, baseballs were not as wound tightly and less lively than they are in today's game. When Turkey Stearnes hit a long ball, the leather sphere cried out in pain.

Satchel Paige is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time in any league.

Turkey Stearnes' upper body strength, quick reflexes, and good batting eye made him a threat at the plate. Legendary hurler for the Kansas City Monarchs Satchel Paige called Turkey Stearnes "one of the greatest hitters in the Negro leagues, as good as anybody who ever played baseball. I feared him more than any other hitter."

The Stars shifted Stearnes to center field where his speed and wide-ranging fielding ability could cover a lot of ground. Most of the real estate in Mack Park was in center field and he owned it.

Turkey Stearnes' career statistics boast a .349 lifetime batting average, 186 league homeruns, 129 stolen bases, 997 runs batted in, and a .617 slugging percentage. Stearnes is the only professional baseball player to lead his league in triples for six years. Five times he was chosen for the Black All-Star Game, twice he was the NNL batting champion. On November 7, 1987, Stearnes was inducted into the Michigan African American Sports Hall of Fame along with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

As a player, Turkey Stearnes was detached, colorless, and cooly efficient. Unlike other players, he did not enjoy the spotlight and rarely spoke more than a phrase or a brief sentence. Off the field, he did not smoke, drink, chase women, or keep irregular hours. Stearnes donned the Detroit Stars uniform for eleven seasons. Longer than any other player, and unlike most of the Detroit Star players, he lived in Detroit in the off season with his wife.

In the off season, rather than barnstorm like other players to earn extra money, Stearnes worked in Walter Briggs' automobile body factory at Harper Avenue and Russell Street as a spray painter and a wet sander. He could make steady money that way and spend more time with his wife Nettie Mae.

After working from late autumn through early April, Stearnes left for spring training in 1927, only days before a fire burned down the block-long Briggs factory. From then on, Stearnes worked the off-season in the foundry at Henry Ford's Rouge Plant until he retired from baseball and worked there full time. 

After Stearnes passed away, his wife Nettie Mae worked tirelessly to get her husband into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where some of Turkey Stearnes' contemporaries like Rube Foster, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge and Satchel Paige were already installed. She told the Detroit Free Press, "It's not for me or my daughters' sake, it is for Norman. He deserves it."

Baseball Hall of Fame Plaque

When the Detroit Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes was finally honored with a bronze plaque mounted outside the stadium at the center field gate. Although meant as a tribute to Stearnes by the Tiger management, many Detroit African Americans wondered aloud what it was going to take to get Turkey Stearnes inside the ballpark. There is also a display honoring Stearnes along the third base concourse at The Corner Ballpark, the site of the old Tiger Stadium at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull.

Joyce Stearnes-Thompson at a preservation ceremony for Hamtramck Stadium proudly displaying a photo of her father.

Norman "Turkey" Stearnes was finally elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 2000, sixty years after his career ended and twenty-one years after his death on September 4, 1979, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes was elected along with former Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. 

In Comerica Park's center field, a NNL flag flies commemorating the Negro league, and during every Negro League Weekend at Comerica Park, Stearnes' daughters Roslyn Stearnes-Brown and Joyce Stearnes-Thompson sing the National Anthem.

Early Detroit Tiger History

1 comment:

  1. Once again you’ve hit it out of the park! Fantastic!