If you think Tony Batista's batting stance is unorthodox in the Major Leagues, you should have seen Norman "Turkey" Stearnes when he stepped into the batter's box in the Negro Leagues. Stearnes, who was a left-handed hitter, had an open stance with his right heel twisted and his big toe pointed straight up.
That unorthodox style at the plate prompted Negro League teammate Satchel Paige to remark years later that Stearnes' stance was "worse than (Yankees infielder) Gil McDougald, (White Sox outfielder) Minnie Minoso and (Cardinals outfielder) Stan the Man (Musial)." But Stearnes' style at the plate didn't stop him from being one of the best power and leadoff hitters in Negro League history.
Best known for his years in the Negro National League with the Detroit Stars from 1923-31, Stearnes won six home-run titles, slugged at least 140 home runs and was a perennial .300 hitter during his 20-year career. Even more amazing: A past-his-prime Stearnes still managed to play in four of the first five East-West All-Star Games in the 1930s.
Nicknamed Turkey because he ran the bases like the animal, Stearns was one of the fastest runners in the Negro Leagues. Nobody knows for sure how many bases he stole, but he was known to leg out his share of doubles and triples.
Stearnes accomplishments were not recognized until the Committee on Baseball Veterans voted him into the Hall of Fame in 2000.
"He was one of the greatest hitters we ever had," Paige reportedly said. "He was good as Josh (Gibson)."
Born in 1901, Stearnes had to start working at age 15 after his father died, but he still pursued his baseball dreams. Like most Negro League players during that period, Stearns was a walking vagabond. His Negro League baseball career started with the Nashville Elite Giants in 1920. The following season he joined the Montgomery Grey Sox before defecting to the Memphis Red Sox in 1922. The next season Stars manager Bruce Petway convinced Stearnes to join the roster, and it was in Detroit where Stearnes became known as an all-around outfielder who, according to historian James A. Riley in his book The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, "would slide hard into an infielder trying to apply the tag."
Even though he was one of the Stars' best players, Stearnes had a second job working for the Briggs Manufacturing Company. When the Stars couldn't afford to pay him after the 1931 season, Stearnes jumped ship and joined the Chicago American Giants. He helped Chicago win two pennants in his four years with the team. Stearnes returned to the Stars briefly in 1933 and ?37 and also spent time with the Philadelphia Stars, Detroit Black Sox, Toledo Cubs and Kansas City Monarchs. Stearnes, in fact, made a significant contribution to the Monarchs, helping them win consecutive pennants in 1940 and '41.
After his career ended, according to The Biographical Encyclopedia, Stearnes returned to Detroit and worked in the rolling mills in 1964. He died 15 years later in the town where he became a superstar.
Bill Ladson is an editor/producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.