Detroit is rich in baseball history, and not all of it comes from the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. There’s Hamtramck Stadium, home of the Detroit Stars and Detroit Wolves of the Major Negro Leagues. Before the Stars made their home there, they played at Mack Park, which was at Fairview and Mack Ave on the city’s East Side. That’s where Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes started his career almost 100 years ago.
Gary Gillette, founder and Chair of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium as well as head of the Southern Michigan SABR Chapter, is an expert on all things Detroit Stars. Stearnes appeared for the first time with the Detroit Stars on April 22, 1923, in an exhibition game at Mack Park vs. the Cowpers semi-pro team. His first NNL/MLB game was on April 29 at Indianapolis ABCs, Detroit’s season opener. And Stearnes’ first appearance in a league game in Detroit was on May 5 at Mack Park vs. the Cuban Stars in Detroit’s home opener. The Stars would win that game 9-2.
Detroit Stars May 5th 06 May 1923, Sun Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) Newspapers.com
So I wondered, as far as rookie seasons go in Detroit baseball history, where did Stearnes stack up? Thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, we can compare Negro League stats since they are officially recognized as major league stats. So using the qualifier that it takes 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Gary suggested using 251 as a minimum because of the shorter Negro League schedules. Here are the results:
The names in bold were players on the Detroit Stars. Stearnes has the best first-year OPS among all Detroit professional baseball players. Only Jimmie Lyons, who was 30 years old in his first season in a Stars uniform, has a better batting average.
If it wasn’t for former Detroit Stars manager Bruce Petway, who saw Stearnes play down in Tennessee, Stearnes may have never landed in Detroit. It is worth nothing also the impressive OPS from Dale Alexander with over 700 PA’s in 1929.
“In 1922 I played in Memphis, Tennessee. All those clubs down there were affiliated with the league up here [in the Midwest and East]. … The big-league colored teams had scouts, that’s how the Detroit Stars picked me up. Bruce Petway of the Stars was one of the finest catchers we had in colored baseball. He was sent down there to watch me; they had heard so much talk about me. I was pitching and playing first base. But they changed me to the outfield after I got up here, ’cause I was hitting too good. He begged me to come up here [Detroit] in ’22. I was trying to finish high school. That was my last year. I at least wanted to finish high school, because I knew I couldn’t go to college. From the SABR bio-project Turkey Stearnes.
Turkey was the complete package
As far as hits and home runs are concerned, he hit 18 home runs with 89 RBIs and finished with 102 hits in 72 games. The way to describe him in modern terms as a ballplayer is like the way he was then. Then, he was described as “quick-jerky sort of guy who could hit the ball a mile” which translates to “quick twitch” in today’s terms.
Officially, his rookie season is one of the best in Detroit professional baseball. That adds another feat to his storied career.