Karl Lindholm: Turkey Stearnes & the Detroit Stars
Cheated and mistreated, but never defeated — they had will and skill, hustle and muscle, fire and desire, intestinal fortitude and the right attitude.
That’s how Larry Lester describes the players of baseball’s Negro leagues.
Larry is one of America’s foremost scholars of black baseball, an eminent writer-researcher. In 1994, he and Dick Clark combined on the “Negro Leagues Book,” a seminal statistical study of the players and teams in the “Atlantis” of black baseball.
Larry is the host at the annual SABR-Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, held for each of the last 17 years in a city that has a compelling historical connection to black baseball. He’s the host with the most, presiding with humor, wisdom borne of experience and study, total commitment to getting Negro league players and teams their due.
I’m just back from Detroit, site of this year’s conference, where I listened to stimulating research presentations about black baseball in Detroit and other subjects, attended a Tiger-Mariners game (“field work”), and spent intimate time with kindred spirits. It’s a wonderful conference.
I teach a course at Middlebury College called “Segregation in America: Baseball’s Negro Leagues,” so I had been aware of the Negro Leagues Committee of SABR (Society of American Baseball Research), but had never attended the conference.
Now I try never to miss a Jerry Malloy, though I did just last summer when we were out of the country for the year. That conference was held in Newark, N.J. The Newark Eagles were one of the great Negro Leagues teams, defeating the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1946 World Series, just before integration. Major league stars Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Don Newcombe all started out with the Eagles.
Quiz Question 1: Who was the owner of the Newark Eagles in 1946?
My first Jerry Malloy (Malloy was a brilliant researcher of early black baseball who died before his time) was in 2010 in Birmingham, Ala. There I met Larry Lester and Dick Clark and many other kindred spirits, including Leslie Heaphy, who is tireless in her efforts to bring the history of black baseball to light. Leslie, who teaches at Kent State, is a historian of the Negro leagues of the first rank, and the editor of the journal Blackball. Leslie does much of the heavy lifting putting together the conference year to year.
In Birmingham, we celebrated the great Negro league stars from Alabama, Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, who played as a teenager in 1948 for the Birmingham Black Barons. We toured Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in the country (built in 1910) and the home field of the Birmingham Black Barons.
We met the family of the great Piper Davis, player-manager of the Black Barons in the 1940s. Davis should have been the Red Sox’ first black player. He was signed by the Red Sox in 1950, but was soon released, as he was born the wrong hue. In my rookie year, in Birmingham, I took away the hardware for winning the Negro leagues trivia contest (we prefer to call it “significa”).
Quiz Question 2: What other famous black team did Piper Davis star on?
The Jerry Malloy the following summer was in Indianapolis and focused on the Indianapolis ABCs (after American Brewing Company), who with Hall of Famers Oscar Charleston and Ben Taylor defeated Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants, 4-2, in the very first Negro league game after the Negro National League was organized in 1920.
We also discussed the Indianapolis Clowns, who controversially brought minstrelsy, clowning, into actual league games (think Harlem Globetrotters). Many players found such antics demeaning, acceptable perhaps in barnstorming contests to make a buck, but not in league contests.
Quiz Question 3: What great major leaguer played one season, 1952, for the Indianapolis Clowns?
I was back in my old stomping grounds, Cleveland (I spent six years there in the 1970s), for the conference in 2012. We celebrated the Cleveland Buckeyes, winners of the Negro League World Series in 1945, and their stalwarts, player-manager Quincy Trouppe and outfielder Sam Jethroe.
Quiz Question 4: Who was the player who integrated the Negro leagues with the Cleveland Buckeyes?
This greatest player of Detroit Stars, that city’s top black team during segregation, was Hall of Famer Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, a proverbial five-tool player. This year’s session was highlighted by the participation of his family, including Turkey’s sparkling 95-year-old wife, Nettie. She and her daughters attended every session and added so much to the proceedings.
The family of Negro leagues all-star “Turkey” Stearns, including his 95-year-old wife, Nettie, took part in the Detroit conference last week. Photo by Karl Lindholm.
Quiz Question 5: The fastest player in the Negro leagues, perhaps in all of baseball, played for the Detroit Wolves in 1932. Who’s that?
Looks like next year, the Jerry Malloy will be in Memphis, whose best black team was the Memphis Red Sox, with star pitcher Verdell “Lefty” Mathis. Memphis has other inducements. I can’t wait.
Quiz answers: 1. Newark Eagles owner – Effa Manley, the only woman in the Hall of Fame; 2. Piper Davis – the Harlem Globetrotters; 3. Indianapolis Clowns – 19-year-old Henry Aaron; 4. Cleveland Buckeyes – Eddie Klepp; 5. Detroit Wolves – Cool Papa Bell.
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