If Turkey Stearnes and Pete Hill Were Tigers: Where Would They Rank?

Tiger Tales

 

Detroit Stars outfielder “Turkey” Stearnes was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2001

(Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press)


Near the end of 2020, Major League Baseball announced that it would now officially recognize seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920-1948 as major leagues.  Historians have long considered baseball played in these leagues as comparable in quality to the White major leagues.  It is about time that they these leagues get their due recognition.  


It is of course tragic that the Black leagues were not integrated with the White leagues and shameful it has taken so long for them to be classified as major leagues.  Since the merger, more baseball writers and analysts have begun to delve into the records and stories in order to make the rich history of the Negro Leagues more widely known. 


Of particular interest to me is trying to integrate the statistics of Black and White leagues so we can evaluate and compare players from both sets as if it was one organization where they all played together. In the past, I have ranked Detroit Tigers players by position. What would these lists look like if Detroit Stars players were included?  In this post, I will look at center fielders in particular.      


It is important to understand the challenges of analyzing Negro League data.  Hall of Fame historian Jay Jaffe discussed these issues in a recent FanGraphs article.  I will summarize some of them here:

  • Negro Leagues statistics are only about three quarters (73%) complete according to Ben Lindbergh, writer at The Ringer.  It varies by era depending on how frequently newspapers printed box scores and accounts.  For example, the 1920s era is mostly complete while the 1940s era is only about half complete. 
  • Seasons prior to 1920 will be excluded.  For example, Hall of Fame outfielder Pete Hill played for the Chicago American Giants, one of the greatest Black teams ever, from 1911-1918 but those years will not be counted in official major league statistics.  His statistics from 1920-1925 with the Detroit Stars and other teams will count.
  • Seasons after 1948 will be excluded.  So, seasons for players, such as Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, playing in the highly competitive Negro American League from 1949-1962 will not be recognized.  
  • Players like Jackie Robinson who played in both the Negro Leagues between 1920-1948 and also the White major leagues will have their official total statistics altered to include their time in the Negro Leagues.
  • The Negro Leagues had shorter official seasons – usually somewhere between 50 and 100 games – than the White majors.  Teams may have played 100 or more additional games outside of league play often against inferior local teams, but these games will not be counted.  
  • The official site for Negro Leagues statistics is Seamheads.com.  It is a fun site and you should get to know it.  
While there is some guess work involved in comparing players from Black and White leagues, most historians who have looked at this issue believe that the best players in Black leagues were comparable to the best players in White leagues.  The best evidence of this may come from examination of the performance of Black players in the time following integration starting with Jackie Robinson.  

To this end, Hall of Stats creator and Seamheads analyst Adam Darowski, tabulated the top 40 position players in Major League Baseball by Wins Above Replacement in the three decades following integration and noted that 21 of the 40 players were Black.  

I have already listed the top ten Detroit Tigers center fielders.  The greatest Detroit Star was center fielder Turkey Stearnes.  Where would he rank on this list and are there any others Detroit Stats who should be considered?  
     
The Detroit Stars were established as an independent league team in 1919 and became a founding member of the Negro National League in 1920.  The Stars played through 1931 when the Negro National League collapsed due to the great depression.  A different Negro National League was established in 1933.  The Detroit Stars played in the league the first year, but were not very successful and played under 40 games. In this analysis, I am going to look at 1919-1931.  While 1919 is not officially recognized as a major league season, they had a strong team in a competitive league that year. 

Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes was the top player in Detroit Stars history and one of the best in Negro Leagues history.  He was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

Stearnes was quiet and unassuming off the field, but he was a dynamic player on the field.  The legendary Satchell Paige once said that Stearnes “was one of the greatest hitters we ever had.  He was as good as Josh (Gibson).  He was as good as anybody who ever played” (BaseballHall.org).  


If Turkey played today, he would be described as a five-tool player.  Legendary Negro League outfielder Cool Papa Bell said “that man could hit the ball as far as anybody and he was one of our best all around players.  He could field, he could hit, he could run.  He had plenty of power. (BaseballHall.org).

The left-handed hitting Stearnes batted .348 with a 173 OPS+ (seventh best in Negro League history) in 1,049 games lifetime.  His 199 home runs was the third most behind Gibson (238) and Oscar Charleston (211) in recorded Negro League history. Between 1920-1948, the seasons now recognized as Major Leagues, his 199 homers was more than any Negro League player. He was truely one of the all-time greats.  

In nine years with the Stars (1923-1931), Stearnes posted a 175 OPS+ (4th overall for the time period), 144 homers (1st) and a .661 slugging average (2nd).  He lead the league in homeruns four times and in OPS+ twice.  He finished in the top ten in OPS+ every year and the top five seven times.  

I am going to rank Stearnes number two behind the legendary Ty Cobb and ahead of Chet Lemon, but he is closer to Cobb than Lemon.  
The other center fielder to consider is Hall-of-Fame outfielder Pete Hill.  Hill played most of his career in the pre-Negro League era prior to 1920.  His organized baseball years ran from 1899 to 1925 and he was one of the pioneers of Negro League Baseball.  He was the captain of Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants from 1911-1918, the most dominant African American team of the time.  Foster created the Detroit Stars in 1919 and named Hill the manager.  Foster then organized the Negro National League in 1920 and the Stars were one of the original franchises.  


Negro League statistics were not accurately kept or well published and statistics for Black baseball prior to 1920 were even worse, but Hill was considered an excellent fielder with a cannon arm and great glove.  Offensively, he was a line drive hitter and a speedy base runner.  His 167 OPS+ is 13th in recorded Negro League history.    Prominent baseball historian and author of Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball James Riley said that he would include Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Pete Hill in his pre-1920 era all star outfield.  


Had he played with the Stars for longer, Hill would probably rank number three behind Cobb and Stearnes.  Unfortunately, Hill’s days with the Detroit Stars did not come until he was 36 years of age in 1919.  He was a player manager from 1919-1921 and he could still hit.  He put up Ruthian numbers in 1919 batting .396 with 16 home runs and a 273 OPS+ in 165 plate appearances.  He followed that up with OPS+ of 139 and 153 in 1920 and 1921 respectively. Hill was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.  


Hill’s numbers with the Stars were spectacular, but it was only three years and 589 plate appearances, so he needs to be placed behind some Detroit Tigers hitters with longer careers and more data.  He had six WAR in 589 plate Appearances.  If we had all the data and the Stars played an official schedule of 154 games those years, we can guess that he may have accumulated 18 WAR. It is tough to rank him, but I am going place him fifth between Curtis Granderson and Barney McCosky. 


The rest of the list is shown below.


1. Ty Cobb (1905-1926  145 WAR  1,106 ABR  171 OPS+)

Ty Cobb is the easiest choice for number #1 of any position.  Much has been said about his character flaws and there are debates about whether he was truly a bad person or just a product of his time period.  It’s probably some complex combination of both, but there are no doubts about his talents as a player as he is inarguably at the top of the list of the game’s all-time greats.  He is 4th in lifetime WAR behind Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays and second in Offensive WAR behind Ruth.  He led the American League in batting average twelve times, slugging eight times, OPS ten times and the list goes on and on. 


2. Turkey Stearnes (1923-1931 33 WAR 176 OPS+)


See above for career profile.


3. Chet Lemon (1982-1990  31 WAR  102 ABR 117 OPS+)

Chet Lemon was acquired from the White Sox for left fielder Steve Kemp in 1981 and became one of the important pieces of the successful Tigers teams of the 1980’s while Kemp’s career was marred by injuries.  Lemon was known to do some odd things on the bases like frequently diving head first into first base, but he more than made up for questionable base running with above average offense and excellent defense.  In nine seasons with the Tigers, Lemon reached 2+ WAR eight times and 3+ WAR five times.  His best year in Detroit was the 1984 championship season where he had a 135 OPS+ and 6.2 WAR.
    

4. Curtis Granderson (2004-2009  21  WAR  54 ABR  114 OPS+)

Curtis Granderson is the best home-grown Tigers position player since the 1980s and was a big fan favorite during his time in Detroit.  He went out of his way to connect with fans as much as any player since I became a fan in 1968 and he was also talented.  He was an above average hitter, fielder and base runner and was 3+ WAR in each of his four full seasons with the Tigers.  His best year was 2007 when he was 7.6 WAR and one of only five players ever to achieve the quad twenty – 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases.


5. Pete Hill (1919-1921 6 WAR 185 OPS+)


See above for career profile.


6. Barney McCosky (1939-1946  13 WAR  47 ABR  110 OPS+)

Barney McCosky was a lead-off hitter and strong defender who had a .384 OBP and 3.4 WAR as a rookie in 1939.  He had an even better year in 1940 batting .340 with a league-leading 19 triples and 4.0 WAR in helping the Tigers to a pennant.  He was 2+ WAR in each of his first four years as a Tiger before missing three prime seasons serving in World War II from 1943-1945.  If we assume conservatively that he was 2 WAR in each of those three seasons, he would have been 19 WAR as a Tiger.  So, he gets a bump on this list for that.  


7. Ron Leflore (1974-1979  14 WAR  84 ABR  108 OPS+)

Ron Leflore did not begin playing baseball until he was 22 and in the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, a maximum security facility where they send the worst criminals.  He was so talented that a fellow prisoner with connections to Tigers manager Billy Martin helped get him a try out.  According to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia by David Pietrusza, et al, Leflore was a given a tryout  at Tiger Stadium while on a 48-hour furlough in June, 1973.  A year later, he was in the majors and he soon became one of the more exciting players in the game.  In 1976, he batted .316 including a 30-game hitting streak and stole 58 bases.  The speedy Leflore led the league with 68 steals in 1977.  He was 3+ WAR each season from 1976-1979, but was traded to the Expos for pitcher Dan Schatzeder because he became a clubhouse problem.  
   
8. Austin Jackson (2010-2014  20 WAR  36 ABR  105 OPS+)

Austin Jackson came to the Tigers along with pitchers Max Scherzer, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth  in a seven player three-team deal which also saw Granderson go to the Yankees.  Jackson was primarily a defensive outfielder but was an average hitter and good base runner.  He averaged 4.7 WAR from 2010-2013 (FanGraphs WAR is a little less generous at 3.7 per year due mostly to a different fielding statistic).  His best season was 2012 when he had a 129 OPS+ and 5.5 WAR.  
      
9. Jimmy Barrett (1901-1905  14 WAR  51 ABR  117 OPS+)

Jimmy Barrett was one of the players that hazed and infuriated Ty Cobb in his early days as a Tiger.   Barrett also wasn’t on the best of terms with his manager Edward Barrow.  In Barrow’s autobiography My Fifty Years in Baseball, he writes that Barrett said to him: “Mr. Barrow, your methods take all the individuality away from a player”  Barrow responded: “Young man, if you ever speak to me that way again, I will take more than your individuality away from you.  I will knock your block off.”  So Barrett was not the easiest guy to get along with but he was a solid player both offensively and defensively.  Barrett was the Tigers first star in their opening season in 1901 with a 108 OPS+, strong defense and 2.7 WAR.  His best season was 1903 when he led the league with a .407 OBP and had an OPS+ of 144.

10. Hoot Evers (1941-1952, 1954  14 WAR  44 ABR  112 OPS+)

According to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia, Walter Arthur Evers got his nickname because he “hooted” as a baby.  Hoot averaged 3.2 WAR and a 125 OPS+ between 1947-1950.  His best season was 1950 when he batted .323/.408/.551 with a 141 OPS+.    

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