DETROIT -- The closest Norman "Turkey" Stearnes ever came to playing inside Tiger Stadium came just a month before his death in 1979. Detroit sportswriter Joe LaPointe traveled with Stearnes, an 18-year veteran of the Negro Leagues, to take a picture of the 79-year-old with a bat in his hands inside the stadium he never had a chance to play in due to racial intolerance in the early half of the 20th century. But now Stearnes, or at least his likeness, will never leave the Tigers' new home at Comerica Park.
Stearnes, one of the most popular players for the Negro Leagues' Detroit Stars, was honored posthumously with a plaque in a ceremony on Friday at Comerica Park. "We felt this plaque was important to have here where it could be observed 365 days a year, by all fans of the Detroit Tigers, all baseball fans and all citizens in the city of Detroit," Tigers general manager and president Dave Dombrowski said at the ceremony. "We thought it would also be apropos that it would be in center field where Turkey roamed and hit many of his home runs." The plaque is attached to the wall near the Gate C entry at Comerica Park, near the six statues of Tigers legends, which include Ty Cobb and Willie Horton. Those players are still considered legends in Detroit, but by all accounts, Stearnes could have been right alongside Cobb and Horton if he ever had a chance to play in the Majors. Dombrowski called Stearnes "one of the greatest players in Detroit baseball history." Stearnes spent 11 seasons with the Stars, and led the league in home runs six times with a .359 batting average in 585 games, but never played in a Major League game. That couldn't stop Stearnes' daughter Joyce's persistence that her father should be honored in some way for his time spent in Detroit. Joyce Stearnes Thompson began to communicate with Dombrowski through letters about a tribute in honor of her father, and recalled an exchange the two had in 2005. "I wrote to him that it only takes one person to make a difference. I truly hope that you are that person," Thompson said. "Well, today I can say Dave answered the challenge to make a difference and he is to be commended for taking the initiative to honor my father and all of these players with a permanent plaque." In addition to listing Stearnes' accolades, the bottom of the plaque pays tribute to other members of the Detroit Stars. The Stars were a part of the Negro Leagues for 14 seasons, and featured Hall of Famers Andy Cooper, Pete Hill and Cristobal Torriente. None of those players ever had a chance to play in the Majors, including for the Tigers, who didn't integrate until 1958. "[Team owner] Walter Briggs only allowed blacks to work in his factories, but not play on his white ball team," Thompson said. But there was never any bitterness towards Detroit for Stearnes or any members of his family. Stearnes lived and worked in Detroit until his death in 1979, and was a regular in the bleachers of Tiger Stadium. "He would ride the bus, buy a ticket and sit in the bleachers because he enjoyed talking to the common folk," said Thompson, who is a teacher in Bloomfield Hills for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Friday's event was just the first part of the Negro League celebration weekend in Detroit. The Tigers and Royals will wear replica uniforms of the Stars and Monarchs on Saturday, and Curtis Granderson will be one of five panelists in a forum commemorating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. That event is scheduled for noon ET at the Anderson Theater, located inside the Henry Ford Museum. "[This is] just a tremendous gratitude to the former players that never had a chance to realize their dreams," said Rod Allen, who served as host for Friday's event. "Baseball is truly taking some steps to make sure the proper people are recognized for what they were able to accomplish."
Tim Kirby is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.