Descendants of Negro League stars celebrate long-awaited MLB stat shift


DETROIT — Joyce Stearnes Thompson spent Wednesday morning walking around a ballpark where her father once played. The perfectly manicured diamond at the restored Hamtramck Stadium is now named after him, Turkey Stearnes Field, a tribute to a baseball legend who won two Negro National League batting titles and led the league in homers seven times.

Stearnes was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. That was a special day for his daughters, Rosilyn and Joyce.

So was Wednesday, when the statistics of 2,300 Negro Leaguers from 1920 to 1948 were added to Major League Baseball’s official record. Seeing her father’s name in the top 10 in career batting average (.348), slugging percentage (.616) and OPS (1.033) — below Jimmie Foxx, above Hank Greenberg — Joyce was awash in emotion: excitement, gratitude, relief. 

“I wish it had happened while Dad and the Negro Leaguers were alive,” she said. “They were the GOATs, the greatest of all time, and now they’re finally being recognized in baseball history. That’s really significant. … It’s well deserved, just late coming. But it’s a great thing. A day to celebrate.”

Three Negro Leaguers from that era are still living: Willie Mays, 93, Bill Greason, 99, and Ron “Schoolboy” Teasley, 97. Teasley was under the weather Wednesday and declined all media requests. But when he called his doctor, the physician — having heard the news — started asking about his Negro League career. Teasley smiled as he answered the questions.

“I’m so happy he’s alive to witness this day,” said Teasley’s daughter, Lydia, who’d lost hope when MLB’s statistics project stalled last year. “He’s not one of the big stars. His name isn’t up there with Josh Gibson’s. But he is alive to witness it for the people he played with. That is just outstanding.”

Lydia Teasley, a kindergarten teacher in Oak Park, Mich., took the day off on Wednesday. “I knew I couldn’t be at work answering all these calls.” The first lesson in her classroom Thursday morning will be about her dad and about MLB’s long-awaited recognition of Negro Leaguers like him.

“And if it’s a nice day,” she said, “we’ll go out and play baseball.”

The release of MLB’s newly integrated statistical database comes a week after MLB and MLBPA announced an annual retirement benefit for living Negro League players and three weeks before the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals play June 20 at historic Rickwood Field, MLB’s first regular season game at the former home of the Birmingham Black Barons.

Those involved in the Negro Leagues Family Alliance want the celebration of Negro League history to continue beyond the next month. They have advocated to establish May 2 as Negro Leagues Day across baseball each year. Teams would mark the anniversary of the first Negro National League game May 2, 1920, with old-time jerseys and caps and Negro League-themed giveaways. “It’d be an emotional day,” Ron Teasley said last year.

Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of Josh Gibson, was part of MLB’s 15-person Negro Leagues Statistical Review Committee. He was on the committee’s video call earlier this month in which the integrated stats were first shown, but he somehow missed where his great-grandfather ranked. He later printed out the leaderboards at home and took a closer look.

“I’m like, O-M-G,” he said. “I had to hold this in. I couldn’t tell nobody.” 

Josh Gibson is now MLB’s career leader in batting average (.372), slugging percentage (.718) and OPS (1.177), and the single-season leader in each slash-line category (.466/.564/.974). He has the statistical basis to be argued as the greatest hitter of all time. Sean Gibson has lobbied for a few years to rename the BBWAA’s MVP awards — which were previously named after Kenesaw Mountain Landis, MLB’s pre-integration commissioner — after Josh Gibson. 

“How ironic would it be for someone like Josh Gibson to replace the person who denied him and other great Negro League baseball players an opportunity to play Major League Baseball,” Sean Gibson said, echoing what he told USA Today. “It’s poetic justice.”

By Wednesday evening, after a 24-hour marathon of interviews that included a 1:30 a.m. call, Sean Gibson wanted to talk about what Wednesday meant for the families of lesser-known Negro League players.

“People know about Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Turkey Stearnes and Cool Papa Bell,” he said. “But there are others who don’t get as much recognition. Somebody asked me today about Charlie ‘Chino’ Smith. ‘Who is that?’ He’s in the record books. That’s the beauty of this whole thing. It’s going to educate people on some names they’ve never heard.”

Vanessa Rose, Stearnes’ granddaughter, has heard criticism over the years that Negro League stats are too scarce, too scattered, too incomplete, too different from an AL/NL season to be combined with more than a century of Major League statistics; they’re apples and oranges. That sentiment is easy to spot on social media or in comment sections this week. But, as a high-school history and English teacher, Rose believes it’s important to underscore why Negro Leaguers experienced such a different existence.

“As an educator, that’s what my life is about — helping people get information they haven’t been exposed to previously,” she said. “The context here really matters. I think for people who understand how devastating the impact was of the Jim Crow era, and how that impacted all of us, not just Black people or Black sports, it’s as clear as day.”

When Rose walked into her first class Wednesday, a sophomore said: “Miss Rose! Turkey Stearnes!” He gave her a high five. Other kids had questions, naturally, and before Rose knew it the class was discussing OPS.

“The students who play baseball were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe these are your granddad’s stats. He’s not just a baseball player. He’s a legend,’” Rose recalled. “I’m like, ‘I tried to tell you!’”

Rose and Lydia Teasley were together outside Comerica Park on Tuesday when news of the integrated leaderboards broke and their phones began buzzing. The Detroit Tigers game was rained out, but the two women didn’t mind. “All we could think about was our legends — her granddad, my dad,” Lydia Teasley said. Rose was more emotional seeing Stearnes’ official stats than she had been at his induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

“Back then, it was validating for me to hear and see that Granddad was amongst these baseball legends and was part of a story of what made baseball so great,” she said. “But I still felt he was hidden, and that there was a little star next to his name, like: He didn’t really play in the major leagues. How many people feel like this truly counts? How many people will really know who he is after the induction ceremony is over?

“Today was totally different.”

Rose thought back to her class. Her students were mentioning Turkey Stearnes in the same breath as Babe Ruth, and he belonged.

“That’s what I walked away with most,” she said. “OK, now he’s really in. Now people really get what his legacy was about, and how it compares to the other greats.”

(Top photo of Sean Gibson holding a replica jersey representing his grandfather Josh Gibson: Keith Srakocic / Associated Press)

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