Granddaughter of Negro League baseball great 'stunned' by stats merger with MLB

'It's a dream come true,' Turkey Stearnes' granddaughter says of the news.

May 30, 2024, 6:00 PM

From the 1920s to the '50s, Negro League Baseball (NLB) was the home for Black players who were segregated from the other, whites-only, baseball clubs. And for decades, the stats of those Black players were kept separate from the official Major League Baseball (MLB) record books.

That is, until Wednesday, when MLB officially merged the NLB stats with their own.

As a result, many MLB records have now been supplanted by the achievements of previously overlooked Black players.

VIDEO: MLB to add Negro League statistics to record books

Josh Gibson, for example, now holds the records for highest career batting average, with .372, surpassing Ty Cobb. Gibson's .718 slugging percentage and 1.177 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) also beats the great Babe Ruth, according to ESPN, while his .459 career on-base percentage now ranks as the third-highest of all-time.

Another player who has made his way onto the updated list of power hitters is fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Norman "Turkey" Stearnes. One of the best hitters in NLB history, he boasted a .348 lifetime batting average and 21 more home runs than Gibson, with 186.

Stearnes' granddaughter, Vanessa Ivy Rose, spoke with "Start Here" about her reaction to hearing the news about the merger.

START HERE: You've been talking about this issue for a long time. You even hosted a season of ABC's podcast "Reclaimed" on this, called "The Forgotten League." What was your reaction to hearing this news today?

Vanessa Ivy Rose: To be honest, I was stunned. I mean, it felt like a dream come true. And I was so happy and so proud of my grandfather, who obviously is no longer here. But to see that he's getting this recognition, this visibility – and it's not just about him, but about his brothers and sisters who played in the Negro Leagues, too, as well. To see them actually be introduced to the mainstream public in this way and being cemented as legends. I mean, this was unbelievable. I'm still taking it all in. I can't believe it.

START HERE: In the show, you talk about your grandfather's legacy: what it means to your family, what it means to baseball as a whole. What is your family's reaction today, first, and also what have they said about your grandfather in the past?

Vanessa Ivy Rose: You know, it really starts with my grandmother. I have to talk about her first, because my grandfather passed away in 1979 and my grandmother is no longer with us but in 1979, she started writing letters to advocate for my grandfather to be in the Hall of Fame, to make sure that people knew who he was outside of our family and outside of historians. So I know she's in heaven jumping for joy right now and just celebrating, hopefully with Grandpa Turkey, too. They're probably just so ecstatic to see this and to see it come to fruition.

My mom, Joyce, and my aunt, Rosilyn, have been advocating for so long – giving speeches, talking about things pertaining to my grandfather's legacy and talking about his story. And so to have everybody across the country be able to see Turkey Stearne's name and know that he can kind of become a household name now is just unbelievable.

VIDEO: MLB adding players from the Negro Leagues to its official record books

START HERE: Speaking of everybody seeing his name, your grandfather in these new stats is now sixth in all-time batting average. He's sixth in all-time slugging percentage. He was a great baseball player. But those stats that have got him on to these record books now, they haven't changed for decades. So why, in your view, has this recognition taken so long?

Vanessa Ivy Rose: Well, the Negro League's history has been hidden for quite some time, and when we look at the Negro League's players, we would always think of them in terms of, like, the mainstream. He's like a hidden figure, you know, my grandfather is, and also all the other players who came along with him. But everyone knows Jackie Robinson. That's the name that they remember, that's the name that they see, and that's a face that they can recognize.

I think the stats have been hidden for quite some time because they've been cast away. They were deemed as unimportant. The segregation of the league actually had people thinking, "Okay, why should we care about these people? They don't matter."

We talked to Bob Kendrick, who's the president of the Negro League's Baseball Museum for the podcast, to get a better sense of the history behind the Negro Leagues. So now that people actually know the Negro Leagues were there and they can go back and look at some of the history that we can find – because a lot of it has been lost to time and a lot of those statistics are not able to be found, a lot of the box scores and different things – this opportunity for people to actually see, "Okay. Wow! Look at these players. They were excellent!" as you mentioned. They're some of the greatest of all time. They should have been playing in the major leagues all along.

START HERE: In your podcast, one of the images that struck me the most was the plaque of your grandfather, and the fact that his plaque is on the outside of Tiger Stadium, while the other Tiger greats, the other Detroit greats, are on the inside of Tiger Stadium. So, I guess that leads to my question of, as you mentioned, this league was repeatedly overlooked. There has been this big victory now with these stats, but is there more to do in your eyes?

Vanessa Ivy Rose: You know, in terms of the plaque, It's an amazing plaque. I go visit it every time I go down to Comerica Park. I was just there Sunday and went over to granddad and kissed it and told him that I loved him because, , he wore number 8 and actually the game that we were at, the Toronto Blue Jays went up on us in the 8th inning, 11 to 9. And number 8, Matt Vierling, came up in the bottom of the 9th and hit a home run to win the game for us. And I was like—

START HERE: He was right there with you.

Vanessa Ivy Rose: Right there with us, you know? So, he's always there. People do ask, "How come it's outside instead of inside?" And the main reasoning behind it in terms of what the Tigers told us at the time was because he wasn't a Detroit Tiger, he was a Detroit star, he didn't get a statue inside of Comerica Park where they have all those other Tiger greats: Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, and so on and so forth, right?

It still hurts. It's like a bittersweet thing. It's amazing. The plaque is unbelievable outside, but we wish grandpa had been a Detroit Tiger because he belonged there, clearly, with the stats that we see now.

START HERE: Aside from that, is there more to be done just across the league, in your view, in recognizing, the Negro Leagues?

Vanessa Ivy Rose: Yeah. You know, the work never ends. And so when we're looking at the game of baseball and trying to grow the game of baseball and looking at how many Black kids are playing baseball, or just the fact that the Negro Leagues today are being talked about, and like I said, even educators that I know are walking up to me today going, "Wow, this is amazing." But they just learned about Turkey Stearnes literally because of the podcast or literally just this year. And these are educated people with master's degrees and everything, right? So we're missing that piece overall in terms of education. And that's what this is going to provide: the opportunity for people to learn more and to see what they didn't learn, what was left out on purpose. And so baseball has the opportunity to not just be a sport, but it's going to be transformative and provide education for people to help this world be better.

START HERE: Vanessa Ivy Rose, the granddaughter of Turkey Stearnes, the host of "The Forgotten League." Check it out. Thank you so much for your time today.

Vanessa Ivy Rose: Thank you so much for having me. It's such an honor.