Palmer, Joe H. 1904-1952
PALMER, Joe H. 1904-1952
PERSONAL: Born 1904, in Lexington, KY; died of heart failure October 31, 1952; son of Joe H. and Sarah Frances (Doyle) Palmer; married Mary Cole Holloway; children: Joseph Holloway, Stephen Noland. Education: University of Kentucky, B.A., 1927; M.A., 1928; University of Michigan, A.B.D.
CAREER: New York Herald Tribune, sports columnist, 1946-52; American Race Horses, editor, 1944-46; The Blood Horse, writer, associate editor and business manager, 1935-44.
MEMBER: American Trainers Association (executive secretary, 1944), Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Turf Writers Association established the Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service.
Names in Pedigrees, The Blood Horse (Lexington, KY), 1939.
(With Bert Clark Thayer, John Hervey, and W. Jefferson Harris) Horses in the Blue Grass, Duell, Sloan & Pearce (New York, NY), 1940, revised edition, 1947.
(With J. A. Estes) An Introduction to the ThoroughbredHorse: Origin, Distribution, Breeding, Conformation, Uses, The Blood Horse (Lexington, KY), 1942.
Feeding Practices on Kentucky Thoroughbred Farms, The Blood Horse (Lexington, KY), 1943.
This Was Racing, edited by Red Smith, Barnes (New York, NY), 1953.
SIDELIGHTS: Joe H. Palmer enticed sports fans and non-fans alike with his columns, which ran for six years in the New York Herald Tribune. Palmer's favorite sport was thoroughbred horse racing. He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, long a hotbed of American horse breeding and racing. According to Bill Hughes in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Joe Palmer always remained consumed by the drama of the competition and by the colorful characters who owned, rode and wagered on the magnificent animals."
After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Palmer taught English there for four years. Once he finished his course work in a doctorate program at the University of Michigan, he only had to write his dissertation, but instead began writing for a weekly horse-breeding periodical, The Blood Horse. His love of horse racing drew him away from academia, but he brought an intellectual's rigor and introspection to his sports writing. "The real fun of racing lies elsewhere," he said. "Put a crowd of racetrackers together and they will talk about horses, to be sure, but the horses will be used, as they are in most good racing fiction, merely as symbols which bring out very human rivalries and deceptions and strategies of a game which does not ever actually end." He also referred to literary classics in his sports writing without making his columns sound stuffy. Palmer's practice, as he explained to a young colleague, was to always include one word (and only one word) in his column that would require using a dictionary.
Palmer first sought to rid horse racing of its seedy image by exposing the sport's more dishonest participants and practices. Thomas B. Cromwell, publisher of The Blood Horse, thought Palmer's efforts were futile: "There's no future in wising up suckers," he said, "They're born faster than you can get at them." After that, Palmer would later write, "the kindergarten was over." He realized the racing industry had at least in part earned its tarnished image; in fact, that was part of its allure. Within a few years Palmer moved from writer to associate editor to business manager of The Blood Horse. In 1944 he left to edit American Race Horses. That year he also became executive secretary of the American Trainers Association.
Palmer moved to New York in 1946 to work for acclaimed sports editor Stanley Woodward as the New York Herald Tribune racing editor. By then, Palmer had written three books, Names in Pedigrees, Horses in the Blue Grass, and An Introduction to the Thoroughbred Horse. These books reached only the small readership of horse-racing enthusiasts; Palmer earned his national reputation as witty and entertaining writer through his Herald Tribune writing.
At the New York Herald Tribune Palmer joined one of the nation's most prolific sports departments, working with the likes of Red Smith, Jesse Abramson, Al Laney, and Roger Kahn. As quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Kahn later said writing for the Herald Tribune then was "like Olympus. We had more talent assembled in that sports department than any paper in history, and we all looked up to Joe Palmer"; Smith wrote that "It can be stated only as one man's opinion, yet unquestionably it is shared by thousands, that Joe Palmer could write better than anybody else in the world whose work appeared in newspapers. . . . he wrote as he talked, with wit, urbanity and grace and sure confidence." During racing season, Palmer wrote a weekly column, "Views of the Turf"; during the eastern racing season he wrote three times a week. He covered races throughout the United States and even included highlights from Argentina, England, and Australia.
Having learned his lesson about trying to polish the image of horse racing, Palmer embraced the tawdry side of the industry. "The contention isn't that everything is all right in racing," he wrote in his first Herald Tribune column. "If there is any considerable industry involving millions of dollars and thousands of men in which everything is all right, it ought to be stuffed and put on exhibition. As far as I know racing has never claimed to build character: It does what other business does—it develops what a man has, be it good or ill." Palmer refused to take his sport or himself too seriously in his writing, and admitted horse racing was a symbol of the southern leisure he loved, of "charm and ease and grace." He enjoyed tall tales, and constructed his own persona as an idle racing enthusiast who never won a bet; on the contrary, Palmer's consistent output proves he was actually quite productive.
For Palmer, good sports-writing meant more than recording events and occasionally adding an amusing anecdote. "Writing more as an astute social anthropologist, Palmer portrayed the world of horse racing in his time," Hughes said. In this portrayal, Palmer was careful to include the everyday people who made small bets, not just the wealthy participants. In a column titled "Stymie—Common Folks" he immortalized a horse as a symbol of the common man, the elemental spirit of horse racing. Stymie was of unremarkable breeding and features, yet became a champion horse who won millions for his owner.
Palmer saw horse racing as a microcosm of humanity with all its paradoxes. "To own and operate a thoroughbred stable has always been an extremely expensive venture, yet the sport has a certain leveling effect and a sort of common-man humility among the owners," he wrote. "All men are equal on the turf or under it."
Except for horse racing, boxing, and cock fighting, Palmer looked upon most sports with disdain. Hughes said Palmer's "command of the language easily qualified him to be a first-rate novelist."
When Palmer died suddenly of heart failure in 1952, his column on the races at Jamaica was still in the typewriter. Smith wrote a tribute to Palmer the next day: "Professionally there will not be another like him. Personally, he was one of the best and dearest friends a man could have. We came to New York almost together and have worked and played and wrangled together ever since. There was a friendship that could have ended only one way. As it did yesterday." With Smith as editor, Palmer's sons compiled his best columns in the book, This Was Racing.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 171, Twentieth-Century American Sportswriters, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 258-263.*