Palmer, James Alvin ("Jim")
PALMER, James Alvin ("Jim")
Palmer was placed up for adoption at birth and never knew his natural parents; he was adopted two days later by Moe Wiesen, a Jewish dress manufacturer, and his Roman Catholic wife, Polly Kiger, the owner of a boutique. Palmer had one sister, who was also adopted. As Jim Wiesen, he lived first in a Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan and then in Westchester County, where he attended schools in Rye and White Plains, New York, and learned to pitch with a family butler as his catcher. But his life changed when his father died of a heart attack in 1954.
The family moved to California where, after a brief period in Whittier, they settled in Beverly Hills, where Polly Wiesen married Max Palmer, a television actor who also managed the bars at the Hollywood Park and Santa Anita racetracks. In 1959 the family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where Palmer attended Scottsdale High School and was All-State in baseball, football, and basketball. He was so good at basketball that the University of California at Los Angeles offered him a scholarship, but his first love was baseball. He played several infield and outfield positions in addition to pitching and was an outstanding hitter until his senior year, 1963, when he developed an astigmatism in his left eye, a problem that made his decision to become a full-time pitcher much easier.
Palmer was playing in the amateur Basin League in Winner, South Dakota, when Harry Dalton, the personnel director of the Baltimore Orioles, signed him to a contract with an estimated bonus of $50,000 in August 1963. He attended Arizona State University in Tempe in the fall of 1963, and then studied briefly at Towson State College in Maryland in early 1964, but in the spring of that year he joined the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Pheasants, an Orioles farm team, where he finished the season with an 11–3 record. On 25 February 1964 he married his high-school sweetheart, Susan Ryan; they later had two daughters.
In 1965 Palmer joined the Orioles, appearing in twenty-seven games in relief, and in 1966, as a starter, Palmer led the team with fifteen wins. He proved his dominance in important games by winning the pennant-clinching games in Baltimore's first four post-1900 World Series appearances. In the 1966 World Series, he became the youngest player, at age twenty, to pitch a complete game shutout—his first in major league competition—against Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, leading the Orioles to their first world championship. Overall he was 8–3 in postseason play and, in 1983, became the only pitcher to win a World Series game in three different decades.
A sore arm and back forced Palmer back to the minors for most of 1967 and all of 1968 until doctors diagnosed the problem: Palmer was vulnerable to back problems because his left leg was noticeably shorter than his right. With a specially padded shoe, he returned to form in 1969, winning sixteen games and pitching in his second World Series. In 1968 Palmer began a contentious battle with the new Orioles manager Earl Weaver. Palmer, who also had a reputation for combativeness with umpires, feuded openly with Weaver when he felt the manager did not take his injuries seriously or tried too specifically to tell him how to pitch. Yet, they were able to work together.
Between 1970 and 1978 Palmer won at least twenty games each year, excluding 1974, when a pinched nerve in his elbow handicapped him for most of the season. He was selected to the American League All-Star team six times (1970–1972, 1975, 1977, 1978). Incredibly, he was not selected for the team in 1976, even though he had the best record in the league. The Baseball Writers of America awarded him the Cy Young Award as the outstanding pitcher in 1973, 1975, and 1976, the same years that the Sporting News named him the American League Pitcher of the Year.
Injuries limited Palmer to just twenty-two starts and ten wins in 1979 and sixteen wins in 1980. He bounced back in 1982 with a 15–5 record, eleven of them coming in a row, but by May 1983 he realized that his career was coming to an end. He relieved in the third game of the 1983 World Series and won his last postseason game. After a 0–3 start in 1984, he pitched his last professional game on 12 May. There was talk of an attempted comeback in 1991, but it never materialized.
Handsome and urbane, Palmer began a second career, even while he was playing, as a corporate spokesman for the Money Store and as a model for Jockey Shorts. By the late 1990s he was hosting his own regional talk show and providing color commentary on radio and television for Baltimore Orioles games. After his retirement as a professional player Palmer also gave motivational speeches and served as a spokesman and the national sports chairman for the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation.
From his early days as one of the "baby birds" of the Orioles staff until the end of his career, Palmer proved to be one of the most reliable pitchers in the majors. He was one of only 18 pitchers to win 20 games or more in each of 8 seasons and finished his career in the top 30 pitchers of all time in wins, winning percentage, games started, and shutouts. From 1961 to 1980 his lifetime earned run average of 2.86 placed him second only to Koufax. The fourth edition of the official encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, Total Baseball, named him as one of the top one hundred players in the game, and his career concluded with his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990.
There are numerous sources covering Palmer's life and career, starting with two books written by Palmer with Joel H. Cohen, Pitching (1975), a how-to book, and Jim Palmer: Great Comeback Competitor (1978). Also see Palmer and Jim Dale, Together We Were Eleven Foot Nine: The Twenty-year Friendship of Hall of Fame Pitcher Jim Palmer and Orioles Manager Earl Weaver (1996). There is a chapter on Palmer in Hal Butler, Baseball's Champion Pitchers (1974), as well as entries about him in Who's Who in Baseball (1978), Who's Who in America (1978–1979), Current Biography (1980), and Total Baseball (1995).
Patrick A. Trimblem