Waiting for Jim Palmer at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, two women whispered their anticipation. They did not seem to care, primarily, about the 90 mph fastball he once threw, or the curve that sank like an anchor dropped into the harbor.
"Got your underwear?" the first woman asked.
"Yeah, got it on," the second replied.
"Going to get him to sign it that way?"
Ever since Jockey underwear made his slender bronze body more familiar than his elegant pitching form, Palmer has downplayed his sex appeal more often than he's explained why he didn't win 300 games.
"It doesn't mean I'm a sex symbol," he said of the ads after a recent ceremony dedicating a Palmer exhibit at the Ruth museum -- a kind of warm-up for the ultimate baseball accolade he'll receive today when, with Joe Morgan, he'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
What player has gone to Cooperstown with a body so scrutinized? People said of Mickey Mantle: Think what he could have done if he had good legs. Or, imagine Joe DiMaggio's feats if his body hadn't betrayed him. What if Luke Appling never had those "aches and pains"?
Of Palmer, it's asked: "Would you say his hair is auburn-colored?" And speculated: "He has a few grays in it, I think." Or: "How tall is he, exactly?" Johnny Mize was a hunk because he was mammoth and feared for his late-inning pinch-hits, not because he had a dimple in his chin and a tan.
To say nothing of what comes to mind for some at mention of Palmer's name: blue briefs that match his blue eyes.
Palmer and Morgan are only the 20th and 21st players to be elected to the Hall of Fame in their first years of eligibility. Yet Palmer has crammed the last five years with so many activities that one tends to forget his recent baseball past while being entertained or sated, bemused or bewitched by his ubiquitous present.
He is seen and heard on ESPN, on Channels 2 and 20. He fills up glossy magazine pages in his skimpy attire. Now, he's on Wheaties boxes.
Like so many of Baltimore's sports heroes -- Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas, Artie Donovan and Lenny Moore, and a host of other old Orioles and Colts -- Palmer lives in the sedate Baltimore 'burbs. But he's the only one who gives the constant impression he's just back from riding a wave off Hawaii.
If he was so inclined, he could be overbearing. Unlike many aging ballplayers who grow fat or bald, Palmer is more handsome at 44 than 24. He's got money; though he played before outlandish sums could be made on the field, he's making up for it now. In addition, he could brag of his baseball credentials.
Not to be forgotten, he won 268 games; at least 20 games eight seasons out of nine at one stretch. He won the Cy Young Award three times. He played on all six of the Orioles' World Series teams, was the youngest to pitch a Series shutout (20, in 1966) and was the first pitcher to win Series games in three decades.
He'll rank fifth among Hall of Fame pitchers in earned run average (2.86). He went 15-5 as recently as 1982. He had one no-hitter, five one-hitters, three shutouts in a row and two 11-victory streaks. He never gave up a grand slam in his 19 major league seasons.
His Hat Has Always Fit
But Palmer doesn't boast. He is a pleasant fellow, happy to give writers extended answers when short ones are customary or usually enough. He always has been a genuine model for youngsters. He takes on charitable work with vigor and is a good father who loves his two daughters -- from his first marriage to his high school sweetheart.
While he'd sometimes pause on the mound and position his outfielders to their dismay, he had the better sense to let the batters hit the ball to Robinson or otherwise try to keep it in the park.
Palmer is quick-witted, although at times he says things not quite the right way. At the Babe Ruth Museum -- where he wore a crisp white shirt and double-breasted gray suit, the coat of which he removed -- he stumbled through an introduction of his wife: "She's kind of new. She's my new wife. . . . "
Out in the garden behind the museum he likened his election to the Hall of Fame to being "a piece of beef" and having the word "prime" stamped "on you, whereas before you were 'choice.' "
(He also said that joining the Hall of Fame would be "the biggest day of my baseball life," a point of view that surely will be reinforced for him this afternoon when his name is called out on the library porch of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, where the living legends will be seated and watching him.)
What's the hardest thing about doing play-by-play? Palmer was asked.
"Phil Jackman," he said, a reference to the Baltimore writer who has needled his work.
"It's hard to be compared with someone who's done it for a long time," he added. He may not yet be Vin Scully. But pitching or broadcasting, Palmer has always sought perfection and has found favor (as well as criticism) by inevitably falling short.
While often doing some schtick or other, he's maybe most appealing when succumbing to the eternal folksiness of his broadcast partner Robinson. Breaking for a commercial during a game last Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, Mo., Palmer evoked the feelings of a man leaning back at a game, happy to be there, when he said: "The Orioles leading, 4-1, at the end of seven. Boy, it's a beautiful day here."
When a foul ball screamed back and almost hit Palmer in the booth in Detroit, Robinson chortled: "Hey, big boy, I was thinking I'd have to do the broadcast myself." One could imagine a younger Robinson, after turning a hit into an out, flipping the ball back to Palmer on the mound and saying in his Little Rock twang, "Okay, big boy, just keep hummin' it."
Palmer seems to have stayed on a fairly even keel with the help of adoptive, loving parents who steered him into baseball; a major league career spent entirely with an earthy -- neither glitzy nor turmoiled -- franchise; and the brains to know he was surrounded by some of the game's best players so that he didn't have to be a one-man team.
Even though he was an orphan, Palmer had a lot going for him. But like a batter served a fat pitch, he still had to hit it out of the park. Palmer connected in a game to which he didn't appear conventionally suited.
He enjoyed a well-to-do upbringing on Park Avenue in New York (where, as a small boy, he played catch with the family's butler), among movie stars around Los Angeles (Janet Leigh once was a neighbor) and in Scottsdale, Ariz. From swank addresses he went off and found success and happiness in . . . Baltimore.
Had Offer From UCLA
Shortly after birth, Palmer was adopted by a New York dress manufacturer and his wife, Moe and Polly Wiesen. When he was 9, Wiesen died. His mother moved with Jim and his sister, also adopted, to the West Coast and married Max Palmer, then a character actor. Jim Wiesen became Jim Palmer. Later, the family lived in Scottsdale, where Palmer grew to be a multisport star and had the chance to attend UCLA on a basketball scholarship. But Max advised: "I think you ought to go play with the Orioles."
As a kid pitcher, Palmer sought answers from brainy reliever Dick Hall, a Swarthmore product who'd drive him to the stadium and talk ball ("and geology -- the rock outcroppings on the Jones Falls Expressway"); Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts, who roomed with him; Harvey Haddix; and Stu Miller.
George Bamberger was there just when Palmer needed him. Late in 1966, even before throwing the World Series shutout in Sandy Koufax's last game, he'd encountered arm trouble that would drop him as far as the Florida State League in 1968 and almost out of baseball. Bamberger, the former Orioles pitching coach and later Milwaukee manager, invited Palmer to work out his problems with him during winter ball in Puerto Rico. "What's six more months?" Palmer said Bamburger asked him.
With the help of anti-inflammatory medication, he returned to the Baltimore rotation in 1969. He and the Orioles started flying high again. He went 16-4, followed by his string of 20-game seasons, and the team won its first of three straight pennants.
Having related that success story, Palmer ate some pancakes. They were served for lunch at the Babe Ruth Museum as a nice (light?) touch because Palmer gained some fame, in 1970, by eating pancakes before he pitched. Before beefcake he was (ouch) Pancakes Palmer. Not that anyone asked, but he said he now eats a lot of fruit and not much meat.
Few Were More Graceful
Palmer never could be categorized easily. For all that brain-picking he did among those indefatigable warriors he found handy on the Orioles, and later for his reluctance to pitch unless everything felt just right (when his perfectionism met head-on with what some considered hypochondria but he knew to be some real concern, even if once it was a hangnail), Palmer was viewed variously as self-absorbed, brash, controversial and a crank.
Not to say he wasn't liked too. He was, and more. He was respected as a probable winner each time he pitched. Clearly, he was one of the most graceful of pitchers: long legs propelling a no-wrinkles windup, an over-the-top fastball and a follow-through that left him prepared to field a ball as well as any pitcher ever has.
"I was always a fastball pitcher," the former No. 22 said. "To get a strike on a curve, the batter would usually have to swing."
He insisted he was always a fastballer, period, although Hall had just finished saying to the crowd that had gathered to honor Palmer under the bright sun in alley-wide Emory Street that Palmer had possessed a whole list of characteristics Branch Rickey said were rarely found in one pitcher, and those included a curveball and the ability to place it.
When Palmer would lose his touch, Earl Weaver would stomp his cigarette and come bounding up from the dugout. At the sight of the bantam manager (who will be eligible for the Hall in 1992 if he stays retired), Palmer usually would hear a symphony suddenly turned discordant, as if a stumpy man were marching down the aisle intent on throttling the orchestra conductor.
Weaver's appearance was a clear sign to Palmer that he was less than perfect.
"He always came to the highest part of the mound," said Palmer, with mock disdain. No matter that Palmer is 6 feet 3 and Weaver 5-8, the manager had the upper hand when he reached to take the ball from the team's premier pitcher.
Palmer took to running to the dugout, carrying the burden of knowing he wasn't perfect.
Weaver's hooks of a man intent on going nine innings or more (he completed 211 games) were a source of their famous disagreements. "I learned that Earl had other things to think about than me after I was relieved," Palmer said. "The best time to talk to Earl was the next day."
That was back when their arguments added to the summers' heat, before the disagreements dissolved into theater. Now the odd couple, with wry smiles, joust from a distance; like Palmer bending to the low microphones in front of Babe Ruth's house and saying they must have been set that way for Earl.
Although he kept in shape fanatically ("If you have a fear of failing, you overprepare"), Palmer was done in by the physical adversities that come with age. His pitching body gave out -- although you couldn't tell it by looking at him, then or now.
As expected, his pitching form looks perfect on the Wheaties boxes and he's pleased to be there on the shelves because "I eat the product." But he said he's going to try to keep out of supermarkets until "hopefully they're sold out because I don't want to be reminded of yesteryear."
Past Will Come Alive
Even to a man with a busy schedule, it seems a long time since he pitched. Everything Palmer's done since then, as glamorous as it may seem and as profitable as it is, distracts him from the time when he was a king of the hill and held games in his hand.
Maybe nothing can recapture those days and that feeling for a Hall-of-Famer if, what so many of those immortals say, is true -- that there was nothing in the world more enjoyable than the game.
But as much as anything can, induction day on a summer Sunday at Cooperstown has made newcomers to the pantheon feel as if their arms or bats could come alive once more, and their world seem the way it was when they were young.