The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer long wondered if he’s related to JFK. At 72, he learned the truth.

Jim Palmer, adopted at birth and pictured in 1979, had a Hall of Fame baseball career, never spending much time thinking about his birthparents. After 72 years, though, his wife put the pieces together. (Associated Press)

It would have been January 1945. It would have been somewhere in Manhattan, out where the Irish people gathered. It must have been cold out, driving Joe Geheran and Mary Ann Moroney indoors, into the same building and eventually the same room, maybe the same corner of a bar or nook of a kitchen, where they must have been overtaken by the same feeling and where one thing, as one thing is known to do, must have led to another.

They must have found somewhere to be alone.

They may have known each other already but probably didn’t — he, a dapper, 41-year-old, well-known man about town; she, a 37-year-old domestic to a wealthy family; both of them Irish immigrants. He was married, without children. She would marry just over a year later and quickly start a family with her new husband.

But on this night in January 1945, as fate would have it, Mary Ann Moroney got pregnant. Joe Geheran was the father.

This secret, dark and potentially explosive, may have belonged to both of them or just to Mary Ann because it isn’t clear whether Joe ever knew he would be a father. But regardless of whom it belonged to, the secret survived the subsequent birth of a baby boy Oct. 15, 1945, in a hospital on the east side of Manhattan, and it survived the baby’s adoption two days later. It made it to the grave with both Mary Ann and Joe, and it survived, as well, the life span of the daughter Mary Ann would have in 1946 and go on to raise.

And the secret would survive the first 72 years of that baby boy’s life, even as the world came to know and revere the man he grew into.

Jim Palmer would become a baseball superstar — a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles — and a cultural icon of the 1970s, with his Jockey underwear ads in those tighty-whiteys that everyone of that era knew and could never un-see. He knew his own life story only as far back as the adoption, the rest of it little more than a fleeting and occasional curiosity for a man whose privileged upbringing and eventual stardom left him incurious about his origins and unmotivated to dig them up.

But Mary Ann and Joe’s secret, as deeply as it was hidden and as yellowed and faded as it had become over the ensuing decades, couldn’t stay buried forever. It couldn’t survive the combination of the advances in DNA testing and the curious, relentless sleuthing of Susan Palmer, Jim’s third wife.

In October 2017, as Jim watched all those four-hour baseball playoff games on TV, Susan sat beside him, fingers and eyes glued to her laptop, and painstakingly peeled back the layers of what she saw as a great and timeless mystery until the answer was revealed, and Mary Ann Moroney’s awful and beautiful secret, nearly three-quarters of a century later, was finally exposed.

The baby boy she delivered Oct. 15, 1945, had grown up to be rich and famous. Mary Ann, humble, poor, lonely Mary Ann, was the mother of Jim Palmer, Hall of Fame pitcher — and she probably never even knew it.

Kennedy by birth, technically

The plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., in a wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, uses the pitcher’s full and legal name: James Alvin Palmer. (“High-kicking, smooth-throwing symbol of Baltimore’s six championship teams of 1960s, 70s and 80s,” it reads.) But had fate worked out differently, any number of alternative names might have gone on that plaque, beginning with Geheran, the name of his birth father. He never actually had that one. There were others that he did.

Before he was Jim Palmer, baseball superstar and cultural icon, he was Jim Wiesen, adopted son of Moe Wiesen, a wealthy Manhattan dress designer, and his wife, Polly, a boutique owner. The Wiesens also had an adopted daughter, Jim’s sister Bonnie, unrelated by blood. They lived on Park Avenue. They had a butler named George. Among the people Moe and Polly Wiesen probably knew in those days were the Feinsteins, another prominent family in the garment industry, who had a domestic in their employ named Mary Ann Moroney.

It is certainly logical — but by no means certain, the mystery still requiring some educated hunches — to assume that connection is how the Wiesens wound up adopting the baby boy whom Mary Ann apparently could not keep and whom they would name James.

Only after Moe Wiesen died of a heart attack in 1955 and after Polly moved her children and herself to Beverly Hills, Calif., and after she met and became engaged to Max Palmer, a genial Hollywood character actor, did Jim Wiesen, at the age of 11, formally become Jim Palmer.

“My mom told me, ‘I’m going to be marrying Max and changing my name to Palmer, and it would mean a lot to him if you did, too,’ ” Jim Palmer recalls. “He had a place on Wilshire Boulevard, and I remember he had hundred-dollar bills and ‘MP’ spelled out in diamonds on a ring. We were going to the banquet for my Little League team, and I announced it there: ‘I’m not going to be Jim Wiesen anymore. I’m going to be Jim Palmer.’ ”

But before Jim Palmer was Jim Wiesen and for a period of only about 48 hours, he was, at least in the eyes of the New York City birth registry, Baby Boy Kennedy.

For a long time, this fact — the Kennedy name appearing on his birth certificate, glimpsed by a relative who accompanied Polly Wiesen to the hospital to pick up her adopted son and conveyed to the boy himself many years later — became an open license for Jim Palmer, who at the time knew little else about his origins, to fantasize about his biological lineage.

As he grew into a handsome, gifted and lanky young man, with features that were nothing if not Kennedyesque, it didn’t seem unreasonable to presume he was the product of some fling one of the Kennedy men — maybe Jack, Bobby or Joe Sr. — had one cold Manhattan night in January 1945.

Palmer told a handful of friends over the years about the Kennedy connection, and at least one of them, his late teammate Mike Flanagan, used to ride him mercilessly about it, pointing out that only someone with Palmer’s legendary sense of self-grandeur would extrapolate from his murky origins as a Kennedy, one of the most ubiquitous names in Irish New York in those days, that he was one of those Kennedys.

Once, Palmer met Ethel Kennedy at a function and told her the story of the Kennedy name appearing on his birth certificate. She listened to the known details, which were few, took a long look at Palmer and said, “Let’s see. . . . Which of the boys could that have been?” Palmer’s second wife, Joan, once said, perhaps half-jokingly, that those rugged, handsome Irish features were not the only trait her ex-husband shared with the famous Kennedy men.

But the truth, discovered many years later through Susan Palmer’s painstaking research, was decidedly less sexy and fairy-tale worthy.

As it turns out, Mary Ann Moroney’s sister Katharine was married to a man named Kennedy. The woman, probably ashamed and eager to protect her secret, chose that most common of names when the hospital personnel needed to know what to put on the birth certificate. And perhaps to further obscure the truth, she had used Kennedy as the mother’s name and Maroney (using the incorrect spelling that had been listed for her name at Ellis Island some 20 years earlier) as the father’s. These are the names that would be listed for the baby on the publicly available New York City birth registry.

James Alvin Palmer was not descended from the Camelot Kennedys. He was never even a Kennedy at all.

Instant recognition

The eureka moment, as Susan Palmer calls it, was Aunt Jenny’s eyebrows.

“As soon as I saw her and I saw those eyebrows,” she says, “I knew.”

Having resolved, in October, to get to the bottom of her husband’s birth story once and for all, she had persuaded Palmer to take a DNA test, using his saliva, which then could be matched against the millions already residing at a handful of genealogy websites.

Palmer, in his 72 years on the planet, hadn’t spent a minute looking into the question himself. Maybe he didn’t want the Kennedy fantasy to fall apart. Or maybe he truly didn’t care.

“The reality for me is, I lucked out,” he explains. “I won the ovarian lottery because I was born in this country and I was adopted by great parents. . . . Your real parents are the ones who raised you.”

But Susan Palmer plowed ahead. Because of the childhood name change, from Wiesen to Palmer, and the moving around, from New York to Beverly Hills to Scottsdale, Ariz., she ran into dead ends in trying to obtain his original birth certificate. And the lack of a birth certificate left her unable to obtain the official adoption records from 1945.

The DNA, however, was a game-changer. A woman who went by the handle “MB” on one of the genealogy sites came back as a “possible second or third cousin” with an “extremely high” degree of confidence, based on their shared DNA. In MB’s online family tree, Susan saw the name Moroney, which she recognized as a version of the name on the NYC birth registry. For the first time, she could glimpse a pathway to the answers she was seeking.

When she went to email “MB,” Susan Palmer wasted no time in playing her ace in the hole: the Hall of Fame card.

“I had no problem trotting out his name like a prized pig: ‘Don’t you want to take a DNA test and see if you’re related to Hall of Famer Jim Palmer?’ ” she says. “I emailed this ‘MB,’ and I said, ‘My husband is Jim Palmer. He’s a Hall of Fame baseball player. I have a birth document, and on it, it says Maroney.’”

MB wrote back and said her name was Mary-Anne Benedict of Massachusetts. She was descended from the Moroneys of County Clare in Ireland, several of whom had emigrated to America. Eventually, she sent a picture of her grandmother Jenny Moroney.

And that’s when Susan Palmer saw the eyebrows, and she knew.

Putting together the pieces

Jenny Moroney, it turned out, had had a brother named Thomas, who Susan Palmer eventually would come to understand, as the pieces began to reveal themselves, was Jim Palmer’s maternal grandfather.

The DNA, Susan soon realized, could take her only so far. For one thing, older ancestors were long since gone by the time DNA testing became widely available. But curiously, as she found out, there were also no sibling matches for Jim Palmer — a fact that only much later would make sense, when she had zeroed in on the birthparents and learned bits and pieces of their stories.

Mary Ann Moroney, after giving up her baby boy for adoption, then marrying a man named John Lane, went on to have a daughter named Patricia Lane — Palmer’s biological half-sister — but Patricia died of leukemia in 1987 at the age of 40. (The Palmers are still searching for Patricia Lane’s sole offspring, a daughter whose married name is Kimberly Hughes and who would be Jim Palmer’s half-niece.) Mary Ann Moroney herself died in 1979.

Meanwhile, Joe Geheran, Palmer’s biological father, had no other offspring, it appears. (One interesting thing about Palmer’s three fathers — Geheran, Moe Wiesen and Max Palmer — is that none had any other biological children.) Joe Geheran died in 1959 at the age of 56.

“I’ve outlived him by 16 years — so far,” Palmer says, then he couldn’t resist a crack about his former Orioles manager, with whom he had a famously cantankerous relationship. “And I played for Earl Weaver.”

Unraveling the mystery, then, would require some process-of-elimination deduction. From Jenny Moroney’s ancestors, Susan Palmer had the Moroney family tree and could trace Palmer’s lineage to one of the 11 children of Thomas Moroney. She studied the manifests of ships that brought Irish immigrants to Ellis Island and realized only one of those 11 would have been in America at the time Palmer was born: Mary Ann Moroney.

She found relatives who could fill in some of the gaps about Mary Ann’s life — which must have been lonely, coming to America by herself at age 18 and never going back home — and passed along photos. In one of them, Mary Ann Moroney was tall and slim, much like Palmer, who was listed as 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds during his playing days.

“And she had those really long arms,” Susan Palmer adds, nodding toward her husband. “Just like him. His arms hang down to his knees.”

A similar mixture of DNA matches and Internet sleuthing led to Michael Joseph “Joe” Geheran, of the Geherans of County Leitrim, as the man who almost certainly was Palmer’s birth father. She was aided in that pursuit by three amateur genealogists with ties to the Geheran lineage — Kevin Scollan, Karen Elias and Bob Shalvoy — whom Susan Palmer took to calling “Team Leitrim.” Even with their steadfast help, it would be December before she would solve this part of the mystery.

“Hands the size of baseball gloves!” Kevin Scollan exclaimed in one Team Leitrim group email exchange, upon seeing a picture of Joe Geheran, noting one physical resemblance to Palmer.

Joe Geheran, as Susan Palmer discovered, was also a boxing aficionado and a bit of a raconteur and man-about-town whose escapades were noteworthy enough to warrant an occasional mention in the gossip and society pages of the Irish American newspapers of New York.

This eligible bachelor, however, suddenly came off the market in 1942 at the age of 38, marrying the former Anne Heavey. But apparently, this did not spell the end of his man-about-town ways. We don’t know — and probably will never know — how many affairs there were or how long the one with Mary Ann Moroney lasted.

We only know of the one fateful night in January 1945.

Lingering questions

A most amazing thing happened as Susan Palmer closed in on the ultimate answers. At first, Jim Palmer had been dismissive of the efforts, wrapped up in the 2017 MLB postseason and taking no interest in what his wife, sitting next to him, was doing on those genealogy websites.

“Just bottom-line me when you figure it out,” he told her.

But as the layers of mystery were pulled back and the question marks and dead-ends were replaced by DNA matches and ultimately by black-and-white photos of the man and woman responsible for his very life, even Jim Palmer, Mr. Bottom-Line Me, grew invested in the search.

Susan located dozens of Palmer’s blood relatives — cousins, uncles, aunts — and started new correspondences and friendships. Even the ones in Ireland, with only a passing knowledge of the American game called baseball, seemed excited to learn they were related to a famous player.

On the Geheran side, the relatives Susan tracked down in the states needed extra time to process the new and momentous information — they were all die-hard Yankees fans. That included Joe Geheran, Palmer’s biological father. Jim and Matt Barrens, Palmer’s newly discovered first cousins, told Susan of their family trips to Yankee Stadium for afternoon games (admission: $1). “It’s what they did as a family,” Susan relayed.

When Susan realized Palmer’s first cousin Pat Moroney would be visiting Florida over the winter, not far from the Palmers’s home in Palm Beach, she set up a meeting. Moroney, it turned out, had watched Palmer pitch at Yankee Stadium several times when he lived in the Bronx. Palmer marveled at Moroney’s deep Irish brogue and corrected him when he misstated Palmer’s career record against the Yankees.

With the bottom line now in pocket, Palmer, of course, would be content to leave the story be. But Susan Palmer is still on the trail. There are layers still to be pulled back, questions still crying out for answers.

“I think about how hard it must have been for his mother to put him up for adoption,” she says. “I think about her all the time. Did she get to hold him in the hospital? Did she think about keeping him? . . . She lived long enough to have seen him play. Who knows? Maybe she read about him and wondered. He was never shy about saying he was adopted.

“Maybe she looked at him and thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ She could have seen him in his tighty-whiteys!”

Susan’s earnestness and his nonchalance sometimes make the Palmers sound like a comedy duo.

“She didn’t have any family here. Can you imagine being 38 and having a baby who was a mistake?” she says. “But maybe she was really in love with Joe Geheran.”

“Maybe,” Palmer counters, “she was just horny.”

Susan Palmer rolls her eyes. That may be all the narrative he needs, but she needs more. Half a year into this project, she still goes to sleep thinking about Mary Ann and Joe, and she still wakes up thinking about them.

Most of all, she wonders about that night, the night they made a miracle.

January. New York. Near the end of the war. Joe, cutting a dashing figure through the room. Mary Ann, possessing a quiet beauty. There must have been something between them, some spark.

“I think it must have been really cold outside,” she says, filling in the gaps with her imagination, the way history has always been written, “and they were keeping each other warm.”

Read more:

‘Every day is the craziest’: Japanese press tailing Shohei Ohtani is already worn out

With the worst behind them, new manager Gabe Kapler and the Phillies are thinking big

Dusty Baker made his own sort of peace with Nationals exit, and still doesn’t care what you think

The Indians’ brilliant pitching staff is bidding for all-time greatness

Bryce Harper steps into the storm that’s been brewing his entire life