A lot of great pitchers have worn an Orioles uniform over the years, but none have been better than Jim Palmer. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, Palmer won 268 games over 19 seasons, winning 20 games or more eight times and twice leading the American League in ERA. Signed by Baltimore as an amateur free agent in 1963, Palmer made his big-league debut in 1965 and went on to play his entire career with the Orioles, pitching 3,948 innings and earning three World Series rings. In Game Two of the 1966 Fall Classic, Palmer became the youngest pitcher to throw a World Series shutout when he defeated Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers 2-0 at the age of 20. The winningest pitcher in team history, Palmer is currently an analyst for Orioles TV.
David Laurila: What kind of pitcher was Jim Palmer?
Jim Palmer: I was a fastball pitcher with three other pitches: a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. I had a four-seamer and a two-seamer… four seams early on. I didn’t turn my two-seamer over, but it had a little different look, so it was a pitch I could use. If you throw enough four-seamers away to lefties, it is a pitch you can throw where the ball has a little different movement to get them to maybe roll over, especially when they’re trying to hook a ball in the hole with a runner on first base. But I was primarily… even when I was throwing 90-whatever, upper 90s or upper 80s, I was still pretty much the same pitcher.
DL: A lot of veteran pitchers talk about the point where they went from being a thrower to being a pitcher. When did that happen for you?:
JP: Well, it certainly didn’t happen until… probably my third or fourth year, in the early ’70s. I came up in ’65, but I was hurt. In ’66, I was a thrower. I came back from an arm injury after two years running around the minor leagues, or whatever. In ’69, even though I led the league in ERA, I was still pretty much a thrower, but I had pretty good stuff. I wasn’t a command guy until probably 1973. I mean, there’s a big difference between throwing strikes and commanding the strike zone. You can be wild in the strike zone, and a lot of guys, if they don’t have great stuff, they’re not able to pitch in hitter’s counts. They don’t walk people, but they get hit very hard, because they’re constantly behind and their stuff just isn’t good enough. Like I said once to Tim McCarver, the key to pitching is to throw enough strikes to get them to swing at balls. Most pitchers want to do that. Very few guys can pitch successfully inside the strike zone.
DL: Who most influenced you as a pitcher?
JP: Well, from a pitching-coach standpoint, it was George Bamberger. I had George after the Northern League, I think. I was one of the leaders in ERA and strikeouts, but I was also one of the leaders, or led the league, in wild pitches and walks. So I went to instructional league and worked every day on my windup. The Orioles had told me that I might be a guy they’d have to protect the following year, and that’s how I got to the major leagues at 19. Back then you didn’t have a 40-man roster, you had a 25-man roster and one guy that you can protect, so you really could only protect 26 guys out of your whole roster-minor league and big league. I was the one guy they took to the big leagues. The whole winter, in Clearwater in 1964, I worked on my windup and it allowed me to… I still had a high leg kick, but it was more controlled. George taught me to throw the ball through the hitter, to the catcher. I think that a lot of people know who is up at the plate, but they don’t understand the dynamics of throwing a baseball. You have to be able to load, you have to be able to get over your front side, and you have to have extension. Throwing to the opposite side of the plate… if you have a right-handed hitter standing up there, I would work on throwing the ball down and away, because to do that… George’s philosophy, and it seemed to make a lot of sense, was that you had to have about as good a windup as you were going to have.
DL: Who was the best catcher you threw to over the course of your career?
JP: Elrod Hendricks caught my no-hitter, and we had a great understanding. He pretty much told people, as Rick Dempsey did… you know, Demper threw much better. He turned out to be a very good catcher. Of course, he had to learn our program when he was traded over from the Yankees. So I guess it was Dempsey and Elrod Hendricks. They would pretty much sit on the corner until… I mean, you have to understand, signs are just suggestions. You have a game plan, and it changes from the time you warm up until the game progresses. Sometimes you have good stuff. You might have an overpowering fastball and you have to be able to trust that whoever is catching you is able to tell you what your stuff is. A lot of times you can see the way a hitter reacts to your stuff, like where the bat head is, if you’ve been taught… if you understand how to do that. You can see when you’re on the mound where the bat head is. If it’s late, you obviously don’t want to speed it up, because some guys have slider-speed bats; they don’t have particularly quick bats, so breaking balls are advantageous to them. They give them a little more bat speed than they can generate normally. My first roommate was Robin Roberts, who had 270-some wins, and I didn’t have any. Right back here at Fenway, 44 years ago yesterday, I came in with the bases loaded to face Tony Conigliaro, the first guy I ever faced in the big leagues. Hank Bauer was the manager, and he said, “Are you nervous?” I said, “Well, I’ve never done this before,” because I was a starting pitcher in A-ball the year before. I said, “What do I do with this warm-up ball?” I had brought the warm-up ball in with me because I was so nervous. But I struck out Conigliaro, and 3,948 innings later I had never given up a grand slam. That could have happened with the first guy I ever faced. I struck him out on three pitches. He swung at two high fastballs and John Flaherty called him out on a knee-high fastball low and away. Not that I meant to do that, it just went there.
DL: Carl Yastrzemski had 169 official at-bats against you, the most of any hitter you faced in your career. How did you pitch to Yaz?
JP: Well, I knew he was a great hitter, until his later years. I threw him primarily fastballs and maybe some curveballs. I never threw him a slider. I maybe threw him some changeups. But he was going to have a home-run swing on anything you threw. Later on he would cheat a little bit, when his bat slowed down, but he could hit any pitch you threw. I was pretty much going to try to not let him pull the ball, although one of the reasons he’s a Hall of Fame hitter is that he took such good advantage of the Green Monster. But I didn’t want to speed up his bat. He was a good fastball hitter, but I was a good fastball pitcher. At the end of the day, you have to… it’s funny, we come up to the big leagues and sometimes we have a tendency to forget how we got here. You come up and you want to work on your breaking stuff, you want to work on your fielding or holding runners, and you want to work on the fact that you have a number of pitches, but at the end of the day you still have to understand what you do best. I threw the fastball. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re overpowering, even though I had a pretty good fastball. I’d try to strike guys out when I needed to.
DL: How did you work Jim Rice?
JP: Well, a lot of solo home runs. Rice would like the ball out over the plate, and I would throw him fastballs. I threw him some breaking balls, but I didn’t want to speed up his bat either. Jim Rice could hit fly balls to right-center field with the best of them. I think he hit 10 home runs against me, nine solos, and I hung one slider in September of, I think, 1978. He hit a three-run homer against me in Baltimore, and I didn’t like that.
DL: The number of home runs you allowed to Rice is interesting, given that you struck him out 24 times in 87 at-bats.
JP: But they were solo home runs. He hit .216, or maybe .219, against me. Kaline… my first home run in the big leagues was Moose Skowron, and it went about 445 [feet] to center field in Chicago, but Kaline hit a home run in my first start. I struck him out the first time on three pitches. Then, strike one, strike two, the catcher called for a changeup, and I was 19, and he hits it off the foul pole in Baltimore for a home run. Later I threw him about a 97 mph fastball down and away and he hit it into right field for a single, and I realized that Al Kaline may be better than I was. It’s funny, when you look at a lineup you have to see which guy, if you’re doing the things you’re supposed to do well, that you should be able to get out. And there are some guys that you can’t. People go, ‘Who was the toughest hitter in the American League?’ It was Rod Carew, but Rod Carew hit singles and he didn’t steal bases. Even though he could steal bases, he didn’t steal bases off me. Once you know that, part of pitching, and being successful against teams he played on, was to get the guys out who hit in front of him and behind him. Of course, when he played for the Twins, he had Oliva and Killebrew coming up, which made it a little bit harder. When he played for the Angels, I could usually get the guys out behind him.
DL: Who didn’t you like to face? Who had Jim Palmer figured out?
JP: Oh, a lot of guys had me figured out. Brett had good numbers. A second baseman for the Red Sox, Doug Griffin… I used to pitch away, and he liked the ball away. I’d throw pitches outside, two or three inches off the plate, and he’d hit them down the right-field line. Then Nolan Ryan hit him in the head, and that changed his approach. He didn’t dive anymore. I didn’t feel good about that, because you don’t want to see anyone get hit in the head, but it changed his approach at the plate. Paul Blair is another example. After Paul got beaned by Ken Tatum in Anaheim, he was never the same hitter. Those are tragic things that happen in the game, and I’m sure Nolan didn’t try to hit him in the head, and I’m sure that Ken Tatum didn’t try to hit Paul Blair, but it happens, and when it does it can change a hitter’s approach at the plate.
DL: Four at-bats into your career, you were a Hall of Fame hitter. What happened to you?
JP: I was in Cleveland, Ken Suarez was catching and I had faced him when I got out of high school and went up to the Basin League in Winner, South Dakota, and he played for Valentine. He looked up at the scoreboard, and he goes, “.750?” Sonny Siebert was pitching and I go, “Oh, no. That’s a mistake.” Three curveballs later, I was 3-for-5. That’s what happened.
DL: Gates Brown had a lot of success against you. Why was that?
JP: Here’s the deal with Gates. If you went back and actually examined those numbers, every time Gates would hit a home run it would be a solo home run, and every time he hit a home run off me, which was probably four or five times, I won the game. I never lost a game where he hit a home run. Why? Because they were solos. Gates Brown stood right up on top of the plate… and he was a terrific guy. I love Gates. I didn’t like to face him, but he stood on top of the plate, I pitched away, and he wanted the ball out over the plate. It was a game of, was I going to be able to make good enough pitches to get him to hit it to center field? When I didn’t, he was going to try to pull the ball, and that’s how he hit his home runs. But they were all solo home runs. One time he hit four rockets in Tiger Stadium, and then he didn’t hit a home run the next time, but he hit a couple of loopers, and I don’t think I beat the Tigers that night. But that one game he almost killed Frank [Robinson] in right, and he hit a couple of BB‘s to center that Blair ran down, and one to Buford, so he was four rockets and 0-for-4. So statistics are a funny thing. They don’t always tell you the story. To me, Gates was the kind of hitter… he’d had some problems with the law-I don’t know if he was a convicted felon-but he was standing on the top of the plate and I wasn’t going to hit him. He might come out and get me! Come on! But no, Gates was a great guy.
DL: What do you remember about facing Reggie Jackson?
JP: Reggie hit two runs in the playoffs, which I won 5-3, giving up three solo home runs on 169 pitches. That was a playoff game in 1971. But I think Reggie hit two or three home runs off of me in 14 years? He didn’t have a very high batting average. Reggie said that I used to pitch him like there was a little rectangle up and away.
DL: That’s how you liked to work Jackson, up and away?
JP: Most hitters. Again, if you’re throwing the ball through the hitter, to the catcher, your intent is not to throw… I mean, I could throw the ball down, but I could make the ball… Elrod Hendricks used to always say that I had some deceptiveness in my windup that made hitters think they could hit the ball, but it used to have a little bit of hop, kind of Koufax-like. His last game was my first World Series game, and his ball jumped, and his curveball started around eye level, and Roseboro would catch it on the ground. But I could make the ball go up, whether I was throwing 88 or 98, and I felt like, okay, that’s what I did best. It’s not like you’re trying to throw it to get it by people, you’re trying to throw pitches in an area of the plate where they’re going to have to go out… I mean, [Graig] Nettles had real good numbers against me, and thinking back I probably should have just thrown him hanging sliders right down the middle, because he couldn’t have hit them any harder than he did with my approach. Even if you’re in the Hall of Fame, you think back, and there are probably some adjustments you should have made.
DL: You’ve mentioned solo home runs a couple of times. Was going right after hitters with the bases empty a team-wide approach with the Orioles?
JP: Nah, it just made sense. I mean, I was pretty good at math. If you’re going to pitch a lot of innings, if you’re going to be out there… I never worried about the tying run. In my era you pitched extra innings, and I played for a lot of great teams, so the only run that ever bothered me was the run that was going to beat me. Solo home runs… they just didn’t mean anything. Obviously, if you’re on the road… Jimmy Hall, in my first loss in the big leagues, I pitched like four and two-thirds innings on a Tuesday, and on Wednesday they said they weren’t going to use me. Dick Hall gives up six hits and it goes from 2-2 to 5-2, and I came in and struck out two guys to get out of the inning. Dick Brown hits a three-run home run while I’m taking my clothes off. I come back out and Jimmy Hall hits a 2-1 fastball, down and away, down the left-field line, and the wind blows it into the first row of the old park in Minnesota, and I lose for the first time in the big leagues. It was a solo home run, but it was a very good pitch. The guy had hit 33 home runs the year before, so it wasn’t like he was an out. And Brooks [Robinson] had to take me off the field because I didn’t realize the game was over, because I had never done that before. But most of the time, solo home runs… they don’t mean much. There’s usually a reason. Maybe you’re behind a guy. But not too many guys hit low-and-away pitches for home runs. But if you get behind a guy… to me, the odds of putting the ball in play favor walking a guy and letting the next guy hit a two-run home run. So when I walked guys… yeah, sometimes I was wild. But home-run guys, it’s usually when they get a good pitch to hit.
JP: They were unbelievable. Cuellar was as good a left-handed pitcher as there was in baseball for five or six years. He won the Cy Young in 1969. He tied with McLain. He should have won in 1970, but Jim Perry won because we split the votes in the East. I think he was 23-8, or something like that, that year. Weaver would take him out early in the season, and then he’d come back and pitch with two day’s rest. Mike was an incredible pitcher. We were very lucky to get him, and that’s why we had so many great teams. McNally was a warrior; he won 20 games four times. He pitched through sore arms and elbows and all that stuff. Both of them were great guys. One of the great comforts pitching for the Orioles was that if I didn’t win on Monday, one of those guys was going to pick me up on Tuesday or Wednesday. Then, when Dobson came in 1971, that made it even easier.
DL: If you were a young pitcher in the big leagues today, what would be different for you?
JP: It’s a lot easier for the hitters now to know your tendencies. There are the hitting drills, and I think they’re better prepared. You have hitting instructors and strength coaches. We went through the Steroid Era, and when people ask me about Mussina, he won 270 games pitching in an era when the strike zone was the size of an 8-by-10 paper, in Camden Yards before the football field was put in, where the ball carried and guys were cartoon characters. Plus, he won Gold Gloves and had the consistency. To me, he’s a Hall of Famer. But if I was pitching now, guys can hit the ball fair inside, because they’re much shorter to the ball. I think the hitting approaches are better. But at the end of the day, while the hitters are still better, are you… the key to pitching, and I prided myself in having a low earned run average, because to me that meant you were consistent, month after month, week after week, year after year, but just think about it. At the end of the day, even though you don’t pitch complete games now-even though I think you should be prepared to-and hand the ball to your closer, you still have to beat the guy you’re pitching against. That’s the key to pitching. You have to be better than the opposition… the guy you’re facing. Obviously, it helps if you have a closer better than their closer, the way the game is played now. But hitters are very well prepared now. They can do the statistical readouts, where most guys said, ‘Palmer is going to start us off with fastballs.’ Jim Spencer, who passed away, he was from Baltimore and I kept him from hitting .300 two years in a row. He hit .280-something and he was 0-for-32 against me. I’d see him on Monday in Texas, when I’d be pitching on Wednesday, and he’d say, “I’m laying off that high fastball.” On Tuesday, I’d be out shagging and he’d run by and say, “I’m laying off that high fastball.” Wednesday I’d throw the first high fastball and he’d pop it up. So, in the 12th inning, he’s 0-for-32 over two years, and I figure, ‘OK, where can I go where he’s not going to hit a home run?’ He’s a great low-ball hitter, so I throw him a fastball up and away and he hits a little, soft single to left. I go, ‘You could have been doing that the last two years.’ So just like you kind of have to subjugate your ego on the mound, I think you have to do that as a hitter, and some hitters didn’t do that. The guys that did… the Kansas City approach, where they hit the ball where you pitched, it was very tough to pitch against those teams.
DL: What was your preparation? Was it all memory?
JP: Weaver came out to me in Yankee Stadium once. I had a 4-1 lead and threw a ball about 12 inches inside to Dave Winfield that he hit about 430; he must have been looking in. It was a solo home run, and the only one he hit off of me. I had pitched very well. It was toward the end of my career, probably 1982. Earl came out, and he says, “Two outs, infield hit in the ninth, I’m bringing in Tippy [Martinez] to face Nettles.” He said, “He’s only 2-for-23 off of him.” I said, “Yeah, but he was 0-for-21 and he beat us with a 2-run single to left field when Tippy was well rested, because he went up there and looked for a curveball. Then he beat us in that 11-inning ballgame when first base was open, and Tippy had pitched five straight days, and he looked for one and hit it into the upper deck.” So numbers don’t mean a whole lot, but I was very happy. Whatever. Part of pitching is… to bring in Tippy Martinez and say that he’s 2-for-23 is one thing, but he was really 2-for-2 in my mind. What have you done for me lately? I look at numbers every day when I’m broadcasting, and what do they mean? Ryan Freel played last night against Brad Penny, and he’s 8-for-19, but that was when he was playing every day in Cincinnati. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good player, it’s just that those numbers don’t mean anything when you’re sitting on the bench and not playing. What numbers mean is, who is pitching, what kind of stuff does he have, what is the situation, is he rested or not rested, did he make good pitches? Some guys can’t make good pitches to hitters, so they have a problem. To me… memory served me pretty well.
DL: Would it be accurate to say that you believe numbers have their place, but they aren’t always used correctly?
JP: It depends on who is using them. It’s just like being an accountant. You can manipulate numbers. When Mark Teixeira is for 6-for-10 with six home runs off of Bruce Chen, I think it’s pretty safe to say that if you have first base open, you better walk him. There just might be a trend there. But trends don’t always… numbers are very important, but they don’t tell you the whole story.