Jim Palmer’s Attempted Comeback
In the Spring of 1991, seven years after his retirement as an active player, former Orioles’ pitcher Jim Palmer was attempting the most intriguing comeback in baseball history. It wasn’t just Palmer’s long absence from competition that attracted the nation’s interest, or even that he was trying to pitch again at the advanced age of 45. What made this venture unique was that seven months earlier the magnificent Baltimore right-hander had been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Before Palmer’s election, 46 pitchers and 111 position players had made their way from the playing field to Cooperstown, but none had ever attempted to reverse the procedure.
After a glorious 19-year career, Palmer’s 1984 departure from the Orioles had not been pleasant for either him or the team. He had gotten off to a terrible start that season, and by May was struggling with an 0-3 record and a 9.17 earned run average. When Palmer refused the club’s suggestion that he go on the “voluntary retired” list, they responded by giving him his unconditional release.
Despite that unceremonious dismissal, Palmer maintained his ties to Baltimore, serving as a color-man on Orioles’ telecasts. General Manager Roland Hemond, manager Frank Robinson and pitching coach Al Jackson each voiced support for the comeback attempt, recognizing that Palmer was a proud and thoughtful athlete who would do this only if he though he could succeed. Nevertheless, there were those who felt that the whole thing could only act as a disruption to the team’s normal spring training routine.
The Orioles viewed it differently. Even if Palmer proved unable to pitch, they reasoned, they would reap the benefits of just having him in camp. Nobody knew more about pitching than he did, or could serve as a better example for young pitchers like Ben McDonald, Bob Milacki, Gregg Olson and Jeff Ballard. Palmer agreed. He taught and counseled the youngsters willingly, despite knowing that if one of his rookie pupils (such as Mike Mussina or Jose Mesa) made the team it would limit his own chances of doing so. “It’s a no-lose situation,” he said. “I have a chance to learn the ballclub and the system in case I go back to broadcasting.”
While just by “giving it a shot” Palmer had lifted the spirits of middle-aged fans everywhere, very few baseball people thought he would succeed. Still, most conceded that if anyone could pull it off, it was Palmer, who despite his age, was in excellent physical condition. On the other hand, millions of people are in excellent condition, but only very, very few can play baseball at the major league level, as recent events have shown.
Palmer’s gallant quest to turn back the clock was an irresistible story for the national media and hordes of them descended on the Orioles’ training camp to report on his progress. He had taken an important first step on March 3, pitching 15 minutes of batting practice at the Orioles’ training facility in Sarasota. He threw easily, in the same fluid motion that he had always used, and reported no ill-effects the next day. “I’ve always loved watching him throw,” said 40-year-old Mike Flanagan, an old teammate who was attempting his own comeback with the Orioles.
Three days later, Palmer surmounted a major hurdle when he pitched two passable innings in an intrasquad game. He gave up two walks and five hits, including a home run to catching hopeful Chris Hoiles. However, it was a day when the 25-mile-an-hour winds in the park made pitching for everyone extremely difficult. His catcher Bob Melvin reported that “He threw as well as anyone else.” Palmer expressed disappointment in his control, but admitted that he felt more confident and expected his pitch-location to improve in his next outing. There was even a good-natured complaint about the umpiring. “It was like old times,” he joked. “I threw a belt-high fast ball and the umpire called it a ball.” That was vintage Palmer. But so was the way he easily stabbed ex-Blue Jay Ernie Whitt’s line drive back to the mound. His reflexes seemed as sharp as ever.
Earlier that month the Orioles had announced that Palmer’s first pitching appearance would come on March 11 in Bradenton against the defending Eastern Division champion Red Sox. For Gulf Coast fans it instantly became the most anticipated game on the Grapefruit League schedule. On game day old McKechnie Field was sold out, with nearly everyone in the crowd of 5,000 there to encourage and cheer Number 22. And it wasn’t just the fans who were rooting for Palmer. As he was warming up in the bullpen, Roger Clemens, the current King of the Hill in the American League, stopped by to wish his predecessor well.
The team that the Orioles would likely field on opening day was behind Palmer as he took the mound, yet he knew most of them only from his work as a broadcaster. Shortstop Cal Ripken was the lone starter who had been an Oriole when he last pitched, and only right fielder Joe Orsulak had even been in the major leagues. More familiar to Palmer was the first hitter he faced, five-time batting champion Wade Boggs.
Boggs ran the count full before singling sharply to right. Palmer, after balking Boggs to second, got Jody Reed on a liner to short. Then Mike Greenwell ripped a single to right, and when Orsulak made a poor throw, Boggs scored. Palmer retired both Jack Clark and Ellis Burks, but each hit the ball hard.
After Baltimore tied the game in the bottom of the first, Boston regained the lead in the second on singles by Carlos Quintana, Phil Plantier and Boggs. Palmer then walked Reed to load the bases, but ended the inning by getting Greenwell on a pop fly.
McDonald came in to pitch for Baltimore in the third, and the contrast between his 93-mile-per-hour fast ball and Palmer’s, which barely broke 80, was painfully obvious. Craig Worthington’s sacrifice fly eventually gave the Orioles a 3-2 win, and afterwards everybody said the requisite kind things, but Palmer’s comeback was over. He had thrown 38 pitches, 19 of which were balls, and many of which had been hit extremely hard. Besides the lack of speed on his fast ball, he was wild high, his curve balls hung, and while warming up he had injured his right hamstring.
Two days later Palmer accepted the inevitable and informed Hemond that he was calling it quits. “You’ve got to be 100 percent to do this,” he said. “It’s been a fun experience. The fans have been great.” Asked if this would be his last comeback, he said: “I would think so. Let’s hope so.”
Robinson paid tribute to Palmer’s effort. “There were no negatives involved in any of this,” the manager said. “He handled himself with class and dignity.” Hemond announced that the Orioles would begin awarding a “Palmer Prize” annually to their top minor league pitcher.
Palmer’s lifetime statistics remained as they were in 1984, and as they read on his plaque at Cooperstown. His 268 victories (268-152) are the most in Orioles’ history, and he continues to be Baltimore’s career leader in most other pitching categories. Although Palmer never reached 300 wins as did some of his contemporaries, his 2.86 lifetime earned run average is second only to Sandy Koufax among post-1960 pitchers.
Unlike Palmer, Flanagan did make a successful comeback with Baltimore, and that Fall threw the final pitch by an Oriole at Memorial Stadium.
(Editor’s Note: My friends Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg have a new book coming out soon called 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York. It’s already received great reviews, including one from Library Journal that calls the book a “well-written, fully documented, and sometimes gripping account of a previous pivotal year, coming on the heels of the 1919 Black Sox scandal,” and aÂ “delightful read by two experts on early 20th-century baseball that is highly recommended.”)