Fifty years ago today, Jim Palmer began Hall of Fame career with Orioles

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer made his Orioles debut 50 years ago today.

Fifty years ago, he strode to the mound from the bullpen in Boston, a gangly 19-year-old playing his first game in the big leagues.

"Nervous?" Orioles manager Hank Bauer asked the rookie right-hander.

"A little … apprehensive," Jim Palmer said, fingering the warmup ball he had forgotten to leave in the 'pen. "What do I do with this?"

"I'll take it," the manager said, handing him the game ball. Then the kid was on his own, in Fenway Park, staring down the heart of the Red Sox lineup.

On April 17, 1965, Palmer broke into the majors, relieving starter Robin Roberts, who was twice his age. Palmer's job? Stop a Boston rally. The Orioles led 6-3 in the third inning, but the Red Sox were threatening, with runners on first and second base and nobody out. At the plate stood Carl Yastrzemski, a future Hall of Famer; on deck was Tony Conigliaro, who would lead the American League in home runs that year.

And Palmer? His experience consisted of one year in Single-A ball, where he had shown enough of the stuff that earned him a $50,000 bonus as a schoolboy. Now here he stood, facing Yastrzemski, the 1963 AL batting champion.

"Just throw strikes," Orioles catcher John Orsino told Palmer.

Yastrzemski walked to load the bases. Then Conigliaro took a called third strike. Then Lee Thomas, a journeyman first baseman, punched a two-run single to right field.

Palmer settled down, retired the side and pitched a scoreless fourth inning before leaving the game, which Boston won, 12-9. But half a century later, the first base hit he allowed still nags at the Hall of Fame pitcher.

Last month, in spring training, Palmer, 69, ran into Thomas, now special assistant to Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette.

"Remember me?" Thomas said. "I'm the guy who got the first hit off you."

Palmer scowled.

"It was a broken-bat single, a blooper that barely made it past the infield."

"Line drive."

"It was a fluke! I jammed you," said Palmer, now an Orioles analyst for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. "Fifty years later, a lot of little soft singles become line drives."

Thomas, 79, confided later that he doesn't recall the particular hit. "I was pulling Jim's chain," he said. "I don't know what it was, to tell the truth, but it wasn't much of a hit. I do know that, even then, word was out that he had great stuff and would become one hell of a pitcher."

Palmer spent much of his rookie season in the bullpen, pitching long relief and soaking up advice.

Catcher Charley Lau "called me 'Brash' because I asked so many questions," Palmer said. "But when you're 19, you're just trying to absorb life's lessons from pitchers like Stu Miller, one of the best relievers of all time; Harvey Haddix, who'd once pitched a perfect game for 12 innings; and Dick Hall, who had such control that he could hit a thimble on the outside corner of the plate."

Palmer, however, could not. "I walked everybody," he said. "I was wild, up and down. I could go from the penthouse to the basement real fast with both my curve and fastball. I'd bounce balls, too. Once, before a game, Charley said, 'Kid, we flipped a coin and I lost, so I have to warm you up. But if you don't mind, I'm going to wear my full [protective] gear, because I'd really like to play for a few more years.'"

In Palmer's second outing, a 7-2 loss at Chicago on April 19, he lasted two-thirds of an inning, walked three and surrendered a monstrous home run to White Sox slugger Bill "Moose" Skowron.

"Jim threw Moose a high fastball, and Skowron just crushed it," Orioles first baseman Boog Powell recalled. "All I could say was: 'Welcome to the big leagues, kid.'"

Even now, Palmer marvels at that rocket shot, calling it "one of the most impressive homers I ever threw. When it was hit, center fielder Paul Blair didn't even take his hands off his knees. For years afterward, whenever I saw [Skowron] at card shows, I'd grab him and say, 'Moose, I loved watching you as a kid, but did you really have to do that?' He just laughed."

Palmer learned his craft quickly, teammates said.

"He was a hard worker, and dedicated," outfielder Russ Snyder, 80, said. "He adjusted to the majors in a hurry."

Powell, 73, said that even as a rookie, Palmer "had the rare knack of being able to add and subtract off his fastball. He could throw one 95 miles an hour and the next one 87."

Palmer's grace on the mound struck pitcher Wally Bunker, who as a 19-year-old in 1964 won 19 games for the Orioles.

"There was nothing herky-jerky about his windup or delivery. He was fluid," Bunker, 70, remembered. "A lot of guys could throw hard, but Jim could pitch, too."

In a wise move, the Orioles paired Palmer with the aging Roberts, a future Hall of Famer, as roommates on road trips.

"I'd keep Robin up half the night, asking questions until he'd say, 'Hey, kid, you're 19 and I'm 38, and I need to get some sleep,' " Palmer said. "He knew somebody was going to soon take his job, but he loved talking baseball."

On April 22, Palmer earned his first save, pitching four hitless innings in relief of Bunker in an 18-4 victory over the Washington Senators. Three weeks later, he won his first game, going 3 2/3 innings in relief in a 7-5 win over New York; that afternoon, he also hit a two-run, opposite-field homer off the Yankees' Jim Bouton.

"Fastball, up and away," Palmer said of the blast. "They expected a bunt. The [radio] announcer said: '[Third baseman] Clete Boyer was playing so close to home plate that if Palmer had pulled that ball, they would have had to pick Boyer up with a spatula.' "

About a week later, on May 24, he picked up his first and only victory as a starter that season, defeating the Senators, 2-1, at D.C. Stadium.

For the season, Palmer went 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA. In 92 innings, he struck out 75 batters and walked 56. An additional 263 victories, three Cy Young Awards and a Hall of Fame induction followed.

Hall lived down the street from Palmer in Timonium and often drove him to the ballpark on game days. En route, as they talked, he sensed both a bottomless curiosity and a brimming confidence in the youngster.

"Jim didn't flaunt it or anything," Hall, 84, said. "He just knew he could pitch and then proved he was right."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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