This excerpt from Jim Palmer's "Nine Innings to Success: A Hall of Famer's Approach to Achieving Excellence" is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. Check out the story he told Bill Littlefield this week.
My rookie season eased me into life in the big leagues. I pitched in 27 games, starting six times, for a 94-win Orioles team that finished third in the 10-team American League. Today that win total would almost guarantee a team a spot in the postseason. In the winner-take-all days of 1965, however, we came up nine games short of winning the pennant and advancing directly to the World Series. It was a thrill to see myself on a baseball card for the first time. The only problem was my card incorrectly listed me as a southpaw.
My first win came on May 16, 1965, when I pitched three and two-thirds innings of one-run ball in relief against the New York Yankees at Memorial Stadium. This was before the designated-hitter rule went into effect, and I took advantage of my chance to swing the bat by swatting a two-run home run off of Jim Bouton, who, in addition to being a pretty decent pitcher, would go on to write the famous baseball book Ball Four. Speaking of balls and strikes, my most notable accomplishment in 1965 was finding command of the strike zone. I walked 56 batters in 92 innings, a vast improvement over my wild days in the minors when I averaged more than a walk per inning. There were moments in my rookie season when I felt like I belonged in the big leagues—like the time I struck out the great Al Kaline in my first career start—and other moments when I thought I couldn’t compete at the highest level—like the time later in that same game when Kaline hit a home run off of me. Everything was still new to me, including my own team. On our first road trip of the season, I picked up a copy of the Boston Herald and read little bios in the sports page of all the Boston players. As I quickly got up to speed on the backgrounds and accomplishments of the Red Sox, I realized that I knew more about them than I did about our own guys.
I had no idea where my baseball career would take me, so every time I went to the mound, I tried to savor the moment. Remember the scene in the movie City Slickers where Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch Robbins, and his two pals drive a herd of cattle across the plains and swap stories about their greatest days ever? Mitch reminisces about the time his father took him to Yankee Stadium for the first time and how he marveled at the greenness of the grass, which looked much more drab on his family’s black and white television. Mitch talks about how it was the first game he saw in color, an experience that was punctuated by watching Mickey Mantle hit a home run. I could relate. In June 1954 my dad took me to my first game at Yankee Stadium. Allie Reynolds pitched a complete-game shutout, Mickey got three hits, and the Yankees trounced the Cleveland Indians 11–0. That was my first “Billy Crystal moment.” I went home that night sure in my mind that I wanted to become a ballplayer.
Fast forward 11 years to Labor Day 1965, when I experienced my second such moment. I’m standing on the mound of Yankee Stadium for the first time, making a long-relief appearance. There are two on and two outs in the bottom of the second inning when my childhood hero Mickey Mantle steps up to the plate. And I strike him out. It was then that I realized that my childhood dream had come true.
As a team we stood on the verge of true excellence. Dating back to its days as the St. Louis Browns, the Orioles franchise had never won a World Series. All the right pieces, though, seemed to be falling into place by 1965. Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, and reigning Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary powered our offense, and our young pitching staff showed it could hold its own against American League lineups. But something, or more accurately, someone was missing. In the competitive American League, we needed another top-flight player to put us over the top. As the Orioles devised a way to acquire that missing piece, I got an up-close glimpse at a young slugger who would go on to become baseball’s biggest attraction of the 1970s.
My relationship with this future star started on a summer day in 1965 when I drove past Druid Hill Park in Baltimore and saw a young man wearing an Arizona State Sun Devils baseball jersey. Having attended high school in Scottsdale, Arizona, I had seen such jerseys many times but never before in Baltimore. I stopped my car, rolled down the window, and asked the kid where he got the jersey. He told me that he attended ASU and played baseball and football there. He had come to Baltimore to play on an amateur summer team managed by longtime Orioles scout Walter Youse. I asked him if he needed a lift anywhere. He told me he was going to the ballpark, so we drove over to Memorial Stadium together. That’s how I met Reggie Jackson.
I later asked our new scouting director Walter Shannon about Reggie. His eyes lit up at the mere mention of the name. “If you go back to Arizona this winter, go check him out for yourself,” Shannon advised. “We pick 16th in the draft next year, so we don’t have a chance at getting him, but I think you’ll enjoy seeing what he can do.”
On a visit to Arizona that offseason, I went to watch an intra-squad scrimmage at Arizona State. Gary Gentry, a right-handed pitcher who I would go up against in Game 3 of the 1969 World Series, was pitching for one of the sides. Reggie faced Gentry four times that day. In his first at-bat, he tripled to left-center field. In his second time up, he singled and stole a base. In his third crack at Gentry, he hit a home run over the scoreboard in right field. And in his final at-bat, he singled and stole another base, giving him a 4-for-4 afternoon with two stolen bases. He also showed off his arm from center field, throwing out a runner who was trying to go from first to third on a single.
I next saw Shannon at spring training. “Did you get a chance to see Reggie Jackson while you were out there?” he asked.
“Yeah, I did,” I replied, “and now I know why we don’t have a chance of drafting him.”
I would later have an opportunity to play with Reggie, albeit only for one season. In the 1970s Reggie became a baseball superstar, helping to turn every team he played on into a winner. The 1960s had a player of similar ability and impact. His name was Frank Robinson. And the Orioles concluded that he was the missing piece to our puzzle.
After the ’65 season, our general manager, Lee MacPhail, left the organization to work in the office of the commissioner of baseball. Before heading to New York, he initiated discussions with the Cincinnati Reds about a trade for Frank, who had averaged 37 home runs a year during his 10 years in Cincinnati and who had won the National League MVP award in 1961. For reasons not entirely clear, especially considering that Frank had an outstanding 1965 season, the Reds seemed to think he was past his prime, “an old 30,” as they called it. Harry Dalton, who succeeded MacPhail as Orioles GM, continued talks with the Reds and consummated the deal. The always consistent—if not overly ambitious—Milt Pappas went to Cincinnati, along with relief pitcher Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. In return we got a player who immediately took his game to an even higher level, winning the Triple Crown in 1966. Depending on your allegiance, you consider that deal either one of the best or worst trades in major league history. There’s even a line about it in the movie Bull Durham uttered by Durham Bulls super fan Annie Savoy: “Bad trades are a part of baseball—now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake?”
Frank’s presence in the middle of our lineup promised to make us even better offensively. Defensively, we were already the class of the American League. You would need an entire room to fit all the Gold Glove awards won by third baseman Brooks Robinson, shortstop Luis Aparicio, second baseman Davey Johnson, and center fielder Paul Blair. As a fly-ball pitcher, I especially appreciated Paul’s speed and range in the outfield. I wish I knew how many runs he saved me during the 10-plus years that we played together. A pitcher like me who didn’t strike out a whole lot of hitters is reliant on the defense behind him. I was criticized at times for directing fielders on precisely where to position themselves, but that’s not because I doubted their ability. Paul, Mark Belanger, and the other outstanding fielders who backed me up in 1966 and beyond are a big reason I’m in the Hall of Fame.