In March of 1998, I was 10 years old and getting on a plane with my dad to Florida to watch some spring training games. I had just settled into my seat when my dad tapped me on the shoulder, then pointed to a man with thick brown hair sitting a few rows ahead. Every once in a while he’d turn his head, and you got a glimpse of his face.
“That’s Jim Palmer,” he said.
I asked my dad about five times if he was kidding, waiting for him to start laughing and give up the joke. He didn’t. He was serious. And my heart jumped to my throat.
Because even then, at 10 years old, I knew how massive a figure in the history of my favorite team Jim Palmer was.
Palmer was the greatest pitcher to ever wear an Orioles uniform. During the 1970s, he was as good as any pitcher, anywhere. There were 10 Cy Young Awards given in the American League that decade, and Palmer won three of them. He was a runner-up for another, and he also finished third. For the decade, he averaged a 19-10 record, four shutouts and a 2.58 ERA. He won 20 games eight times, and his 186 wins were the most of any pitcher in the 1970s.
The whole career, from 1965 to 1984, saw Palmer rack up 268 wins, a .638 winning percentage, a 2.86 ERA, and status as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He had an 8-3 mark and 2.61 ERA in the postseason. He’s the team’s all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, games pitched, complete games, shutouts and pitching WAR.
More to the point, though, Palmer was a defining figure of baseball from the late 1960s into the early 1980s. The Orioles were one of the game’s marquee franchises, and Palmer was, if not its face, on its Rushmore.
He did it with a windup and delivery that were completely his own. Windups then didn’t look like the ones today, but Palmer’s was particularly idiosyncratic. He brought his knee up high to where he held the ball, and then as the leg straightened out and swung toward the batter, he brought the ball back and arched his back and leaned on his right heel. Then, with the lettering on his jersey facing the sky, he threw.
There were a lot of moving parts, but there was a grace to the motion, and it didn’t hurt either his ability to deliver pitches that were hard to hit, or field the ones that were — Palmer won four Gold Gloves for his defensive ability.
Palmer wrote the chapters to his Orioles legacy quickly. He was only 20 in 1966 when he went 15-10 for a Baltimore team that went to the World Series. Palmer’s youth seemed bound to be tested by the favored Los Angeles Dodgers, but he outdueled Sandy Koufax with a four-hit shutout in Game 2, helping the Orioles to a stunning sweep of Los Angeles and their first title.
Palmer went 16-4 with a 2.34 ERA in 1969, but struggled along with the rest of the team in the World Series loss to the Mets. He had the first of eight 20-win seasons in a nine-year stretch in 1970, going 20-10 with a 2.71 mark and guiding the Orioles back to the Fall Classic. He helped the team atone for the previous disappointment, winning Game 1 with 8.2 innings of three-run ball as the O’s won the Series in five.
Palmer went 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA in 1971 as the Orioles went back to the World Series, where they lost to Pittsburgh despite Palmer going 1-0 with a 2.65 ERA in two starts. He went 21-10 with a 2.07 ERA in 1972, then won his first Cy Young Award a year later with a 22-9 mark and 2.40 ERA.
After a lackluster, injury-marred 1974 season, Palmer bounced back in a big way with Cy Young Awards in 1975 (23-11, 2.09) and ’76 (22-13, 2.51). By now he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball, with three Cy Youngs in a four-year stretch. He had reached this level despite not being a power pitcher, relying instead on command and smarts. He limited his mistakes, never allowing back-to-back home runs or a grand slam, and knew how to set hitters up for harmless ground balls and fly balls into the exceptional defense behind him.
Palmer kept it up, placing in the top three in Cy Young voting in 1977 (20-11, 2.91) and ’78 (21-12, 2.46). By 1979 he was 33, and his best days were behind him. He averaged 11-8 with a 3.71 ERA over the next three years, bounced back to go 15-5 with a 3.13 ERA and finish second in the Cy Young voting in 1982, then returned to the regression in ’83 and ’84. He did, however, have a final highlight up his sleeve, picking up a win in relief in Game 3 of the 1983 World Series, his and the franchise’s last title.
He’s carved out another successful chapter in his Orioles career as a broadcaster, but his mark came on the mound, as one of the best to ever do it on one of the best teams to ever do it. His place in Cooperstown was never in doubt; his spot this high up on this list wasn’t, either.