America’s First Sports Bar, Sportsman’s Park Enjoyed Most Major League Baseball Games In History
By Tom Palermo // October 17, 2017
HOME TO BOTH CARDINALS AND BROWNS
ABOVE VIDEO: America’s Original Sports Bar was located adjacent to the left field gates of Sportsman Park in St. Louis — home at the time to both the Cardinals and Browns. (ketc9 video)
A FATHER’S DAY TRIBUTE
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: In honor of Father’s Day, we felt it would be fitting to republish this feature that highlights our father, and Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, which we feel was “America’s Original Sports Bar.” The family-owned business was located just across from the street from the left field gates of the park at Spring and Sullivan Avenues. Sportsman’s Park was home to both the Browns (now Baltimore Orioles) and Cardinals and played host to more Major League Baseball games than any other stadium in history.
Beginning in 1927, our Dad, Vincent “Jimmy Palermo” spent 15 years with the St. Louis Browns inside baseball’s most romantic era. During those years the game featured players that fill the Hall of Fame today — and he knew them all.
– Tom Palermo, Publisher & CEO; and Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-in-Chief
ST LOUIS, MISSOURI – Years before the advent of Buffalo wings, satellite hookups or wide-screen television, Palermo’s neighborhood tavern could take the title as “America’s Original Sports Bar.”
Always a comfortable, friendly meeting place since it’s founding in 1933, the tavern took on its “Sports Bar” personality right after World War II.
The tavern was opened at the intersection of Spring and Sullivan Avenues, and adjacent to the left field gates of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis — home to both the Cardinals and Browns — the day prohibition ended in 1933.
Prior to that, the Palermo’s had owned and operated a confectionery and restaurant at that location since 1923.
Because of its proximity to the ballpark, the tavern, and confectionery store before it, had always been a gathering place for sports figures and fans.
In the 1930s, patrons could listen to the Browns or Cardinals games on the Philco radio while they enjoyed something from the sidewalk grill like a ballpark dog, burger or even pork chop. Also on the menu were home-cooked Sicilian meals prepared from scratch.
And, of course, the Original Sports Bar offered beers from nearly a dozen breweries that re-opened after Prohibition.
CHIPPING COAL FOR A NICKEL A TON
By 1946, Paul Palermo, the proprietor, had a long career in what was then called the “saloon” business.
A Sicilian immigrant, he had worked in the coal mines of Southern Illinois in the 1890s as a child.
At age 12, he took care of the mules that hauled the coal carts through the mines, and by the time he was 15 he was chipping coal for a nickel a ton. Paul figured he didn’t have much of a future in the mines when a cave-in killed his partner.
In 1914 Paul moved from Willisville, Illinois to East St. Louis to open a saloon along “Whiskey Shoot,” which was a conglomeration of saloons and other establishments for adult pursuits located on the east side of Eads Bridge.
His customers were all blue-collar types who worked in the nearby mills, or on the barges that plied the Mississippi River.
Business was good for Paul as he acquired five more saloons along the “shoot” during a four-year period.
In 1918 he sold his holdings in East St. Louis and opened a saloon at Cardinal and Easton in St. Louis. Although the saloon did well, the end was near as congress passed the Volstead Act in October 1919.
With prohibition slated to begin in 1920, Paul decided to open confectionery stores, which were sort of a precursor to today’s neighborhood convience stores like 7-11.
FIRST HOT DOG STAND OUTSIDE SPORTSMAN’S PARK
In February of 1923, Paul and his wife, Mary, purchased the property at 3701 Sullivan, a two-story brick structure across the street from the ballpark.
The front half of the bottom floor was used as the confectionery store. The rear was converted into living quarters to accommodate Paul, Mary, their two sons Joe and Jimmy, and Paul’s mother.
Paul and his 11-year old son Joe built the first hot dog stand outside of Sportsman’s Park in April of 1923 in preparation for the Browns and Cardinals baseball season. Paul designed the elaborate grill himself, which could cook about 100 hot dogs at a time.
Small dogs sold for 5 cents, large were 10 cents. Sodas were 5 cents. Also for sale were cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco and gum – which were displayed on the counter.
On a good day the stand would take in $25 to $35, but the first $100 day was during the 1926 World Series when the Cardinals played the Yankees.
Mary ran the confectionery store, which sold everything needed in an early 20th century city dwelling including dry goods, canned goods, bread, eggs, cigarettes, cigars, candy, ice cream and even hardware items.
Ball players and coaches from both leagues frequented the establishment mainly for Mary’s cooking, and during prohibition, for Paul’s excellent homemade wines.
Major leaguers also dropped in regularly to buy smokes, chewing tobacco and gum because it was cheaper in the store than in the clubhouse.
During the rebuilding of the area’s surrounding streets and improvements to Sportsman’s Park in 1925 and 1926, Mary added a small restaurant inside the confectionery to accommodate all the construction workers.
The store was remodeled to allow for four tables and a long shelf attached to the wall for stand-up patrons.
Then in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a directive to Congress urging members to modify the Volstead Act to allow for the legalization of beer.
Congress accommodated FDR, and on April 7 beer became legal for the first time in more than 13 years. Part of Palermo’s Confectionery was converted to a tavern and opened that same month.
By the time World War II ended Paul had experienced some health problems and Jimmy had spent the last four years in the Army.
That left only Joe to look after the family’s five taverns. Upon returning from Europe in March of 1946, Jimmy expected to go back to his professional umpiring career. But because his father was ill, and Joe needed his help, he joined the family business.
ABOVE VIDEO: Brian Clarke’s song about Sportsmans Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns.
Business boomed in the post-war years as the Cardinals drew large crowds and nearby Carter Carburetor had shifts running 24 hours a day. To accommodate all the workers, the tavern opened at 7 a.m. The early birds enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and many had a shot or two before clocking in.
It was during the late 1940s that the tavern began to assume a sports motif. It all started when Jimmy was given several letter-sized black and white bust photos of the Browns players.
Because Jimmy had been part of the St. Louis Browns organization from 1927 to 1941, he had many good friends (and customers) who worked for both the Cardinals and Browns – including the players and coaches.
FAVORITE GATHERING PLACE
Once a few of the photos were hung, the tavern’s walls rapidly filled up with framed pictures of many of the Browns and Cardinal players of the day.
Then in 1947, the tavern became a favorite gathering place every Friday night to have a beer and watch the fights on the newest technology – a 12-inch Farnsworth television.
Thereafter, Palermo’s Tavern, already a recognized stop-off before or after a Browns or Cardinals game, became a destination to listen to, or watch, sporting events while enjoying a favorite brew.
In the early 1950s, the tavern was remodeled and eventually decorated with game-used equipment from all 16 Major League teams including uniforms, caps, gloves, balls and hundreds of cracked bats.
All of the items were brought over from the ballpark by Freddie Buchholtz, a good friend of Jimmy’s who worked as batboy for the Browns and Cardinals from 1950-1955.
After the remodel in 1950 the house draft beer was Griesedieck. But when Gussie Busch purchased the Cardinals in February 1953, the house beer was changed to Budweiser.
Gussie, a consummate marketer, enjoyed stopping by the tavern several times a year with his entourage and would shake hands and buy everybody a few rounds of the drink of their choice.
Palermo’s Tavern, a forerunner in establishing the sports bar format, offered all of the popular games of the day including billiards, table shuffleboard, pinball and once a week in the kitchen – poker. When a sporting event wasn’t on television or radio, a jukebox belted out a favorite tune.
By 1956 the tavern offered televisions in both far corners, and one over the bar. Even though many people had their own sets by this time, Palermo’s was still the place to be to enjoy a pleasant meal, cold beer and good friends.
Although the building stands today, and is fittingly still a neighborhood tavern, the end for America’s Original Sports Bar came when the Cardinals moved to their new downtown stadium and many of the long-time patrons relocated to the suburbs.
When a helicopter symbolically carried home plate to the new Busch Memorial Stadium after the last game at Sportsman’s Park on May 12, 1966, it signified the end of an era for St. Louis baseball and America’s Original Sports Bar.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A resident of Brevard County, Florida for the past 35 years, Palermo has more than 39 years experience in the media business as a publisher, editor and industry consultant. During his career in both corporate and small business entrepreneurial environments, he has founded dozens of local, state, regional and national print and digital publications.
Palermo has written thousands of articles and columns for daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, trade publications and websites – and hosted a weekly radio talk show for seven years. In 2005, Palermo founded Maverick Multimedia, Inc., which specializes in media-specific IT development, niche multimedia publishing and devising comprehensive strategic business and marketing plans.
Palermo is also co-founder of Brevard Production Inc., an organization that owns and produces some of the most significant and compelling annual special events in the region including the Central Humanitarian Awards, the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame, Space Coast Public Service Awards, the Space Coast State Fair, Cocoa Beach Spring Training, the Port Canaveral Seafood & Music Festival, the Space Coast Oktoberfest, Space Coast Home Shows, Space Coast Health Fair and many more.
The founder and president of the Space Coast Publishers Guild, Palermo works diligently on behalf of his industry in regard to innovation, and in upholding the highest standards of integrity.
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