Happy Birthday Dad! Beginning in 1927, Jimmy Palermo Spent 15 Years Inside Baseball’s Most Romantic Era
By Vincent "Jimmy" Palermo // September 20, 2020
EDITOR & PUBLISHER’S NOTE:
In honor of our Dad’s 100th birthday on September 20, 1920, we felt it would be fitting to republish this feature that highlights our father, who grew up in the shadow of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis during the Golden Era of baseball.
The Palermo family owned a tavern and residence located across 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 Baseball Hall of Fame today — and he knew them all.
Although Dad died in December 2010, and penned the below story in 2005, the many stories and recollections of the Golden Era of baseball we heard first-hand throughout our lives are still fresh in our minds – and we hope you will enjoy a few of them too. We love and miss you Dad.
– Tom Palermo, Publisher & CEO; and Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-in-Chief
Field of Dreams, a movie released in 1989, is considered by many to be the definitive motion picture about the mystique and glamour of baseball during the ‘Golden Era.’ Ray Kinsella’s Field, just a holler from his Iowa farmhouse’s wrap-around porch, featured ghosts of legends acting out fantasy that was invisible to all but a few.
I was a lot luckier than Ray. My Field was one of reality. So authentic in fact that it played host to more major league games than any other Field in the history of the game.
Although my Field had the same proximity as Ray’s – literally right across the street – my Field was inhabited by living legends that played for real in front of millions of fans.
And, when these flesh and blood players finished up their workday, they retreated to a brick and mortar dugout and clubhouse where they showed they had the same strengths and weaknesses of any common man.
Beginning in 1923, I lived in the shadow of Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, at Spring and Sullivan Avenues and adjacent to the left-field gates. From the time I was 6 years old in 1927 until just before World War II in 1941, I was a part of the St. Louis Browns organization.
I KNEW THEM ALL
My first job with the Browns was as mascot of the team. At the age of 9, I was promoted to batboy, and by age 17, I was managing the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park – home to both the Browns and Cardinals.
What a job! My duties throughout my 15-year career consisted of taking care of all the player’s needs, which, by the way, included signing their autographs for them (how many of those balls “signed” by big-league players are real?).
During those years the American League featured players that fill the Hall of Fame today – and I knew them all, many quite well.
I also had an opportunity to become friendly with many of the Cardinal players of that era. They would frequent my family’s confectionery store, which was conveniently located across the street from the park, and on the way of their three-block walk back to the Fairgrounds Hotel where a number of them lived during the season.
Those were the days when baseball was not for the faint-hearted. Players wore flannel uniforms in 100+ degree heat, the brush-back was an accepted pitch and violent slides into second base with sharpened spikes raised were commonplace. There was no night baseball, and don’t forget about those gloves, which were not much bigger than the player’s hand.
Nothing illustrates the differences between the contemporary and Golden Era players better than the fact that most of yesteryear’s players had other jobs during the off-season.
For example, my good friends Red Kress and Oscar Melillo both found it necessary to work in other professions when not playing ball. Kress, a shortstop for the Browns in the ’20s and ’30s was an electrician during the off-season, and Melillo, the Brown’s second baseman, sold real estate.
My father Paul, who my brother Joe and I called “Pop,” and my mother Mary, purchased the property at 3701 Sullivan Ave. in February of 1923. Mom and Pop were your typical hardy and hard-working immigrants of the early 20th century.
Pop worked in the coal mines of Illinois as a child. Mom was lucky to make it to the United States from Sicily because her vessel was rocked by a violent Atlantic storm that killed the captain and almost sank the ship.
Only 17, and with most of her worldly belongings lost to the storm, Mom arrived two weeks late – landing at Ellis Island in March of 1911. Mom and Pop met only briefly before being wed as a result of an arranged marriage, which was the norm at that time. The patriarchs of the Palermo and Maniscalco families thought they would be a good match, and I suppose they were right.
I was born in St. Louis on September 20, 1920, and was 2-years old when my family moved into the two-story brick structure located across the street from Sportsman’s Park northwest corner.
The front half of the bottom floor was used as a confectionery store, while the rear was converted into living quarters to accommodate Mom, Pop, my 11-year old brother Joe, Grandmother Palermo and me.
Spartan by today’s standards, we had two bedrooms, one for Mom and Pop, and one for Joe and me. The bathroom was in the basement and Grandmother Palermo slept on a cot in the kitchen, which was the center of the family activities and featured a pot-belly heating coal stove. Upstairs was an apartment with two bedrooms, living room, a kitchen and a bathroom, which Pop rented out for $30 a month.
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FIRST HOT DOG STAND
My first memory of Sullivan Ave. was when Pop and 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.
Pop designed and built the elaborate grill, 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.
My Mom 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. The Browns and Cardinal players 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, Mom started a small restaurant inside the confectionery to accommodate all the construction workers.
The confectionery was remodeled to allow for four tables and a long shelf attached to the wall for stand-up patrons. Mom could feed about 30 people at a time and worked like a demon. Every one of the workers who ate there really enjoyed her cooking – especially her Sicilian dishes – and money was rolling in.
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At about that same time, I was in kindergarten at Columbia school when I met my first big league ballplayer: Jimmy Austin, a coach for the Browns.
Austin would drop into the store to pick up Peter Hauptmann cigars, which Mrs. Austin wouldn’t allow Jimmy to smoke in their suite at the Fairgrounds Hotel. Every time I saw Austin in the store I would ask him for a ball and he would always politely say, “Maybe next time Jimmy.”
The second ballplayer I ever met was Jim Bottomley who would come by to have some of my Mom’s Sicilian-cooked meals. Bottomley, a first baseman for the Cardinals that year, and I were to become life-long friends.
One day during the 1926 season Bottomley brought Flint Rehm over to enjoy my Mom’s cooking, but what Rehm really wanted was to taste Pop’s homemade wine. It was prohibition and Rehm loved to drink. Pop had been a saloon owner for many years before prohibition began in 1920 and was well known for his talents as a winemaker.
KNOTHOLE CARD, ’26 SERIES AN EYE OPENER
When I turned 6 in September of ’26 I was old enough to get my knothole card and I enjoyed going to see the Cardinal games after school. One afternoon while watching the game in the left-field grandstand where the knotholers sat, a rowdy kid dropped a soda bottle, which shattered and cut me just above my left eye.
A wide-eyed usher saw all the blood and rushed me to the Card’s clubhouse where Dr. Weaver, the Card’s trainer, was working on pitcher Bill Sherdel. Weaver put in three stitches to close the cut and about that time the game had ended and the Cardinal players started coming into the clubhouse to shower and go home.
Jesse Haines saw me with a bandage on my head and asked me what happened, and I told him. Haines was a great pitcher and I was so nervous I was crying — not for being in the clubhouse, but what my Dad would say when I got home!
The Cardinals won their first-ever National League pennant in 1926 and that’s when I realized that big-league baseball was so popular, and attracted very large crowds.
The Cards were in the World Series and the town went crazy as fans lined up for tickets two days before the game. Business for the hot dog stand was never better, selling out of everything, and Mom was awful busy in her confectionery store too.
The Cardinals defeated the powerful Yankees four games to three to win their first World Championship. Pitcher Pete Alexander was the star of the series for the Cardinals as he fanned the Yank’s Tony Lazzeri to win the clincher. Alexander ended the series with two victories and a save.
‘LUCKY LITTLE DAGO KID’
Tuesday, July 5th, 1927 dawned as a typical hot, muggy St. Louis summer morning. Even though school was out, I arose early to help my Mom prepare to open the confectionery, which opened at 8 a.m. My job was to make sure that the trash was squared away and the floors were swept. I also fed the dog and helped Grandmother Palermo in the kitchen.
Jimmy Austin, back to coach for the Browns that season, continued to make the confectionery a regular stop-off to pick up his Peter Hauptman cigars on his way to the park each early afternoon the team was in town. And, as was my habit, I pestered him for a ball. He looked me over as he lit up his cigar, winked at my mom and said, “Alright Jimmy, come on. Come with me across the street and I’ll get you a ball.”
After being refused so many times his answer caught me totally off guard. He asked my Mom if he could take me to the ballpark. She thanked him and told me to behave. Austin held my hand as we crossed the street and entered the ballpark through the left field gates.
In the Brown’s clubhouse, all the players were getting their uniforms on and preparing to go out on the field to take batting practice and warm up for the game against the Tigers. Austin sat me down on a stool in the middle of the room, told me to be good and that he’d be right back.
I was in awe as the players walked back and forth, some in nothing but their jockstraps. Red Kress, obviously thinking it a bit odd for a neighborhood 6-year old kid to be sitting in the middle of the clubhouse before a game, asked me what I was doing there. I told him that Mr. Austin had promised me a ball and would be back shortly. Little did I know that Red and I would become real buddies as the years went by.
Austin finally came back and told me to follow him down into the dugout. Boy, was I scared – but what a thrill! I watched all the Browns players working out and then Austin sat me on the dugout’s back bench. About that time the Brown’s manager, Dan Howley, came in the dugout and stared at me sitting there and asked Austin, “What’s that kid doing here?”
“He’s the little Dago kid from the corner confectionery,” Austin told Howley. “I’ve promised him a ball for the last year.”
The Browns were in a slump and Howley, a tough old Irishman said, “OK, let him stay, maybe he’ll give us some luck – but make sure he doesn’t move from his seat.”
Lucky for me, the Browns crushed the Tigers that day – scoring 17 runs in the process. Howley, pleased with his team’s performance, asked Austin if he could bring that “lucky little Dago kid” back the next day saying, “Who knows, maybe he’s our lucky mascot.”
Pop was at the game that day keeping an eye on me from the stands, and as I was transferred from Austin’s care to my Dad’s, Austin asked Pop if I could come back for the next game. Pop, seeing the excitement in my eyes readily agreed. The Browns won again and I became their official mascot until 1930 when I was promoted to batboy.
Although my uniform was makeshift that first year, I was the envy of every kid in my neighborhood. My dad bought me a little pinstriped baseball jersey, and the Browns found me a team cap to wear. My job as mascot was to help the batboy, Lefty Lydon, with his chores and to do odd jobs around the clubhouse like delivering messages and picking up packages. My pay was one used baseball for every game.
FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE BABE
Shortly after becoming mascot, New York was in town and Tommy Bramell, the trainer of the Browns, sent me over to the Yank’s clubhouse with a message for their trainer. As I entered the visitor’s clubhouse, who do I see? The Babe himself! I had heard about Ruth many times and he was larger than life!
The Babe was seated in front of his locker, shirtless, looking over some bats that were just delivered from Louisville where most bats were made. He looked up, acknowledged me and then said, “Hey kid, go ask Tommy if he has a bat bone.”
Ruth was a great doctorer of his bats. He would put them in the big gas clothes dryer in the clubhouse to take a bit of moisture out of the new wood and then used the bone to harden the seams in the head of his bats.
I didn’t know what a bat bone was at the time, but I left the Yankee’s clubhouse at a sprint and ran back to the Brown’s clubhouse as fast as I could. I breathlessly told Tommy, “I just saw Babe Ruth and he wants to know if you have a bat bone.”
Tommy said OK and looked in several places before coming up with a large bone that players used to harden their bats. I hurried right back to the Babe and gave him the bone. The Babe smiled and said, “Thanks kid – what’s your name?”
When I told him “Jimmy Palermo,” he said, “Oh, a Little Dag!” I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but when he told me to reach into his locker and “get yourself a dollar,” I was flabbergasted. Man! A dollar was some tip! From then on he called me “Little Dag.”
When the Yankees left town, Ruth would give all the batboys, mascots and kid helpers $1. We all sure loved him, and I would get to know the Babe very well as the years passed and I grew into manhood.
As mascot and batboy I was paid one used baseball for each game – two for doubleheaders. Sometimes I got an extra ball for doing chores like delivering messages and packages to the main office. And, occasionally, one of the ballplayers would slip me a ball. I gave every ball to my mother, and she would clean them up with milk and put them in a showcase in the confectionery.
She was known all through the St. Louis area as the “Baseball Lady.” She sold them for 50 to 75 cents for the used ones and $1 to $1.50 for new ones I got on special occasions.
Every little town in the area had a baseball team that played on weekends, as did the small towns in Eastern Missouri and across the river in Illinois – and they were all customers. My mother, unbeknownst to me, put all the money from baseball sales in my account. I was allowed 50 cents a week. Picture shows were 10 cents, hamburgers were 15 cents and sodas were 5 cents, so 50 cents went a long way during the depression.
PROMOTED TO BATBOY
In 1930, Bill Killerfer became the manager of the Browns and Lefty Lydon departed to take a job to make some cash money (he was paid in used balls too). So, after three years as mascot I was promoted to batboy of the Browns.
That same year, the Browns and Senators swapped future Hall of Famers: Heine Manush for Goose Goslin. Both were great hitters, but Goslin hit with more power. Goose and I hit it off right away and shared many experiences together in the subsequent years until his death in 1971. He was the highest-paid Brown ever at $30,000 a year, but he’d always say “Come on Jimmy, let’s warm-up,” and we would play catch often.
Goslin had three good years with the Browns and was traded back to Washington after the 1932 season. I sure missed him, but the Browns got a great center fielder in the trade, Sam West.
FIRST ALL-STAR GAME
West was one of the greatest fielders I’ve ever seen, and not too bad at the plate either. He was the only Browns player selected to play in the first All-Star Game in July of 1933, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Chicago was hosting the World’s Fair and the game was actually an exhibition for the fair.
I remember putting a shine on his baseball shoes so bright that you could see yourself, and he promised to bring me something back from the game. Everyone was happy for Sam and hoped he would get in the game, which he did – in the ninth inning.
Sam was good to his word and brought me back a baseball from the game with every All-star player’s signature. I thought that was great and took my autographed ball back to my mother. Not thinking, she put it in with the other balls for sale.
A couple of days later, I wanted to show it to some of my friends and asked my Mom for it. She said that she sold it, and I hollered, “Oh, no Mom!” She told me not to holler and said she got $1.50 for it. Just imagine what that ball would be worth today.
But, I would bet that ball was used in a pickup game in some small town in Missouri or Illinois.