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Jimmy Palermo, during a historic 7-day span in May, 1939, saw the meteoric rise of Williams and tragic decline of Gehrig.


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 "I don't think he noticed the tears in my eyes as he very slowly walked out of the visitor's clubhouse at Sportsman's Park for what would be the last time."

IRONMAN LOU GEHRIG's incredible streak of  2,130 consecutive games came to an end in May, 1939. After Lou took himself out of the lineup on May 2nd, the Yanks then traveled to St. Louis to play the Browns where Jimmy Palermo helped dress and bid a final farewell to his old friend.

“THE SPLENDID SPLINTER” made it look easy, but it was Ted William's super-human commitment that earned him a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

THE DECLINE OF GEHRIG AND RISE OF WILLIAMS: Seven unforgetable days in May, 1939

That historic week saw the beginning of a great career and, sadly, the beginning of the end of another  

VINCENT "JIMMY" PALERMO in April, 1939 at age 18, top, and today, above.
PART ONE: May 7 - 9, 1939

Red Sox rookie Ted Williams gets "hung on the wall"

Reflecting back on my life during those wonderful years in which I was fortunate enough to be involved in the everyday events of Major League baseball in St. Louis and befriend the Browns, Cardinals and many of the ballplayers from the rest of the league, I remember one week in early May of 1939 that stands out as my most memorable, and a harbinger of baseball history.

Although Franklin D. Roosevelt was slowly bringing America out of the throws of the depression in 1939, the Browns continued to stagger financially, as well as on the field. A civic-minded group of St. Louis businessmen, lead by investment banker Donald L. Barnes, purchased the team in 1937 hoping to put the financially crippled franchise back on its feet and preserve American League baseball in St. Louis.  They sunk a considerable sum of money into upgrading the team and developing a better farm system.  

BILL DEWITT was the general manager of the St. Louis Browns in 1939.

However, the Browns continued to languish in the second division and attendance for Brownie games hit rock bottom in 1939.  Even with injected capital of $100,000 from Barnes and his other nine directors in May of 1939, the general manager, Bill DeWitt, could barely make payroll. 

Operating on a hand-to-mouth basis there was very little in the budget for maintenance of Sportsman’s Park much less player amenities that were enjoyed at other ballparks like Yankee Stadium, Fenway and Cleveland Municipal Stadium.  The visitors’ clubhouse was old, dark, damp and cramped.  We kept it spick-and-span clean, but because of limited built-in locker space, any rookie who traveled to St. Louis stood a real good chance of hanging his clothes on a nail.

BOBBY DOERR was a third-year second baseman with Boston in 1939 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in1986.
'Congenial' Red Sox hit town on their first western swing of the 1939 season

The Boston Red Sox, one of my favorite teams because of the congeniality and generosity of guys like Joe Cronin, Jimmie Foxx and Bobby Doerr, came into St. Louis in early May on their first western swing of the season. The Sox were coming into the May 7th opener with the Browns on a seven game winning streak and leading the league by one game over theYankees.  

I arrived at the visitor's clubhouse around 8 a.m. that day and, along with co-workers and good friends, Red Kern and Jim Cavanaugh, began to organize the place for the Red Sox's arrival later that day. The Boston trunks came in just as we were finishing up, and then the real work began.
HALL OF FAMERS: Jimmie Foxx, left and Ted Williams were two of the greatest hitters of all time.

We first had to unpack the trunks and then place each player's equipment and uniforms in their respective lockers. If there were any wet uniforms they went directly into the big gas dryer and any dirty shoes had to be cleaned and shined by the clubhouse crew. Dirty uniforms, socks and jocks had to be sent to the laundry.

We had 28 lockers to accommodate the manager, two coaches and 25 players. In the early part of the season teams were allowed a few rookies, but we didn't have any locker space for them. To accommodate the overflow we had a make shift place on the back wall of the clubhouse, so we designated that area for the rookies to dress. Because this area was no more than a few nails in the wall to hang uniforms on and a spot for their trunks we dubbed this "hung on the wall."

The Boston trainer arrived at the clubhouse first and unpacked his own trunk in the training room.  The training room accommodations and amenities were limited, especially in comparison to today's standards. The room had one table for rubdowns, two chairs and a table for medical equipment. 

We went about our business of doling out baseballs for batting practice, filling the Cocoa Cola icebox with soda, juices and milk and a long list of other things. I then hung up the swindle sheet, which I had to monitor and balance when the team left town. Red and Jim got all the bats and equipment ready to be taken out to the field as I took all the orders for everything else like food, drinks, messages, etc.

"Where the hell is my locker!?"

JOE CRONIN was the player - manager for the Red Sox in 1939.


As the players started to come in I was greeted by Jimmie Foxx, Joe Cronin, Doc Cramer, Jim Tabor, Bobby Doerr, Elden Auker and Denny Galehouse. Accompanying these veterans was a tall, skinny kid, about my age, with a cocky gait.

He scanned the clubhouse for a minute and then said in a loud voice, "Where the hell is my locker!?" 

I asked him his name and he became even more agitated, but finally said, "Williams."  I yelled back to Jim and asked where he put Williams.  Jim, working in the rear of the clubhouse, yelled back, "We’ve got two rookies ‘on the wall,’ Sayles and Williams.”  Billy Sayles was a right-handed pitcher who would see only minimal action in a four year lackluster Major League career.

ROOKIE SENSATION: Williams was the most consistent hitter in big league baseball.
Ted, not immediately realizing what being “on the wall” meant, followed me to the back of the clubhouse. When he saw his uniform hanging on a nail, and his baseball shoes sitting on top of his trunk, his famous temper flared and he impetuously, in no uncertain terms, threatened that I had better have a locker for him the next time the Sox came to town.

Later that day Williams, who was hitting .350 coming into the game, was one for four, driving a Bobo Newsom pitch on a line off of the right center field wall for a two run double.  Ted had the sweetest swing and best eye that I ever saw.  However, the Red Sox streak came to an end when they could manage only seven hits off of Newsom and lost 6-3 to the hapless Browns. 

The second game of the series was rained out.  In the third game, Boston handed the Browns one of their 111 losses that season, 10-8. Williams contributed to the offensive barrage with a towering three-run homer onto Grand Avenue and my good friend, Jimmie “Double X” Foxx, lined a two-run circuit clout off of the scoreboard in left. 

TED WILLIAMS' famous No. 9 never again hung on a nail after that trip into Sportsman's Park in May 1939.

When the Red Sox came back into St. Louis on their second western swing on June 8 they were nipping at the first place Yankees’ heels, and the Browns, under the inept managing of Fred Haney, were mired in the cellar 25 games off the pace. Ted’s average had dropped to .285, but he was second in the league with 38 RBIs and was the talk of the American League.  With “The Kid” hitting fifth behind Bobby Doerr, Doc Cramer, Joe Vosmick and “Double X,” the Sox had one of the most prolific lineups in baseball.

When Ted came into the locker room I personally escorted him to his locker.  When he saw that I had put him between Foxx and Lefty Grove, two stars of that era and future Hall of Famers, he had a grin on his kisser that extended from ear to ear.  We became good friends thereafter.


JIMMY PALERMO threw batting practice to Williams often after a game.
Ted went on to have one of the best rookie years in the history of baseball.  He lead the Major Leagues in RBIs with 145, tied for the Major League lead in extra base hits with 86, lead the American League in total bases with 344, was second in the American League in runs scored with 131, second in walks (Harlan Clift, one of my all time favorite Brownies, was first) with 107, fourth in slugging percentage at .609 (team-mate Foxx lead with .694), had 185 hits, stroked 31 homers and hit .327.

Williams was a perfectionist, the quintessential student of hitting and drove himself mercilessly to improve.  During the 1939 and 1940 season it was not uncommon for him to ask me to stay around late after a game to throw extra batting practice to him.  There was always a nuance of his stride or swing that he thought could be improved.  

“The Splendid Splinter” seemed to make it all look so easy, but that classic swing and the havoc he rained on American League pitching those two years and throughout the rest of his Hall of Fame career were the result of an almost super-human commitment and work ethic.

PART TWO: May 10 - 13, 1939

LOU GEHRIG: Icon, Superstar, Gentleman and a GENUINE AMERICAN HERO

IRONMAN Lou Gehrig’s streak of  2,130 consecutive games came to an end on the 2nd of May in Detroit, above, when Lou took himself out of the line-up because he thought his puzzling physical weakness was a detriment to the team and he needed time to “get in better shape.”

In striving to do his best, no matter what the circumstances, many people even today regard Lou as an icon and valuable role model.

Gehrig's reputation for being one of the strongest and best conditioned players was surpassed only by his honesty, courage and modesty

'When "The Iron-Horse" walked into the visitors' locker room at Sportsman's Park on May 10th I barely recognized him.'

That memorable week in May of 1939 saw the beginning of a great career and, sadly, the beginning of the end of another as the mighty New York Yankees followed the Red Sox series and came into town on May 10th.  

GEHRIG's WORDS of hope, grace, and humility on July 4, 1939, as he bid farewell to his fans, and his team, has often been referred to as the game’s Gettysburg Address.

The following speech is included in William Safire’s "Lend Me Your Ears," a collection of the world’s greatest speeches throughout history.

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

"I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?

"Sure I’m lucky.

"Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?

"Sure I’m lucky.

"When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift - that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies -- that’s something.

"When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter -- that’s something.

"When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body -- it’s a blessing.

"When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed -- that’s the finest I know.

"So, I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."

- Henry Louis Gehrig
Although the Bronx Bombers finished the 1939 season 17 games ahead of the second place Red Sox, they were in a virtual dead heat with Boston in May.  Everyone knew that the great Lou Gehrig’s streak of  2,130 consecutive games had come to an end on the 2nd of May in Detroit when Lou took himself out of the line-up because he thought his puzzling physical weakness was a detriment to the team and he needed time to “get in better shape.”

He had only four hits and one RBI in the first eight games of the season and was admittedly very fatigued after every game.  During my time with the Browns from 1926 through the 1938 season I had never seen anyone else play first base for the Yankees. 

JIMMY PALERMO, above, and Lou Gehrig, below, in 1939.

Gehrig had been an icon of all of the great Yankee teams throughout the 20s and 30s.  His reputation for being one of the physically strongest and best conditioned players in baseball was surpassed only by his honesty, courage and modesty.  He was simply one of the nicest and most beloved ball players that I ever met, and a true gentleman. 

I had last seen Lou in September of 1938.  That year his average dipped to .295 with 170 hits, 29 home runs and 114 RBIs, a year that most Major League ballplayers would kill for.  But, for Lou, it may have been the harbinger of things to come. 

When “The Iron-Horse” walked into the visitors’ clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park on May 10th I barely recognized him. 

The aura of health and strength that his 6’ 1” 205-210-pound physique had previously always radiated was gone, replaced by a gaunt 190-pound shadow of his former self.  It seemed that Lou was moving in slow-motion, and his previous fluid and natural athleticism had been replaced by alternating deliberate and tentative action.   

He dressed for both games of the series, but seemed to have a difficult time even pulling on his famous number 4.  Babe Dahlgren had replaced him in the line-up.  “Buster” as Lou's teammates fondly called him, didn’t play against the Browns and never got back into the line-up again.  

After the final game of the series in which the Yankees lived up to their moniker of  “The Bronx Bombers” stomping the Browns 7-1 and 15-8, all the Yankee players came into the clubhouse to prepare for their trip back East. I had all their trunks packed with the help of Red Kern and Jim Cavanaugh. 

As the players left, they paid their swindle sheet tabs, plus tip. (The Yankees were not only the best on the field, but were among the best tippers too!). Because it took time for Lou to dress himself due to his deteriorating physical condition, he and I were alone in the clubhouse.

CLASS ACT: Of all the players in baseball history, none possessed as much talent and humility as Lou Gehrig. His accomplishments on the field made him an authentic American hero - and his tragic early death made him a legend.

After everyone was gone except Lou, he called me over to his locker which was the second one from the door. He was trying to put on his shoes, which I had shined many times for him in the past. 

"Jimmy, can you help me with my shoes," he asked as he tried in vain to put them on. 

He just couldn't bend over from his stool far enough to even slip them on.  My hands shook as I loosened the laces and then slipped both shoes on his feet, one at a time. He smiled at me and said "thanks."   

Then, after Lou attempted to tie them himself and as I stood by, he looked up and said, "Jimmy, I think you'd better tie them for me too - because I just can't."  

My hands still shaking, I tied each of his shoelaces.  He smiled at me again, drew a breath and rose from the stool.  He paid his swindle sheet bill, said "thanks" and gave me a $10 tip.  I don't think he noticed the tears in my eyes as he very slowly walked out of the visitor's clubhouse at Sportsman's Park for what would be the last time.

LOU GEHRIG was the first sports figure in American history to have his jersey number retired.

Since he was late in leaving, and walking so slowly, I followed him out and told him I'd get a cab so he wouldn't have to walk down to the cabstand on Grand Avenue.  Most of his teammates had already departed for Union Station to catch the train to Philadelphia.

I summoned Eddie Moran, the Black and White taxi dispatcher, and asked him to have a cab pick up Lou outside the press gate. Lou and I had a couple of minutes alone together before the cab pulled up. 

Always a polite and thoughtful man, he asked how my mother and father were.  When the cab arrived I opened the door for him. He shook my hand and said, "See you next trip Jimmy, and thanks for the help."  I never saw him in person again.

I returned to the empty clubhouse and cried. Baseball's gentle giant - a great man and what a player!

LOU GEHRIG, the "Iron Horse" of baseball, who was forced to the bench by amyotrophic lateral scherosis after playing 2,130 consecutive games, is touched by fans demonstration as he is acclaimed in a manner unrivaled in baseball history. Upwards of 75,000 jammed Yankee Stadium to honor Lou. He is shown here - handkerchief to his face - deeply moved by the ovation they gave him.

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