SABR

Joe Palmisano

This article was written by Mark Armour.

More than 25% of all major league players have careers of fewer than 20 games. Most of these men have a story, in a way that all people--your grandfather, your great-aunt, even you--have a story, and their major league careers are often just a footnote in a life well led. Many of these stories are lost, but the story of Joe Palmisano, who played 19 games for the 1931 Athletics, is less lost because his grandchildren have chosen to keep it alive. Teresa Palmisano, his granddaughter, a two-time All-American basketball player at the University of California-Berkeley in the early 1990s, went on to play professionally in Europe for several years. An opportunity to play for a team in Termini Imerese, Italy, from where her family had descended, led her on a mission to obtain information about her grandparents and great grandparents, a mission that eventually drew in other members of her family. Much of what we know of her grandfather, Papa Joe, can be told due to their efforts.

Antonio Palmisano and the former Agata Polito left Termini Imerese, Sicily, around the turn of the last century, settling in the town of West Point, Georgia, about 80 miles southwest of Atlanta. The Palmisanos had two children (Leon and Liboria) in Sicily, and two more (Joseph and Josephine) in their new hometown. For many years Antonio ran "Palmisano's," a corner fruit stand and grocery store in West Point, and he remained one of the most popular men in the town. The children all grew up in West Point, where their parents remained for the rest of their lives.

Joseph Palmisano, the third child, was born on November 19, 1902, in West Point, Georgia. While his parents were learning to assimilate to their new culture, Joseph was doing what most American boys of his generation were doing: playing sandlot baseball. He and his siblings had obligations to help out in their family's store, but in his remaining leisure time he played sports.

Palmisano earned a baseball scholarship to Georgia Tech, which he attended from 1921 to 1925, majoring in commerce (i.e., business), before leaving in November 1925 without a degree. He was a three-year starter at catcher, hitting .297 over 229 career at bats, serving as captain his last year. Legend has it that one of these Georgia Tech clubs played an exhibition match against a team of professionals, including Ty Cobb, and that Palmisano threw the legendary Georgia native out more than once when Cobb tried to steal. Ty would have been in his late 30s at the time, and no longer much of a base stealer, but it would have been a feather in the cap of a collegiate catcher nonetheless.

After his third collegiate season Palmisano had an extended tryout with the Cleveland Indians, spending a few weeks with the club. His workout caught the eye of Browns' manager George Sisler, who told a writer, "He has one of the best arms for a young catcher that has shown in the majors recently." He never played for the Indians, though the club may have maintained an "option" on him for a year or two before releasing him. Palmisano's professional career began for the Wilson (North Carolina) Bugs in the Class-B Virginia League, for whom he hit .296 in 76 games at catcher. The following year he returned to Wilson and hit .288 while catching a league-high 134 contests.

Throughout the first several years of his career, Palmisano was listed in box scores and record books as Joseph Palm. In fact, many modern sources (e.g., Marshall Wright's The Southern Association, 1885-1961) fail to connect the player "Joseph Palm," who played in the 1920s, with Joe Palmisano, who played for many teams in the 1930s. Palmisano may have originally used the name "Palm" in 1925 as a deception to keep his amateur status. On the other hand, it could have simply been newspaper shorthand which was propagated for several years.

After the 1926 season, Palmisano spent a fortuitous off-season in the San Francisco area, playing winter ball for the Yellow Checker Cabs. Margaret Melbourne often told her grandchildren the story of how she met Joe Palmisano. Raised in Berkeley, California, she used to take the ferry across the Bay to work in San Francisco.  One day she was late, had to take a later ferry, and met fellow-rider Palmisano.  The chance meeting went very well.  The next day Margaret purposely missed her regular ferry, met Joe again, and a few months later, on February 13, 1927, they married. Joe and Margaret enjoyed 44 years of marriage.

Newly betrothed, in 1927 Joe Palmisano joined the Mobile Bears of the Class-A Southern Association. Here he hit .241 while getting behind the plate just 53 times, perhaps due to an injury. In search of more playing time, he went back to Class-B in 1928, joining the Montgomery club of the Southeastern League. Palmisano bounced back to .273, again leading his circuit with 127 games behind the dish, while also leading in fielding percentage. Here in Montgomery his first son, Joseph Jr., was born.

Joe Sr. returned to the Southern Association in 1929, hooking on with the Memphis Chicks and hitting .267 in 51 games. According to a story often told, Palmisano was angry that he did not play when his Memphis club was in Atlanta late in the 1929 season--he had looked forward to playing in front of his family and college friends. Apparently this slight was bothersome enough that he refused to report to the club in 1930. The Chicks sold him to the Portland Beavers of the Double-A Pacific Coast League, the highest rung of the minor leagues.

Working outside the Southeast for the first time, Palmisano ventured diagonally across the country to Oregon to play for Larry Woodall, the team's manager and catcher, who had played the previous ten seasons for the Detroit Tigers and was still only 35. Eventually Palmisano beat out his own skipper, hitting .308 in 117 games, and throwing out 79 base runners with his right arm. Following the season he was sold, along with outfielder Bob Johnson, to the Philadelphia Athletics.

The legendary club he joined--managed by the great Connie Mack, and boasting such stars as Al Simmons, Lefty Grove, and Jimmie Foxx--had just won their second consecutive World Series, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in six games. Palmisano was likely realistic about his playing time in the season ahead, since the incumbent catcher was Mickey Cochrane, the league's best backstop, who had hit.357 with 17 home runs the prior season.

Six years earlier the Athletics had purchased Cochrane from Portland, so it was inevitable that the press would notice this link and draw comparisons between the two receivers. At just 5-feet-8 and 158 pounds, Palmisano was small and thin for a catcher, but he came to the major leagues with a fine defensive reputation. An unidentified clipping in his Hall of Fame file says: "Palmisano may never be Cochrane's catching equal, but his style and mannerisms behind the plate are said to closely resemble the marvelous Mackman's. He has the same effervescent hustle, unquenchable spirit and infectious willingness that are Mickey's dominant characteristics." The Sporting News was also impressed with the right-handed hitter, saying, "The spunky little Italian doesn't get a lot of distance to his hits, but he whacks the ball hard and on a line and has a flair for hitting with men on base." Most newspaper accounts mentioned his Italian heritage, expressing surprise that he was not from California, where most Italian players seemed to originate. At a time when ethnicity was a big part of one's identity, Palmisano was the Little Italian, or Lil' Joe.

Palmisano made his major league debut May 31 in the second game of a double header against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, replacing Cochrane mid-game. He was hitless in two at bats and made an error. In his first game at Yankee Stadium, a start on July 11, his got his first hit, a first-inning double off Red Ruffing in a 3-1 loss at Yankee Stadium. Palmisano played just 19 games for the Athletics that season as the third-string catcher. His best game turned out to be his last one: on September 25, he caught Lew Krausse's four-hit shutout in the hurler's major league debut, and also went 3-5 with a double, raising his batting average from .179 to its final .232 (10 for 44). Cochrane had a typical season, hitting .349 and playing 117 games behind the plate, while Johnny Heving, acquired from the Red Sox during the prior off-season, caught 40 games.

The 1931 Athletics failed to win their third consecutive World Series, falling to the Cardinals in seven games. Rookie Pepper Martin starred for the Cardinals, hitting .500 (12 for 24) with four doubles, a home run and five stolen bases, doing almost all of his damage in the first four games. When the Cardinals beat George Earnshaw in the second game 2-0, Martin scored both runs, each time getting a hit, stealing a base and scoring on a batter's out. According to Fred Lieb in his biography of Mack, Cochrane took quite a bit of criticism after this game, Earnshaw going so far as to suggest that rookie Palmisano, the club's little-used third-string catcher, take over in Earnshaw's next start. Lieb writes, "Connie paid no attention to it, but it burned Cochrane up." According to stories Palmisano later told his friends and family, Mack told Joe that he was going to start him one day in the Series but was talked out of it by a few of his players.

Martin himself placed the responsibility for his base running exploits squarely on the pitchers. "Oh, everybody knows I didn't steal on Mickey," Martin said. "I was stealing on Grove and Earnshaw." Connie Mack was equally clear on the culprit: "My three championship teams had the softest pitchers in the world to steal on, but not many bases were stolen with Cochrane catching," Mack said. "The Cardinals beat Earnshaw by running wild on him; he couldn't keep them on base. Even Grove, though a left hander, had a deliberate delivery that gave the runner an edge." In any event, Cochrane played every inning of the series, which the Athletics lost in seven games. The pitchers and Cochrane got the running game under control, as the Cardinals stole two bases in four attempts in the last three games.

After the 1931 season Palmisano was sold back to the Portland Beavers, where he played the next two seasons. In 1932 he slumped to .252 as the Beaver catcher, but helped the club win the Pacific Coast League championship. The following year he hit .295 in 132 games. In the words of a 1933 Portland writer, "He loves the game with all his heart, always putting into it his sincerest efforts. Many a contest has been pulled out of the fire by his superlative playing behind the plate and many a time his timely hitting has turned defeat into glorious victory." Even better than that, Joe and Margaret's second son, Leon, was born in Portland in 1932.

Palmisano returned to his native region in 1934, again hooking on with the Atlanta Crackers. He was a full-timer this time through the league, hitting a team-high .307 in 1934 and .254 the next year for the Southern Association pennant-winner, being named a league all-star after both seasons. An undated clipping from this era calls him "the best ball player in the league. He is so far out in front that it is difficult to name the second. There is plenty of courage packed into his 160 pounds. And lots of sense inside his skull."

He played with Birmingham in the same circuit in 1936 (.282 in 114 games). After the season he retired from the game, at the urging of his wife Margaret, who had tired of the baseball life. Joe returned home to work for his brother's pool hall. Joe and Margaret soon had a change of heart, but his retirement somehow landed him on baseball's ineligible list, and Joe spent the next few years trying to get reinstated into organized baseball.

The Carolina League operated for three years (1936-38) as an outlaw league, a circuit unaffiliated with organized baseball and free from the latter's eligibility rules. Organized baseball used its monopolistic power to ban anyone who played in such a league from returning to an affiliated league. After a year away from the game, Palmisano, who was already suspended and had little to lose, played for the 1938 Lenoir Finishers in the Carolina League, using the name Joseph Palm to avoid detection. In a year truncated by injury, Joe hit .314 in 287 at bats. After the 1938 season, the league disbanded, with individual teams joining a couple of affiliated leagues.

Meanwhile, Palmisano continued trying to get back into organized baseball. Margaret wrote letters to William Bramham, who was the head the minor leagues at the time, and to Connie Mack, Joe's old major league skipper. Mack said he'd try to help, but Bramham's terse reply reiterated that Joe could reapply after 12 months away from the outlaw circuit. Perhaps with Mack's help, Palmisano gained reinstatement into organized baseball late in 1939 and played briefly with Birmingham again, hitting 6 for 24 in 10 games. He played his first game that season on August 15, and drew his unconditional release in September.

For 1940 Palmisano joined the Kannapolis Towelers in the North Carolina State League, an organized circuit which included several of the former outlaw clubs. Charles Cannon had created the town of Kannapolis (naming it after himself) in 1906, to house Cannon Mills, which made towels. By 1940, he still owned the entire town and operated many of the businesses and the government. The baseball team was affiliated with the mill, though many of the better players did little mill work. In their first go-round in 1939, the club finished seventh in the eight-team league, and was doing little better in 1940, sitting in last place at 10-17 on May 28. On that date, Palmisano was named the manager, replacing Stumpy Culbreth. The Towelers immediately caught fire, achieving a record of 57-28 under their new skipper and capturing first place, before losing in the playoffs to Lexington. He also hit .235 in 100 games as the club's primary catcher.

The next season Palmisano again filled the dual role of player and manager, hitting .234 in part-time duty. This Kannapolis club led the pennant race wire-to-wire, ending up 70-30, before again falling in the post-season. Before the 1942 season, Cannon disbanded his team, saying that with a war going on the town needed to get back to work and forget about baseball. Thus, Palmisano's lifetime record as a manager was 127 wins and 58 losses, an astounding winning percentage of .686. The North Carolina State League forged on with seven teams, and Palmisano hooked on as a spare catcher with the Landis Senators in 1942, playing just 18 games.

In 1943 the 40-year-old catcher gave it one last go, catching 14 matches and hitting just .161 for the Memphis Chicks. He likely got the gig through his relationship with manager Tommy Prothro, who had managed Palmisano's last Memphis club in 1929. His career over, Palmisano had played parts of 18 seasons in professional baseball, for 11 different teams, winning pennants in the North Carolina State League (twice), the Southern Association, the Pacific Coast League, and the American League.

After Joe Sr.'s retirement, the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they could be closer to Margaret's father, Sydney, who ran The Combs Hotel in the city. Palmisano tried his hand at several jobs, including carpentry, as sports director for a community center, and auto sales. He also managed an American Legion baseball team for a few years. Margaret worked as a bookkeeper until her own retirement more than 30 years later. Joe essentially retired about 1960, but helped out in a Mr. Tux clothing store, which his son Leon owned and operated.

Joe Palmisano Jr. played minor league ball in 1949 (for Janesville) and 1950 (for Reno and Eugene). Leon Palmisano played college basketball, continuing the tradition of athletic excellence in the family, and coached high school baseball and basketball for many years.

Joe Palmisano died on November 5, 1971, in Albuquerque, just shy of his 69th birthday. He is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in that city. He was survived by Margaret and their two sons. Margaret died in October 2000 at the age of 94.

Palmisano is remembered by his grandchildren as a kind Southern gentleman who played baseball for the love of competition, traits passed down through the family. He and Margaret raised two athletic sons, who each helped raise athletes themselves. Joe played baseball at a high level for more than 20 years, then retired to live his life with his wife and family. A fine life it was.

Sources

In compiling this biography, I have been greatly aided by several of Joe Palmisano's family members, including John Palmisano, Leon Palmisano, Teresa Palmisano, Steve Palmisano, Michelle Palmisano, and Jerry Worsham.

Hank Utley helped unravel Palmisano's years playing and managing in North Carolina. Norman Macht and Charlie Bevis provided insights on the 1931 World Series. Palmisano's minor league data were compiled with help from researcher Ed Washuta, the annual Spalding Guides, and several members of SABR's Minor League Committee. I consulted Palmisano's clippings file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, files from Hank Utley, clippings gathered by the Palmisano family, correspondence with Georgia Tech, and the on-line archives of The Sporting News at www.paperofrecord.com.

Other specific sources consulted:

Charlie Bevis. Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. McFarland, 1998.

"Italian Catcher is Mainstay of Beaver Staff." Columbus Record (Portland, OR), June 3, 1923.

Fred Lieb. Connie Mack. Putnam, 1945.

Connie Mack. My 66 Years in Baseball. Winston, 1950.

Ralph McGill, "Break O' Day," undated clipping of unknown source, likely an Atlanta publication in 1934.

Marshall Wright. The Southern Association, 1885-1961. McFarland, 2002.

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