As a child in New York, Beverly Hills and Scottsdale, Ariz., Jim Palmer saw his future clearly. He was going to be a baseball pitcher and, if he kept his fastball down and away, a famous one.
In 19 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Palmer achieved all he had seen and then some. He won 268 games, and, in the minds of many, emerged as the best pitcher on his team, in his league and maybe of his era. That was reflected when, by a 92.5% landslide, baseball writers voted Palmer into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Palmer's election, he says, is the greatest honor of his career.
Five years after his last fastball, Palmer is more than ever an ex-ballplayer. Now, he is involved in broadcasting, endorsements, commercials and motivational speeches, and with his employers WMAR-TV of Baltimore, ESPN, Jockey International and others.
He has carved out a six-figure income from these jobs. And, despite his departure from ABC Sports, for whom he worked 11 years before the network lost broadcast rights to baseball, he still seems highly capitalized.
Losing the ABC job cost Palmer an estimated $350,000, which he earned by appearing on about 10 regular-season telecasts and a few postseason games. Next season, he will earn less than that between two broadcast positions--analyst on ESPN's Friday night baseball telecasts (a deal expected to be completed soon) and play-by-play announcer of Orioles games for the Baltimore television station.
Of course, Palmer does not pose in bikini underwear for nothing. His ties to Jockey International, a Kenosha, Wis.-based clothing maker, go back 15 years and seem as strong as ever, though his next birthday will be his 45th. For the photographs printed in magazines and plastered on billboards and for about 25 appearances at department stores on Jockey's behalf, Palmer is said to pull down more than $100,000 yearly.
Palmer's transition to civilian life has been relatively painless. When baseball stops, players lose credit cards, homes and families.
Good fortune--and good looks--also helped Palmer become America's most visible underwear spokesman.
In 1975, Jockey International invited eight pro athletes to New York to pose in styles ranging from your grandfather's boxer shorts to the skimpiest bikini.
William Herrmann, vice president of advertising and sales promotion for Jockey, was the official who made the decision to photograph Palmer in the briefest briefs.
Herrmann recalled that he made the judgment after meeting with Carlton and Palmer and finding them different personalities "by about 180 degrees."
"I remember talking to Jim right after Carlton, who'd said absolutely nothing," Herrmann said. "Jim, on the other hand, was very interested and asked a lot of questions."
Herrman recalls handing him the most provocative underwear.
"If he felt he didn't want to do it, he didn't let on," the Jockey executive said. "I think he took the garment, smiled and said, 'OK.' "
Palmer didn't get rich that first year--he reportedly earned $3,500 in modeling fees, $1,000 for a sales meeting and $400 for plugging the firm on "The Mike Douglas Show."
Palmer's association with Jockey has been a boon for the company, whose sales of "fashion" underwear--the colorful type that reveals almost everything--has skyrocketed. In 1963, such styles accounted for only 0.1% of Jockey's business. Today, it is well above 50%, an executive said.
Recently, Palmer has spoken of trying his hand at another job--managing a big-league team. It is an old ambition, but friends and family say he has spoken about it often enough for them to wonder whether this time he is serious.