“Incapable of being dull”: Joe Palmer’s obituary, 1952

Oct 31st 2016 04:14 pm |

joe_palmer0001Readers of this site know my affection for the legendary racing writer Joe Palmer. I recently received a generous gift of a 1952 edition of the American Race Horse, the first published without Joe Palmer since 1944 who died on October 31st 1952. New Yorker writer G.F.T Rydall, better known as Audax Minor, wrote this in the Prologue of that edition:

For those of us who had the privilege and fun of working with him, Joe Palmer set a high standard for what is sometimes loosely described as racing journalism. The more amusing his stuff was, the more deadly the aim. Almost any writer taking up a job he left, faces an interminable ordeal of comparison.

Joe Estes, editor-in-chief at the Bloodhorse at the time, had the unenviable task of taking over for Joe Palmer. Estes and Palmer were classmates at the University of Kentucky and later worked together at the Bloodhorse when Palmer began working there in 1933. Considering this, it’s easy to feel the sadness of his task in writing this about Joe Palmer in the annual obituaries section of American Race Horses:

For the first time since 1943, Joe Palmer’s name is missing from the title page of American Race Horses. He had a first heart attack in the early morning hours of October 31, and early in the afternoon of the same day died of coronary thrombosis at his home in Malverne. N. Y. He had become the country’s best known racing writer, and his death at the age of 48 will leave the world less gay for thousands who will never read American Race Horses, or even go to the races.

Joseph Hill Palmer was born October 18, 1904, in Lexington, Ky., and lived most of his life there and in nearby Georgetown. He was graduated from the University of Kentucky, took his M. A. degree there, and was an instructor in English. Later he went to the University of Michigan to complete the requirements for a Ph. D. degree in English, and also taught classes there. For two summers he worked in the office of The Blood·Horse at Lexington, and in the fall of 1934 took permanent employment there abandoning the degree for which he had almost fulfilled the requirements.

Incapable of being dull, Palmer soon had the sustained interest of his more literate readers, and the attention of many others. He remained with The Blood·Horse. after 1935 as business manager as well as associate editor, until 1944, when he became executive secretary of the American Trainers Association. In February, 1946, he joined the staff of the Herald Tribune in New York, and soon had a considerable following, including many readers who rarely or never went to the races, but who relished his columns because they were amused by the content and delighted with the style. Capable of turning out prodigious amounts of copy, he continued to write not only American Race Horses, but numerous regular columns and special articles for magazines, and also had frequent assignments in radio and television.

American racing has had few critics abler and fairer than Joe Palmer, none more readable, none more vigorous, and none so skilled in communicating something of the charm of the sport to the uninterested masses whose knowledge previously had been limited to an understanding that Man o’ War was quite a horse and that Citation had won a million dollars.

If you have never read anything by Joe Palmer, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of This Was Racing, a compilation of his work put together by his friend Red Smith a year after Palmer died. He was a brilliant and elegant writer.

Read more more posts about Joe Palmer from Colin’s Ghost

Filed in Palmer, Joe

5 Responses to ““Incapable of being dull”: Joe Palmer’s obituary, 1952”

  1. Don Reed says:

    Thank you. “This Was Racing” is one of my cherished racing books.

    No one can say for certain who the best writer has been, but very, very few of them could do what Joe Palmer could:

    Sit down, bat out an vivid, lively & oft-hilarious column in almost less time than it takes to get a horse from the paddock to the starting gate, hand in his copy & then depart the press box with the other racing writers still toiling, somewhat resigned to their fate.

    Because no matter how hard they’d try, they knew that Joe’s column would be the first thing that readers the next morning would turn to.

    He was that good.

    Sixty-four years later, there are only a few occupied seats in the press boxes of the handful of race tracks that have escaped oblivion.

    The decline of the sport started very slowly & would not be apparent until the 1980s. In my opinion, this is the date when the rot started to blossom:

    On October 31, 1952.

    Because Joe’s style & grace & charisma has been more or less & fatally succeeded by the collective base instinct of just trying to win money.

  2. Ken Wiener says:

    Thanks for the wonderful article and thanks to Mr. Reed for his interesting comment. I too treasure my copy of This Was Racing. Palmer, Audax Minor, Smith, Hatton: names from another time and sorely missed.

  3. Dale Wyatt says:

    John Hervey was the first writer of the series entitled American Race Horses in 1936. The series lasted until the 1960’s as the last volume I have been able to find is 1963. This series appears to be the brainchild of AG Vanderbilt as it was published under the auspices of Sagamore Press. Joe Palmer succeeded Hervey and Estes after Palmer.

    There were guest intros written by top owners etc. for instance Sam Riddle wrote an intro for the 1937 volume.

    You can find numerous copies of the different volumes on eBay for decent prices.

  4. Ellen Shaw Maceko says:

    If I could go back in history and meet famous or admired people, Joe Palmer would be my first choice. I first got my hands on This Was Racing back when I was a young teenager in the 1970s. I honestly think I can recite verbatim, many of the essays. I am a huge fan of Joe Palmer and he died way too young. Among my favorite essays, the one about Sands of Pleasure. I laughed so at that one. This Was Racing is a book I read and re-read over and over and over again. The sport needs another writer who can capture the spirit of horse racing in such a way as to draw in those not even fans of the sport. He was like Man O’War, we’ll never see his like again.

    • Dale Wyatt says:

      Find David Alexander’s A Sound of Horses: The World of Racing from Eclipse to Kelso. He was a top turf writer whose chapter in this book on Seabiscuit The One Legged Cougar and the Three Legged Horse forms a back drop for a Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. Alexander knew all the famous race trackers and saw top horses beginning with Regret.