Jimmy Palermo grew up in a bootlegger bar during Prohibition and then stitched up the shattered bodies of American GIs in the Battle of the Bulge as a World War II U.S. Army medic.
He returned home to St. Louis — and hit a grand slam as a visionary in American hospitality.
He turned his dad’s pub into what his family and local sports fans argue is America’s first sports bar: Palermo’s Tavern at 3701 Sullivan Avenue in the Gateway City.
The family ran the pub from 1933 to 1966.
It was at the forefront of an entirely new concept in American hospitality. Palermo’s Tavern featured local beer, casual food, sports memorabilia on the walls and more sports shown above the bar in the earliest days of the TV era.
“Years before the advent of Buffalo wings, satellite hookups or wide-screen television, Palermo’s neighborhood tavern could take the title as America’s original sports bar,” said Palermo’s son, Tom Palermo.
The younger Palermo, as publisher of SpaceCoastDaily.com, chronicles life on Central Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He’s also a repository of his family’s fascinating legacy as immigrant American tavern keepers.
Jimmy Palermo (1920-2010) and his tavern were deeply rooted in the fabric of the national pastime. It was located directly across from the late, great Sportsman’s Park, a legendary arena in baseball lore.
The ballpark for many decades was the home of both the former St. Louis Browns of Major League Baseball’s American League and the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League.
St. Louis was a rare two-team baseball town — and Palermo’s sat on the hot corner of the Golden Age of baseball.
Palermo’s sat on the hot corner of the Golden Age of baseball.
“The players from both the home and visiting teams walked right by the entrance of the bar on their way to the park,” Tom Palermo told Fox News Digital.
The heaviest hitters of baseball became regulars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams, which only added to the pub’s allure as a sports-themed hotspot.
The national sports bar phenomenon soon followed.
The United States today boasts more than 1,200 sports bars, according to IBIS World, which tracks consumer data across various industries.
Buffalo Wild Wings alone — the nation’s largest sports bar operator — claims 1,300 sports bars in nine countries, most of those in the United States.
“Sports is the universal language here,” St. Louis sports and lifestyle marketing executive Pat Imig of Imig Communications told Fox News Digital.
“We’re also the original home of Budweiser and Anheuser-Busch brewery. Baseball and beer — the first sports bar was a natural progression.”
Coal miner’s son
Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo was born in St. Louis on Sept. 20, 1920. He grew up in the era of bootleg booze and baseball.
His parents, Paul and Mary, were immigrants from Sicily. Paul Palermo lived a tough childhood as a laborer in a southern Illinois coal mine.
“At age 12, he took care of the mules that hauled the coal carts through the mines, and by the time he was 15 he was chipping coal for a nickel a ton,” writes Tom Palermo.
The elder Palmero left his dangerous life underground and made his way to St. Louis, where he got into the tavern business and began building a family.
He and Mary had two children: Vincent, known as Jimmy, and Joseph.
Amid Prohibition, which began in 1919, Paul and Mary Palermo operated a restaurant and hot dog stand and lived with their boys in an apartment above the operation.
They also sold dried goods, confections — and illicit liquor.
Young Jimmy was put to work licking labels from other products and pasting them back onto contraband bottles of booze.
Young Jimmy Palermo spent 15 years with the St. Louis Browns, eventually rising to clubhouse manager.
At the same time, starting at 6 years old, he became a bat boy for the St. Louis Browns across the street.
He spent 15 years with the team, eventually rising to clubhouse manager. He also began a career as a professional umpire and hoped to work his way up to the major leagues.
Then Uncle Sam came calling.
Palermo was drafted by the U.S. Army, trained as a medic and shipped off for England in 1943 to await the invasion of Europe.
“He landed on D-Day + 10,” said Tom Palermo, 10 days after the D-Day landing in France on June 6, 1944.
He worked and eventually managed field hospitals treating American boys who were very badly injured in combat.
Palermo rarely discussed his wartime experiences.
Among other engagements, Palermo fought with the Allied forces who withstood a last-ditch German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
In the classic fashion of the Greatest Generation, Palermo rarely discussed his wartime experiences.
“Then came ‘Saving Private Ryan,’” said Tom Palermo, referencing the 1998 World War II drama starring Tom Hanks, acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of the horrors of combat.
“My brother and I went to see the movie. We were sitting with Dad having dinner talking about it. He just opened up right there and starting tell us about the war for the first time.”
His unit was heading into the Battle of the Bulge by train when it was hit by German artillery. Pop Palermo came close to getting killed.
“Dad saw a lot of gore.”
He also recounted the shocking scenes of an Army field hospital amid one of the deadliest engagements of World War II.
Nearly 70,000 Americans were killed or wounded in just five weeks of the Battle of the Bulge. “Dad saw a lot of gore,” Palermo said.
Palermo returned to St. Louis after the war, married Nadine Short in 1946, began a family and took up the business of running his dad’s bar.
He filled the walls with memorabilia from his days as a Browns bat boy: ballpark photos and gloves, caps and bats used by baseball’s best athletes.
He befriended the greatest players of the era, perhaps most notably legendary Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. The two met in the Browns’ clubhouse during Williams’ rookie year of 1939. The vets grew tight after the war.
Palermo even counted baseball royalty among his family.
St. Louis native and Yankees legend Yogi Berra was his brother-in-law. Nadine Palermo and Berra’s wife Carmen were sisters.
Mostly, Palermo set about the work of serving the loyal baseball fans of St. Louis.
Palermo’s truly became a sports bar with the advent of television — which exploded onto the American entertainment scene in the years after World War II.
Palermo was quick to adopt the newest technology and see the potential benefits for his business, said his son.
Palermo counted baseball royalty among his family. St. Louis native and Yankees legend Yogi Berra was his brother-in-law.
He began installing 12-inch black-and-white Farnsworth television sets, among the earliest TVs ever sold in America, around the bar in 1947.
He continued to update the bar’s TV technology as it improved. Visitors at Palermo’s by the late 1940s found the atmosphere and attractions we now recognize as the hallmarks of the American sports bar.
It was filled with sports memorabilia. It was frequented by a who’s who of great athletes. It offered barroom entertainment such as pool, pinball and shuffleboard.
Guests feasted on a menu of casual ballpark favorites, hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries, most notably, and quenched their thirst with local beers from a city that’s long been synonymous with beer making.
Palermo’s Tavern quickly became the top place in town to enjoy boxing matches or baseball on the tube. It was a unique concept in American hospitality.
“Nobody stakes a better claim to ‘first sports bar in America’ than the Palermo family,” said Imig, the St. Louis hospitality consultant.
“My mom and dad were pioneers.”
The city, he said, still has more than its fair share of sports bars today, including one called Sportsman’s Park — named for the arena that made St. Louis a baseball hotbed and made Palermo’s Tavern an American original.
‘Proud of what they achieved’
Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo died on Dec. 1, 2010, at age 90.
He was a veteran of two conflicts, interrupting his career a second time in 1950 to serve in the Korean War.
He served his last hot dog and frosty beer at Palermo’s in 1966. Today, Sit & Sip Cocktail Lounge occupies the 3701 Sullivan Ave. site of Palermo’s Tavern.
The Browns left town in 1953, becoming the Baltimore Orioles. The Cardinals moved to a new arena across town, Busch Stadium, in 1966.
After the 1965 season, Palermo’s no longer felt like the center of the Midwestern sports world.
Jimmy Palermo closed the tavern to focus on his other businesses, including a large St. Louis nightclub and various real estate holdings.
He and Nadine retired to Florida in 1986.
He was buried at Bushnell National Cemetery in Florida, beneath a gravestone noting his U.S. Army service in two separate conflicts.
The sports bar concept got a renewed boost with the advent of satellite broadcasting in the 1970s.
Sports fans now filled bars to enjoy games they couldn’t get on local TV.
Los Angeles Rams football star Dennis Harrah opened a pub in Long Beach, Calif., in 1979 called Legends, which still in operation today. It touts itself as the first “modern” sports bar in America, a sort of cap-tip to the legacy pioneered by the likes of Palermo’s Tavern.
“My mom and dad were pioneers,” said Palermo. “They were in the right place at the right time. They got to enjoy baseball’s glory days.”
“But they also saw a new way of doing business. We’re very proud of what they achieved.”
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