Posted on 26 November 2010.
If there is one word to describe the career of Darrell Porter, it would be hustle. There have been better hitters, better defensive catchers, certainly faster runners, but not many played the game harder than Darrell Porter. Whitey Herzog knew this from his time managing the Kansas City Royals. When it became time for Herzog give the St. Louis Cardinals a much needed makeover, he chose Porter to be the cornerstone of this new and improved team. Wildly unpopular in the beginning, Porter eventually proved the confidence shown by Herzog was well founded when he won the 1982 NLCS and World Series MVP, helping the Cardinals bring another championship home to St. Louis.
The Early Years
In the first amateur draft in their new home, the Milwaukee Brewers (AL) selected a catcher out of Southeast High School in Oklahoma City named Darrell Porter, preempting a possible football career at the University of Oklahoma. He was immediately assigned to their Class A affiliate in Clinton, Iowa – who still maintained the Pilots team name. Porter would struggle a bit in his first season, but looked like a much different player in his second year at that level. His performance would earn him a call-up in September, 1971, his first taste of the Big Leagues at age 19. It would also earn him a jump to Evansville (AAA) for the 1972 season, the last time he would spend any non-injury time in the minors. His offensive production was not terribly impressive, and his aggressive approach to the game left him striking out a bit to often, but he was also developing a keen eye for the strike zone that would serve him well throughout his career. He might never lead the league in batting, but his on-base percentage was eye-popping.
Porter would take over full time catching duties with the Brewers at the start of the 1973 season, at the tender age of 21. He would finish the season with a respectable .254 batting average. His strikeout rate was still a bit higher than the coaches might like, but his eye could judge major league pitching just as well as it had in the minors. His 50 walks would push his on-base percentage .363. Throw in 16 home runs and 65 RBIs, and that was good enough to earn him third place in Rookie of the Year voting behind teammate Pedro Garcia and the winner, Al Bumbry of the Baltimore Orioles.
After a bit of a slow start to begin the 1974 season, Porter would catch fire in May. The walks would start turning into hits and he would raise his batting average to .260 by mid-season. It was good enough to earn him the first of his four All Star Game invitations, joining teammate Don Money in the mid-season classic. While Porter did not get into the game, he did cross paths with Whitey Herzog, who was managing the California Angels at the time. This would prove to be very beneficial, as Herzog was about to take over the reigns of the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals Years (1977-1980)
While Whitey Herzog was busy lighting a fire under the players in Kansas City, Darrell Porter was turning into a dependable backstop for the Brewers. He didn’t always have the best mechanics, and frequently led the league in passed balls, he proved durable and could call a good game. And he played with enthusiasm, a trait that Herzog valued.
After the 1976 Royals lost the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees, it became clear that a few upgrades would be needed if Kansas City were going to have a chance to play in a World Series. The most obvious need was a catcher to replace Buck Martinez, who had been declining in offensive production since breaking into the big leagues a few years earlier. Veteran Bob Stinson had played well in a platoon role for Kansas City, but he was left unprotected and had just been selected by the Seattle Mariners in their AL entry draft. The Royals suddenly needed a catcher badly.
Kansas City was exactly where the Brewers would be in a few years, a core of outstanding young players surrounded by a group of productive veterans. A deal was struck that December that would help out both franchises. Milwaukee would send Darrell Porter and former 20 game winner, Jim Colborn, to the Royals for Jamie Quirk, Jim Wohlford and a player to be named later. That player turned out to be Bob McClure, who would move from the bullpen to the rotation and help guide the 1982 Brewers to the World Series. In an interesting piece of irony, it would be McClure that was victimized by Porter’s Cardinals in Game 7 of the series.
Both players made a huge impact, and immediately. On May 14, 1977, Colborn would pitch the game of his career, throwing a no hitter at home against the Texas Rangers. Behind the plate was his battery mate from Milwaukee, Darrell Porter. Yes, the field general could call a great game. Shortly after the All Star Game, the Royals were struggling at 5 1/2 games out of first place. After dropping the first two games of a series against the White Sox, the Royals lost the first game of an important double header on July 31. In a closed door meeting in between games, Porter challenged his teammates to play up to the level of their abilities. They responded by winning the second game of the double header. They would go on to win 5 in a row, a week later 10 in a row and then finally, an amazing 16 games in a row to build up an insurmountable lead in the AL West. They would cruise to the division title, but ultimately fall just short of their goal, losing to the Yankees in another tough five game ALCS. No longer just a signal caller, Porter had emerged as a leader of a very good Royals team.
Both newcomers had made their presence felt. Colborn would finish the season with 18 wins and Porter would raise his batting average to .275. He also did quite a bit of damage in the lower part of the batting order, driving in 60 runs in his first season with the Royals.
Porter would give Herzog and the Royals fans more of the same in 1978, and he would earn his second All Star Game invitation. Things were certainly looking up for Porter in Kansas City. He had cut down his strikeout rate, his walk totals were rising, and he was becoming an offensive force in the lineup. This would all come together in an explosive way in 1979 – the career year for Darrell Porter.
For the 1979 campaign, manager Whitey Herzog would make a change to his lineup that made Darrell Porter a star. With George Brett, Willie Wilson and Amos Otis hitting in the 1-3 spot, Herzog put Porter in the cleanup spot. And that’s exactly what Porter did – clean up. By the mid-point in the season, Porter was hitting .308. He had twice as many walks (66) as strikeouts (33), pushing his on-base percentage to .427. And he wasn’t just a singles hitter. Porter was slugging .487 with nearly as many triples (6) as home runs (10). He also managed 61 RBIs. The fans would reward the veteran catcher by selecting him to the All Star Game for the third time, but this time as a starter.
As the season wore on, opposing pitchers started working around him more frequently, preferring to put him on base instead of letting him drive in runs. That worked fine for Porter and even better for the guys hitting behind him like Pete LaCock, Hal McRae and Al Cowens. Porter would finish the season with some of the best offensive numbers put up by a catcher. He would both drive in and score over 100 runs – only the sixth time a catcher had done that. In recent history, it had only been accomplished by Carlton Fiske and Johnny Bench, both in the Hall of Fame. Porter would also lead the league in walks (121), joining Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane (1947) as the only other catcher to add 100 walks to the mix. While his batting average cooled a bit at the end of the season, he would finish with a career high .291/.421/.484 line. Pretty impressive for a former 8th place hitter.
While all of this was going on, something very unfortunate was happening in his private life – something that was becoming far too common in baseball: substance abuse. As Porter was enjoying his greatest success on the field, his addiction to alcohol, cocaine and other controlled substances was taking over his personal life. The Commissioner’s Office was taking notice of the situation across baseball and would soon do something about it. Knowing that Bowie Kuhn was hard on this type of problem put additional pressure on Porter, and his fear of being discovered led to a turbulent off-season. In a fateful encounter with Don Newcombe in spring of 1980, the star catcher realized that he would have to do something about his problem. He left the club and checked into a rehabilitation center, hoping to turn his life around. In taking this courageous step, Porter became one of the first major leaguers to publicly admit that he had a problem with narcotics. During his recovery, Porter became deeply religious. He would also remarry, giving his life some additional stability. By all accounts, Porter had escaped this dangerous situation.
When he returned to the team in May, Porter took over the catching duties as if nothing had happened. By the All Star break, he was hitting .274. Respectable, to be sure. But the other numbers were about half of where they were at the same point in the season last year. Whether it was for his production in 1980, his total contributions over the last 3 1/2 years in Kansas City, or just a pat on the back for having the courage to take control of his life, Darrell Porter would earn the last of his four invitations to the All Star Game.
As the summer progressed, the Royals would begin to look like champions. Thanks to the pitching of Dennis Leonard, Larry Gura and the amazing Dan Quisenberry, plus George Brett’s legendary run at hitting .400 (finishing with a mind-boggling .390 average), the 1980 Kansas City Royals under new manager, Jim Frey, would accomplish something they could not while playing for Whitey Herzog – get past the New York Yankees in the playoffs. The summer would not be so kind for Porter though, as he would put up nearly an 0-fer for the last month of the season. His average would plummet all the way to .248. He would recover nicely in post-season against both the Yankees and eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, but his time in Kansas City had come to an end. Darrell Porter would be released in November, 1980.
The Cardinals Years (1981-1985)
While Darrell Porter was busy turning his life around, his former manager was doing the same thing to a hapless team in St. Louis, just 230 miles to the east. After taking over the franchise midway through the 1980 season, it became clear to Herzog that the Cardinals needed some big changes. And he’d been empowered by the owner to make those changes. It’s not that the Cardinals didn’t have talented players – they did. But they were not a good team, and there was a general lack of hustle throughout the clubhouse.
When the Royals declined to offer Darrell Porter a contract, General Manager Whitey Herzog wasted no time running across Interstate 70 to sign him to contract. Herzog knew that Porter was exactly the player he needed as he retooled the Cardinals. Fans and sports writers, who knew Porter more for his run-in with substance abuse than what he was like as a player, immediately and loudly rejected the signing. We also knew that meant that fan favorite, Ted Simmons, would be the next player shipped out. Simmons had been hugely popular with the St. Louis fans for the last decade, and when the trade with Milwaukee (ironically, the team that signed Porter originally) was made, everybody wanted to run Herzog out of town. But the White Rat knew exactly what he was doing.
Things didn’t get much easier for Herzog and Porter as the 1981 season kicked off. Porter got off to a terribly slow start. To make things worse, an injury knocked him out from mid-May until the teams returned from their work stoppage in August. While all of this was going on, a feud broke out between Herzog and Garry Templeton. No, things were not going very well at all. Except that this new look Cardinals was starting to gel and play well as a team. A crazy playoff system due to the work stoppage conspired against Herzog and the Cardinals as they ended up with the best overall record in the NL East, but didn’t win either half-season. They would miss the playoffs – but not for long.
When the 1982 team took the field for the first time in April, very little of the team Herzog inherited remained. Just Keith Hernandez, George Hendrick, Ken Oberkfell and the grizzled veteran Bob Forsch in the pitching rotation. With all of the new players in the clubhouse, it was Darrell Porter that quietly brought them all together. He had played for Herzog before and could tell the new guys what he was all about and what he expected out of his players. Herzog wanted his players to hustle, and Porter was the role model for that type of ballplayer. His most important contribution, maybe because of what Porter had just gone through in Kansas City, he could sit down and talk to any player on the team. We saw this often as the camera would flash to the Cardinals dugout, Porter would be sitting next to a different player chatting away. With Darrell Porter on the roster, there was not going to be any fracture developing in the clubhouse.
Porter would not have a very successful offensive year in 1982. The former slugger would end up at the bottom of the batting order, competing with the light hitting Ozzie Smith for 7th place. What he did become was a very good defensive catcher. His mechanics improved and balls in the dirt long longer got past him, which was huge because Cardinals closer, Bruce Sutter, made a living out of throwing baseballs in the dirt. Systematically, Darrell Porter and the now hustling Cardinals marched their way into the post-season.
That’s when we saw a glimpse of what Kansas City fans enjoyed throughout the 1979 season. Darrell Porter was a juggernaut in the NLCS. Willie McGee would finish the short series with the Atlanta Braves, going 4-13 with 2 triples, a home run and 5 RBIs. Ozzie Smith would go 5-13, all singles, and 3 RBIs. Bruce Sutter would win Game Two, save the clinching Game Three and not allow a run in 4 1/3 innings of work. All of these were dwarfed by the contributions from the Cardinals backstop. In 14 plate appearances, Porter would reach base safely 10 times (2 singles, 3 doubles and 5 walks). That’s an on-base percentage of .714. Simply put, the Atlanta pitchers couldn’t keep Porter off the bases. His biggest blow came in the pivotal Game Two. With Atlanta leading by two runs in the sixth inning, Porter would double home Keith Hernandez, cutting the Braves lead in half. Porter would be thrown out at home, trying to score the tying run on an Ozzie Smith single later in the inning. When faced with the same situation two innings later, Porter would score the tying run this time, taking away whatever wind had accumulated in the Braves sails. The Cardinals would end up winning the game thanks to a walk-off single from David Green. The Cardinals steamrolled to a sweep of the Braves, and it was Darrell Porter that took home the NLCS MVP. Booed loudly upon his arrival in 1981, Porter was now becoming a fan favorite in the Gateway City.
His good fortune would continue in the World Series. The Cardinals were supposed to brushed aside with little effort by the Monsters from Milwaukee. After a 10-0 17 hit thrashing in Game One, it appeared that might actually happen. But the Cardinals rebounded and the games tightened up significantly. The series tilted in Milwaukee’s favor as they took 2 of 3 at home, giving the Brewers a 3-2 lead as the game returned to St. Louis. It was do-or-die time for the Redbirds. With Darrell Porter calling the signals in the first of two elimination games, rookie pitcher John Stuper took a one hitter through two long rain delays and into the ninth inning, while his teammates destroyed the Milwaukee pitching staff. Stuper would end up with a 4 hitter, allowing one run on a wild pitch and the Cardinals would win 13-1, setting up a decisive Game Seven. While we all marveled at Stuper’s pitching heroics, it was Porter’s two run homer in the bottom of the 4th that put the game out of reach.
Porter still had one more card to be played, and that would happen in the bottom of the 8th inning of Game Seven. With the Cardinals holding on to a slim 4-3 lead, Porter put the game out of reach with a 2 out RBI single off the tough left hander, Mike Caldwell. Caldwell had won 17 games in the regular season, but this was the post-season and it was Porter’s time to win. Steve Braun would tack on another run and the Cardinals were just three outs from their first World Series Championship since 1967. Fans still remember a jubilant Porter, catching Sutter’s strikeout of Gorman Thomas to end the series. In a rare acknowledgment of defensive performance, Porter would named World Series MVP, to go along with his award from the NLCS. For a catcher that used to struggle with passed balls, it was his ability to block them in the World Series that led to the the award. Yes, Whitey Herzog knew what he was doing in November 1980 when he signed Porter to a contract.
The new Cardinals hero would have a good season in 1983, raising his batting average to .262, up almost 30 points from the previous season. It would not be a good season for the team as an injury to Tommy Herr, and rare poor season by Bruce Sutter doomed the team to a mediocre finish. With the season well out of reach, September 26 would bring a most memorable highlight. In a home game against the Montreal Expos, Bob Forsch would throw a no hitter, the second of his career – the only Cardinal to accomplish that feat. Behind the plate was Darrell Porter. It was also the second no hitter of his career.
Injuries again would impact the Cardinals in 1984, Porter’s last season as a full time catcher in the major leagues.
Now a left handed hitting platoon player, Porter and the right handed hitting Tom Nieto would receive one of the best pitching rotations the Cardinals fans had ever seen in 1985. The 101 win Redbirds blew through the NL East and into post-season, past the Dodgers and finally a date with Porter’s former team, the Kansas City Royals. It would be an exciting contest between the two teams on Interstate 70, but Porter would not be much of a factor in the series. In fact, he was a part of the Cardinals demise in Game Six. A passed ball in the bottom of the ninth inning allowed the winning run to get to third base with only one out. That run would eventually score, tying the series at three games apiece. Kansas City would win the final game in a laugher, taking home the World Series Championship for the only time in their franchise history. For Porter, it would be the last game he would play for the Cardinals.
He would finish out his career with two seasons as a backup with the Texas Rangers. When the final number were tallied on Porter’s 17 year career, he would end up with 1,369 hits, 188 home runs, 826 RBIs and a career batting average of .247. What about his on-base percentage ? Over 100 points higher, at .354. A pretty impressive career for a player that overcame substance abuse, reinvented himself, and helped two different teams get to the World Series.
A Sad Ending
After his career in baseball ended, Darrell Porter could be found doing local high school broadcasts of baseball and basketball in the Kansas City area. He was more known for his continued involvement in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, trying to help young players deal with many of the things he struggled with during his playing career. All of this would end tragically when Porter was found dead in his car on August 5, 2002. An autopsy revealed that the demon from his playing days had once again returned and had taken his life. Rather than look negatively upon the end of Porter’s life, let’s take this opportunity to recognize just how devastating a cocaine addition can be. Even with his strong faith and a supportive family, the specter continued to tap on his shoulder for the remainder of his life.
Cardinals and Royals fans will remember the life and career of Darrell Porter with great joy. We remember the big smile, those enormous glasses looking back at us from behind the catcher’s mask and that Oklahoma accent giving us a simple but clear answer to questions throughout his career. The name Porter immediate recalls a jubilant catcher popping up from behind the plate in October 1982 as he caught the final out in a World Series Championship. My personal favorite memory of Porter was being fooled so badly on a pitch, that he would fall to his knees, and somehow still making contact from that position for the most improbable base hit. And it seemed like he did that in every game. As George Brett once said about Darrell Porter, he played every game like it was the seventh game of the World Series. Not a bad legacy to leave with two franchises.
Bob Netherton covers Cardinals history for i70baseball.com and writes at Throatwarbler’s Blog. You may follow Bob on Twitter here or on Facebook here.