RIP to J.W. “Jay” Porter, a backup catcher who was one of the last surviving players from two defunct ballclubs. He died on October 11 at the Jupiter Medical Center in Jupiter, Fla., after a long illness. He was 87 years old. Porter played for the St. Louis Browns (1952), Detroit Tigers (1955-57), Cleveland Indians (1958), Washington Senators (1959) and St. Louis Cardinals (1959).
Despite his health, Porter was a regular correspondent with fans right up to the end of his life. A week before he died, he participated in a Zoom call with members of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society & Fan Club. “What a special and loving man he was. We will truly miss him and we are very thankful that we were able to host a very special video conference call with him just last week. So many people enjoyed that call and were amazed at his stories with the Browns, Cardinals, Indians, Senators, and Tigers,” the group wrote in a Facebook post honoring his memory.
Porter’s wife of 52 years, Zee, told the Palm Beach Post that seven or eight letters a week would arrive at their house in Palm Beach Gardens from autograph seekers. “It continues to amaze me the mail that comes in,” she said. “He was a sweet soul. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like him.”
J.W. Porter was born in Shawnee, Okla., on January 17, 1933. His family-placed obituary lists his birthplace as Bugscuffle, Okla., and if that’s the most amazing city name in the state of Oklahoma, it’s in the Top Three. The “J” and “W” don’t stand for anything; they were just initials. He would be referred to as Jay Porter for most of his playing career. His family moved to the West Coast, settling in Oakland in November 1941. Porter made the minor-league Oakland Oaks’ ballpark his home away from home, and he could be found there when he wasn’t playing on youth teams. He went to high school at Oakland Tech and also was the catcher on the Will Erwin American Legion team in Oakland, one of the top amateur ballclubs in the country. In 1949, the team had a 23-3 record and defeated the Omaha Legion Post in the Little World Series. Porter batted .531 for the team. He dropped to .488 in 1950 but was still named the played of the year in American Legion junior baseball.
He attended San Francisco City College for a time and signed his first professional contract with the Chicago White Sox prior to the 1951 season with a reported $67,500 bonus. Porter was assigned to the Waterloo White Hawks of the Three-I League, and the 18-year-old catcher hit .302 with 15 home runs in his first professional experience. His arm was said to be just as potent as his bat
He was the starting catcher the night that teammate Gene Collins became the first African-American pitcher in the history of the League. Collins, a southpaw who formerly played with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, struck out 10 batters in a 5-4 win over Terre Haute. Porter had a tough time behind the plate that day, with three passed balls. He did pick up a couple of base hits and scored a run at least.
When White Sox manager Paul Richards had a chance to evaluate Porter, he stated that the youngster would be the team’s catcher for the next 15 years. What actually happened was that Porter lasted in the White Sox organization for about a year and a half. Porter split the first half of the 1952 season with Colorado Springs and Memphis of the Western League and Southern Association, respectively. He continued to excel in the minors, but he had nowhere to go. The Sox had veteran Sherm Lollar as the starting catcher and Phil Masi as a backup. Porter learned to play the outfield while in the minors, but the Sox traded him and outfielder Ray Coleman to the St. Louis Browns in July of 1952 for outfielder Jim Rivera and catcher Darrell Johnson. The Browns added him to the big-league roster.
Tragedy struck right at what should have been the happiest moment of Porter’s professional career. The day he joined the Browns, his wife Pat and father-in-law were killed in a car accident, driving from California to St. Louis. Browns owner Bill Veeck had to break the news to his new player.
“It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life,” he said. “But that isn’t something you can have someone else do.” The two formed a bond over the experience, and Porter later said that Veeck let him stay in Veeck’s private apartment in Sportsman’s Park for a couple of weeks until he could get himself together.
The St. Louis Browns had Clint Courtney behind the plate, so Porter was tried at a variety of places — right field, left field, even third base. His fielding proved to be a work in progress, though his hitting was pretty good. After some early struggles, he went 4-for-4 against Washington on August 19 to bring his batting average over .300. Porter got a fair amount of playing time under manager Marty Marion as the seventh-place Browns finished the season. In 33 games he hit .250 with 26 hits. He also had four stolen bases and was never caught. Those would be the only stolen base attempts of his major-league career, so he is the all-time MLB leader in stolen base percentage with 100% (minimum 4 attempts).
Over the offseason, The Browns traded Porter, infielder Owen Friend and outfielder Bob Nieman to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Virgil Trucks, outfielder Johnny Groth and reliever Hal White. However, the Army claimed Porter before the Tigers did, and he was out of baseball for two years. He still played baseball while serving at Fort Ord, located on by Monterey Bay in California.
Porter returned to baseball after his discharge in 1955, and expectations were high at the spring training camp. The Tigers assumed that he would claim the starting left field spot, and he starting the season by playing both left field and first base. But the hitting didn’t come around — a typical problem for players who came back to baseball after a long stint in the military.
“He’s too good a natural player to fail,” said manager Bucky Harris optimistically. “He needs to look at more good pitching.”
“Looking” was part of the problem. He was taking too many called strikes, something Porter himself said he had never done before. He was sent back to the minor leagues after accumulating too many strikeouts and not enough hits. Porter spent most of the season in the minors, trying to re-sharpen his batting eye. He showed some improvement when he got back to Detroit in September and finished the season with a .236 batting average in 24 games.
Porter acknowledged that his lack of a defined position was a problem. When he was strictly a catcher, he always knew where he would play. When the Sox started working with him to become an outfielder — supposedly at Veeck’s request — his role was never the same. “From then on I don’t know what I’ve been doing from one game to the next,” he said.
The Tigers used Porter so infrequently in 1956 that he never had a chance to get on track. He played in just 14 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and had 2 hits in 21 at-bats. His playing time improved more the following season at least, as he played in 58 games. He batted .250 with 18 RBIs and hit the first 2 home runs of his major-league career. The first one came on June 7, 1957, off the Yankees’ Don Larsen, and it tied the score in an eventual 6-3 Detroit win.
Porter was traded in February of 1958, along with pitcher Hal Woodeshick, to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Hank Aguirre and catcher Jim Hegan. He batted .200 with four home runs. Porter barely played for manager Bobby Bragan, but when he was replaced by Joe Gordon in mid-season, the playing time increased. He was used primarily as a catcher for the first time in his MLB career, though injuries to various Cleveland players forced Gordon to put him at first and third base as well.
Cleveland dealt Porter to Washington on October of 1958 for infielder Ossie Alvarez. In 37 games, he hit .226 with a home run and 10 RBIs. — and one nasty scar on his left arm. He got it in a wild brawl between the Senators and Cleveland. Porter happened to be behind the plate when Pedro Ramos threw at Cleveland Jimmy Piersall, setting off the fracas. Porter was trying to hold back Indians infielder Woodie Held, who was grappling with Washington coach Ellis Clary. Once Clary got free, he started kicking at Held, and Clary’s spikes gashed Porter by accident.
“I was frightened I would lose the use of my fingers, but the body is a fantastic thing,” he said. “The doctor sewed up the wound and I was catching the following Tuesday night after only three days.”
The St. Louis Cardinals claimed him on July 25, and he played his final 23 major-league games in the National League. For the year, Porter hit .223 in a combined 60 games.
In parts of 6 seasons, Porter slashed .228/.300/.316, with 22 doubles, a triple and 8 home runs among his 124 hits. He drove in 62 runs and scored 58 times. All total, he appeared in 91 games as a catcher, 25 in center fielder, 22 in right field, 15 in left field, 16 at first base and 3 at third base.
Porter was cut loose by the Cardinals but signed with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960. He never reached the majors with the team, but he had some very productive seasons in the minors. His power was on display with several seasons of double-digit homers, and he blasted 22 long balls in 1963 with the Denver Bears of the Pacific Coast League. He also hit .306 with 91 RBIs that season. He ended his minor-league career after the 1966 season. Porter had a full decade in the minors and hit .286 with 132 home runs and 1,020 hits in total. He had the distinction of being the last active St. Louis Brown in baseball.
After leaving baseball, Porter worked as a sporting goods salesman for Sears & Roebuck. After a couple of years, Porter became a scout for the new Montreal Expos franchise. He later managed in the Expos’ minor-league system in 1969 and 1970, leading some of the team’s Florida instructional and rookie-league teams. Despite some success, Montreal let him go after the 1970 season when he asked to move higher up the organizational depth chart. Porter called it his most disappointing moment in 25 years in baseball, and he was unable to pursue his dreams of becoming a major-league manager.
Porter worked as an appliance salesman for many years. In his later years, he became a popular usher at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, where the Cardinals have spring training. He was a distinctive figure, using a cane made from a baseball bat, and he regaled fans and ballplayers with stories from his career and all the legends he associated with.
His obituary in the Post (see below) called him “baseball’s Forrest Gump,” and it’s a fair comparison. Despite a short career, he seemed to have rubbed elbows with many of baseball’s Golden Era greats. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that Porter roomed with Larry Doby while in Cleveland, making them one of baseball’s earliest interracial roommates. He shined Satchel Paige‘s shoes, he homered while pinch-hitting for Roger Maris and replaced Stan Musial at first base in his last game. It started way back in American Legion. Bobby Mattick, former big-league manager, relayed this story about his time as a Reds scout in the early 1950s.
“Cincinnati assigned me to go to work on a red-headed catching prospect named J.W. Porter, who was attracting attention on the West Coast. That was in 1950. But while trailing Porter, I was impressed by a 14-year-old who was Porter’s teammate on the Oakland team which won the North American Legion Baseball championship. Eventually, Porter signed with the old St. Louis Browns for a hefty bonus. I kept after his teammate and signed Frank Robinson to a contract with Cincinnati with a $3,000 bonus and a promise he could start in Class C baseball.”
Porter appreciated his position in baseball history and was not disappointed about his playing career. “I started with DiMaggio and ended with Mays and Aaron and had Musial and Williams and all those great pitchers in between. To have been there and been able to play with them, well… I’d love to have a plaque in the Hall of Fame for my big-league accomplishments as well as for what I did in Legion ball, but you know what? I can’t complain.”