The pitcher adored by Rams’ Black fans

Lee Porterfield.

Of all the oddball, quirky nuances that surround alumni of the Anniston Rams, there is nothing, neither talent nor backstory, that would have predicted Lee Porterfield’s saga. It’s likely peerless. In it were include two stints with the Rams, combat against the retreating Nazis, an unexplained kinship with African-American fans at Johnston Field, and a Purple Heart earned when a German had the audacity to shoot him in the forearm.

An Idaho boy from a sizeable family with Missouri roots, Porterfield epitomized the plight of professional baseball players during the worst days of World War II. Military duty, baring the rare exception, superseded sport. So the slightly built left-handed pitcher became one of the countless players whose careers were put on hold, if not outright curtailed, by wartime service. That he was wounded, hospitalized and still returned to baseball is juicy but not wholly remarkable.

A 1942 clipping from The Anniston Star.

What’s hard to pin down is how Porterfield — a 20-something white man with wavy hair and a charming smile and only a middling chance of reaching the Major Leagues — became the darling of the Black fans who bought reduced-fare “colored” tickets for Johnston Field’s segregated bleachers in the summer of 1942. Though Anniston’s Southeastern League team clearly courted African-Americans’ attendance (and ticket money), the Rams never fielded a Black player. When the team’s ownership scheduled a “Lee Porterfield Night” because Blacks, The Anniston Star explained, wanted to honor “the choice player among the big crowd of loyal colored fans,” it was still four years before Jackie Robinson famously broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. “Anniston claims the largest and most loyal crowd of colored fans of any club in the league,” The Star wrote. Largely overlooked, by the newspaper and the city at large, were the successful African-American teams that shared Johnson Field with the white-only Rams, including the Anniston Black Rams and Anniston Grays.

Whatever glued Porterfield to Anniston’s African-American supporters happened quickly, given that the Rams didn’t buy his contract from the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system until late May. The Rams set the date of “Lee Porterfield Night” for Aug. 12, a Wednesday game against Meridian. Melding the team’s managerial and marketing duties, the Rams made sure Porterfield would pitch.

The ‘42 Rams weren’t the ‘27 Yankees — they finished 67-76 and in fourth place in the SEL — but slid into the playoffs thanks to players like Porterfield, who won 13 games in only a half-season’s work. When Montgomery bounced Anniston from the postseason’s first round, Porterfield was again in the middle of the fray, though not in a productive way, losing twice in the best-of-seven series.

1942 headlines from The Anniston Star

The Rams couldn’t have been happier with the result. Playoff-bound Anniston won, 2-1, as the Idahoan scattered nine hits, fanning 11 and allowing only a single run, and knocked in the game-winning tally with a double to left in the ninth inning. The serendipity, perhaps preordained, was hard to miss. As the winning run scored, “All the fans went wild with cheers, but the colored people rose as one and sounded a mighty hullabaloo for their choice because he had come through the battle with flying colors,” The Star wrote. After the game, Black fans gave Porterfield a Bulova watch and $65 they collected during the night. 

 The war, raging as it was, shut down both the Rams and Porterfield’s career. The Rams (and the SEL) wouldn’t play again until 1946; though wounded when the 11th Armored Division landed in Europe, Porterfield pitched a bit on military teams and rejoined the reconstituted Rams after training with the Birmingham Barons that spring. He was older, 25 and a piece, a combat casualty with a slew of Army medals — a Silver Star and Bronze Star to go with his Purple Heart — and a body not quite in baseball shape. 

The ‘46 Rams were the franchise’s best outfit, a second-place club that won the postseason title. Porterfield contributed little. In late April, The Star reported that the “favorite with Rams fans before the war” was being methodical with his arm’s recovery. By late summer, he’d pitched only 11 times, mostly in relief, as Anniston rallied from the league’s cellar and tried to keep pace with Pensacola and Vicksburg. Released by the Rams, he briefly joined the Class D team in Tallassee, Alabama, but then called it a day. 

Unshackled from minor-league baseball’s brutal travel schedule, Porterfield literally went west. He and his wife, Delores, operated a cafe near the Nevada-Oregon border for more than a decade before relocating to Carson City. Porterfield played industrial and city league ball for as long as he could, pitching well enough to garner headlines in Nevada newspapers when he wasn’t working as a miner or butcher.

He died in 2010 at age 89. He’s buried in Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Lyon County, Nevada.

Lee Porterfield’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

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