In a sorrowful six-month span just prior to his 40th birthday, Dick Porter buried his long-ailing wife, mourned his father’s sudden death and wondered if his main profession had reached an unexpected conclusion. It wasn’t a misplaced fear. He hadn’t played in the Major Leagues since 1934. He hadn’t been a minor-league regular since 1933. The Syracuse Chiefs, whom he’d managed with distinction for three seasons, didn’t desire a fourth. His fall-back was returning to Maryland, where he owned a liverwurst meat-packing plant and lounged with the 20-odd hounds he kept at his hunting camp that was popular with fellow players during the offseason.
Instead, he agreed to manage the Anniston Rams.
“I love the game and can’t get away from it,” he told The Anniston Star. “Anniston is just as good a place as any other town as long as I can be active in baseball.”
But the Rams? Earl Mann, the Atlanta Crackers’ business manager, gave his prediction to the newspaper: Anniston could try, but it couldn’t hire a manager like Porter. In the spring of 1941, the Rams were an unimpressive Southeastern League franchise that had lost repeatedly during two of its first three seasons and nearly folded amid financial distress the summer before. As a Cleveland Indian and Boston Red Sox, Porter had played against the American League’s best players — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Hack Wilson, Bill Terry, Al Simmons — and owned a career .308 MLB batting average. In the International League, he played on seven Baltimore playoff teams and piloted Syracuse to a pair of postseason appearances, leading to enshrinement in the IL’s Hall of Fame. Mann’s prediction sounded on point.
When Porter signed with the Rams, he didn’t reveal if he’d had other opportunities, or if the recent turbulent months had affected his decision. Anniston, a factory town in the Appalachian foothills, was far from Syracuse and the Finger Lakes region of New York state. But he agreed anyway, which surprised Rams President Loy Gunter, who “couldn’t quite understand” why the former Indian second baseman said yes, The Star reported. His friendship with former teammate Lena Styles, the Rams’ first manager, likely played an outsized role.
“He is aggressive, friendly, has an air of confidence in his walk, and really believes in hustling all the time,” Styles said. “We used to call him ‘Cocky’ because of his strutting gait, but this is not true in his managing strategy. He kids with his players and is one of them, but there is never a question of authority.” In mid-March, not long after he arrived from his Maryland home, Porter told a group of Anniston baseball fans that “it’s no use kidding you, men,” and that he wasn’t “going to make you any rash promised of a pennant winner this year.” Porter knew the details. The ’40 Rams had finished last in the SEL (61-82) and squandered any chance of building momentum for the following year. The Anniston team Porter inherited was essentially a remade franchise, from its roster to its leadership group. But he wasn’t prematurely morose; tickets still needed selling; spring hopes, though muted, did exist. “I can guarantee you a hustling ball club which you will be proud of supporting, win or lose. Not one man is going to loaf on Anniston fans’ money this year if I have anything to say about it, and I’ll have plenty to say to gold brickers.”
Porter did what he could with the little he had. Gunter gave the former Cleveland regular free reign with the roster, which constantly changed during a constant search for talent. “He hires and fires and does all of the deep thinking,” Gunter told a reporter from the Birmingham Post who attended a game at Johnston Field in June. The Rams may have steered clear of Porter’s doghouse, but they didn’t win much. Despite starting 3-0 and hovering around .500 in May, they were in last place or next-to-last place on the first days of June, July and August. Only their Etowah County rivals, the Gadsden Pilots, were equally moribund.
Rams fans didn’t care, at least those who bought tickets and drove to the park at the corner of 18th Street and Christine Avenue each night. Porter was their guy. In June, the Birmingham News’ sports editor, Ripper Seams, proclaimed that “the vote for the finest gentleman in the Southeastern (League) goes without question to Dick Porter … In the parlance of the umpires, Porter is an ‘angel.’” Seams noted that the Rams were putrid but equally plucky, a testament to their nice-guy manager. “The fans have gone overboard for Dick Porter, and if by some quirk of fate he could get this young ball club on the climb, Anniston would run a close race with the bigger towns in attendance. When the lines were written, ‘It’s how you play the game,’ Dick Porter must have been the inspiration.”
“I would have to say I spent my best playing days in the minors. There was just so much competition in the Major Leagues back in the late ’20s and ’30s that I just had to bide my time before the Cleveland Indians purchased my contract.”– Dick Porter
On Aug. 4, the Rams held a “Dick Porter Appreciation Night” at Johnston Field — an attendance promotion held in conjunction with another gimmick that offered 15-cent tickets to 27th Infantry Division soldiers at nearby Fort McClellan, many of whom were from New York state. Anniston’s management hoped to capitalize on Porter’s popularity from his days managing Syracuse. “Porter arrived here with not much to work on and less time (than others in the SEL) to develop a team,” Gunter told The Star. “But he did get a team together, which from the first day of the season has continued to battle every league team on equal terms.” The Rams’ president made it clear that Anniston’s baseball team, nearly extinct the summer before, was alive largely because of Porter’s efforts. Meridian spoiled the Rams’ celebration, winning 5-4; Porter, who rarely saw action himself, played five innings and received an engraved desk set from the 105th Infantry Regiment, whose soldiers remembered the former IL star. The regiment’s executive officer, New Yorker Lt. Col. Leonard A. Bishop, who had served in the 1916 Mexican Expedition and World War I, made the presentation. After promotion to colonel, Bishop would be severely wounded three years later in a Japanese banzai attack during the Battle of Saipan.
By the end of the week, Porter would be headed home, his baseball career potentially finished, and the bottom-rung Rams would have another manager as they limped to the end of the ’41 season. Five days after fans and soldiers feted him at Johnston Field, Porter asked the Rams for his release so he could take care of his failing meatpacking business in Saulsbury, Maryland. The team agreed. “Dick has been receiving telegrams constantly the last two months from his packing house supervisor seeking instructions as to how to meet serious business problems which have arisen since Porter left,” said Gunter, who took Porter’s advice and named Dee Moore, Anniston’s catcher, to fill in. The Rams were 50-65 and in seventh place in the SEL when Porter headed north. The managerial change wouldn’t alter the team’s floundering season.
Professionally and personally, the 39-year-old Porter bore the scars of a difficult two years. His wife had suffered a stroke and died after a lengthy illness. His father had passed away. His efforts to return to the Major Leagues had fizzled. After Syracuse fired him as their manager, his first attempt at leading a Class B team had ended abruptly. No one in Anniston begrudged Porter for tending to his business affairs. His fan-favorite status was secure, and he retained a financial stake in the club. (He had tried to buy the Double-A team in Elmira, New York, in 1940.) But in September, Porter told reporters in September that he’d resigned in Anniston because he was “homesick for the North,” according to the sports editor of the Buffalo Evening News. Regardless of the truth, Porter was a Marylander who’d played and managed his entire career up to that point far above the Alabama state line. And that’s where he went until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor rewrote his life plans.
The following March, a reporter from the Saulsbury newspaper visited Porter at his home. There he found an ex-Major Leaguer who was content, if for no other reason than his kennel of rabbit hounds, racoon dogs and setters. “Ya’ can’t play forever,” Porter said. “And when a man can look back on 22 years of big league and Double-A and have his dogs to fool around with, what more can he ask?” Press speculation was that Porter, who’d received military training in school, might receive an army commission. Instead, he joined the Coast Guard in September, spending most of the war as a 40-something chief boatswain’s mate and coaching military baseball teams. Discharged from the Coast Guard in the fall of 1944, he quickly landed another managerial job when the Cleveland Indians signed him to pilot their team in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Back in professional baseball before the war ended, he’d stay there until his 50th birthday, managing teams in Toronto, Utica and Salisbury. Surprisingly, he also spent three summers managing teams in the South, first in Birmingham, then in St. Petersburg.
When Porter died in 1974 at the age of 72, Rick Cullen, sports editor of the Salisbury Daily Times, reminded readers of the former Cleveland hitter’s strong opinions about his minor-league days. “I would have to say I spent my best playing days in the minors,” Porter said. “There was just so much competition in the Major Leagues back in the late ’20s and ’30s that I just had to bide my time before the Cleveland Indians purchased my contract.” Porter’s life, Cullen wrote, was baseball. His place in the Maryland Shrine of Immortals, a creation of the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association, alongside Babe Ruth and Jimmy Foxx proved that he was “that kind of baseball player.”
Porter, who later worked in public relations for a Philadelphia brewery, is buried in Allen Methodist Church Cemetery in Allen, Maryland.