Following a successful career as a journalist, graphic designer, and marketer, Gary Kauffman is now a freelance writer.
I’ve always been fascinated by players who rise from relative obscurity to have one or two great seasons before fading away into oblivion, barely remembered by even ardent baseball fans. Bob Porterfield is one of those stories—in fact, his story sounds a little like one he made up himself.
Porterfield pitched in the Majors from 1948 to 1959, starting with the Yankees, having his two best seasons with the Washington Senators and finishing as a mop-up reliever for several teams.
Porterfield was not shy about creating his own history of his greatness. According to his version, he was the star pitcher for his high school team; his coach recalls him as an infielder who pitched some in relief. According to his version, he enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor, made five combat jumps as a paratrooper in World War II and was wounded in battle. Reality shows that he was drafted in 1943 and never saw any military action. Even his baseball story sounds a bit like one he made up.
An unimpressive start
One fact not in question was his ability to pitch, which gained the attention of professional scouts. In August 1948, he was smoking hot in August at the Triple A level when the Yankees decided to promote him to help in their pennant dogfight with Cleveland and Boston. His performance was mixed, going 5-3 with a 4.50 ERA and a loss in the key final season game against Boston.
He was one of those hard-luck guys who always seemed to get hurt, taking line drives off various parts of his body, suffering a broken jaw when he was beaned, cutting his feet on glass while playing with his kids and burning his face when a matchbox he was holding caught on fire. Yankee manager Casey Stengel recalled his experience with Porterfield: “There was always something wrong — sore arm, sore head, sore back, sore legs.”
His performance on the mound did little to convince the Yankees he was part of their future. In three years he compiled an 8-9 record with 4.87 ERA and a WHIP of 1.526. After giving up six runs in three innings to start 1951, New York sent him to the minors. A few months later, Washington manager Bucky Harris, who had been the Yankee manager in 1948, traded for Porterfield.
Fresh start in Washington
Playing for Washington in the early ‘50s was hardly an enviable position. From 1951 to 1955 they were 335-433 and never finished higher than sixth in the eight-team American League. But for Porterfield, it was a chance to finally prove his worth.
He pitched 19 games for the Senators in 1951, posting a 9-8 record with a 3.24 ERA. In 1952 he posted a 2.72 ERA but only went 13-14 for a team that showed a lack of ability to hit when he pitched. The Senators were shutout in seven of his losses, three of them 1-0, and he won two games by 1-0 scores. He also mixed in a few clunkers, giving up six runs in three innings in one game and seven runs in five innings in another.
The glorious 1953 season
But that set the stage for his big season, 1953, although his start didn’t portend how well it would go. He lost his first three starts with a 7.97 ERA, giving up 29 hits and 13 walks in 20.1 innings. But from that point, he was the American League’s best pitcher, going 22-7 with a 2.95 ERA the rest of the way. He ended up with a 22-10 record for Washington (which finished the season 76-76), had a 3.35 ERA and fired a league-leading nine shutouts and 24 complete games. He helped himself with the bat, too, hitting .255 with three homers (including a grand slam) and 16 RBIs.
He came close to throwing two perfect games that season. On May 10 against Philadelphia, he faced the minimum 27 batters. Only a seventh-inning single by Eddie Joost and a ninth-inning walk to Kite Thomas, both who were then erased on double plays, kept him from a perfect game.
Three months later, on Aug. 10 against Boston, he repeated the performance, this time facing 28 batters. Jim Piersall kept him from a perfect game, with a single in the third, followed by a double play, and a walk in the ninth.
His 1953 performance earned him enough MVP votes to finish seventh, pretty good for a player on a team that finished .500.
Nothing lasts forever
In 1954, he pitched in hard luck again. His ERA was basically the same, 3.32, but he posted a 13-15 record. He lost three games by 2-1 scores and another by a 1-0 count. But he also continued to be very hittable, giving up a league-leading 249 hits in 244 innings.
But just as quickly as his career soared, it fell back to earth. In 1955 he was 10-17 with a 4.45 ERA. Boston traded for him before the 1956 season, hoping he could regain his 1953 form and help them get ahead of the Yankees but that was a miserable failure. He went 3-12 with a 5.14 ERA, finishing the season in the bullpen. He remained mostly a relief pitcher for the Red Sox in 1957 and early in 1958 they traded him to Pittsburgh.
Porterfield had one last flash of glory, throwing an 11-inning shutout in his first appearance for the Pirates. He made two more inglorious starts with Pittsburgh before being shuffled to the bullpen. During the 1959 season, the Pirates traded him to the Cubs, where his ERA ballooned to 11.37 before they shipped him back to the Pirates. That ended his Major League career.
Few people remember the name Bob Porterfield these days, but for a couple of years he spun a real story big enough to outshine even one of his tall tales, and brought a few happy moments to Washington fans who had very few of those in the 1950s.
Bob Porterfield Career Stats
Richard Hampton on April 16, 2020:
Good research and stats. Never heard of before but you’ve changed that. Good read.