December 7, 1980: Whitey Herzog’s roster rebuild begins with Darrell Porter

The first time Darrell Porter met Whitey Herzog, he asked the Royals manager what was expected of him. Porter had just arrived in Kansas City in a trade from the Brewers, while Herzog was coming off his second season with the Royals, a 90-win campaign that resulted in an American League West championship.

“I expect you to be one of the five best catchers in the league this year,” Herzog replied. “Then next year, I expect you to be one of the two best, and the third year, I expect you to be the best catcher in baseball.”[1]

Porter may well have done exactly that. In his first season in Kansas City, he hit .275 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs. He followed that season by hitting .265 with 18 homers and 78 RBIs, earning the second all-star appearance of his career and placing 10th in the MVP voting. In 1979, he enjoyed the best season of his career, batting .291 with 20 homers and 112 RBIs. His 121 walks that season led the league, helping him post a .421 on-base percentage.

Porter credited Herzog for helping him become one of the game’s best backstops.

“Whenever I would get discouraged and start feeling like I just didn’t belong in the major leagues, Whitey was always there to lift my spirits,” Porter said. “He would tell me, ‘You’re my catcher. You’ll come back and you’ll be all right tomorrow,’ and just the way he said it made me believe in myself.”[2]

Just as Porter was reaching new heights in his career, it all came crashing down. After the 1979 season, he received a phone call from a friend to tell him that the Royals had just fired Herzog. Porter slammed the phone down in frustration.

“I’ll play out my option in 1980 and go wherever Whitey is managing,” he told himself.[3]

The following spring, Porter admitted to abusing drugs and alcohol and checked into rehab. He missed the beginning of the 1980 season, but returned in time to play in 118 games, though his numbers were the worst of his Kansas City tenure: a .249 batting average, seven home runs, and 51 RBIs.

Despite his reaction to the news of Herzog’s firing, Porter wanted to remain in Kansas City. Mike McKenzie of the Kansas City Times reported that to stay with the Royals, Porter probably would have had to accept roughly one-third the money that Herzog and the Cardinals were offering.

“The Royals likely would have talked in the $1.2 million range for a three-year term,” he wrote.[4]

Darrell Porter – Topps Traded, 1981

On December 7, 1980, the Cardinals announced that they had reached an agreement with Porter. It was reported that the five-year deal would make Porter the highest-paid catcher in baseball, supplanting the Cardinals’ current catcher, Ted Simmons, who made approximately $630,000 a year.[5]

Despite their friendship, Herzog had pushed Porter and his agent, Frank Knisley, more quickly than Porter would have liked. The catcher was on a honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean when Herzog offered $3.5 million for five years.[6] There was a catch, however: if Herzog didn’t get an answer before the winter meetings, the contract wouldn’t still be there when Porter returned.

“I wasn’t going to leave my offer out there while they shopped,” Herzog said. “I knew Darrell was out to sea, but I’ve been on those cruises so I knew he could be reached too. We came to terms Friday, and I wanted an answer before the meetings or I’d pull out, take our offer off the board.”[7]

Knisley reached Porter via trans-Atlantic telephone, sharing the good news first, then informing Porter of the deadline. As Porter recounted the conversation in his book, Snap Me Perfect:

Whitey, aware that the Royals were pussyfooting, was trying to force a deal. As much as I loved the guy and could picture myself working under him again, I was angry over the strategy and the fact that they thought none of this could possibly wait until I returned from my honeymoon.

“Frank,” I said, “there is no way I am going to make that decision this minute. Furthermore, I won’t make any decision at all until you call the Royals and give them the opportunity to make a counteroffer. If they can come close, then I’d like to stay in Kansas City. Money isn’t the only consideration.”[8]

Knisley reached out to the Royals, but their offer fell $1.5 million short.[9] Though Porter wouldn’t sign his contract until the following week, he was headed to the Cardinals.

It soon became clear that Porter was merely the first domino to fall in Herzog’s plan to remake the Cardinals. With Porter in the fold, Herzog announced his plans to move Ted Simmons to first base and move Gold Glove first baseman Keith Hernandez to left field.

Keith Hernandez – Topps 1981

“I would think I’ll be playing a lot of first base and it’ll be just fine for me, but I don’t know if it will be just fine for Keith,” Simmons told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You’re taking a Gold Glove and putting him somewhere where he might not win another one. I don’t think that makes our club that much better defensively and I would think it would have a reverse effect. Keith is a much better first baseman than he is a left fielder. You take your Gold Glove and put him in the outfield … you’ve done something that, I’m sure, you really would rather not have to do.”[10]

Ken Reitz, who was considering whether to accept a trade that would send him to the Cubs for Bruce Sutter, also criticized the move.

“The Porter deal stinks,” he said. “I’m changing my attitude. I’ve begun to think of other clubs.”[11]

Herzog, however, argued that Porter represented such an upgrade at catcher that it made up for the downgrade at first base.

“Don’t you think our defense will be better off with Porter behind the plate?” Herzog said. “When I got fired from Kansas City, he was the best catcher in baseball.”[12]

Meanwhile, Herzog continued to wheel and deal. On December 8, he traded catching prospect Terry Kennedy along with John Littlefield, Al Olmsted, Mike Phillips, Kim Seaman, Steve Swisher, and John Urrea to the Padres for Rollie Fingers, Bob Shirley, and Gene Tenace (Bob Geren would be sent to St. Louis two days later to complete the trade).

On December 9, Reitz agreed to go to Chicago in the trade that brought Sutter to St. Louis in exchange for Reitz, outfielder Leon Durham, and a player to be named later.

As Herzog made his moves, Simmons reconsidered his move to first base. On the same day the Cardinals acquired one future Hall of Famer in Sutter, another player bound for Cooperstown, Simmons, requested that he be traded.

“In truth, Simmons, though he didn’t say so, has been hurt by Herzog’s decision after 11 years of productive service,” Hummel wrote. “His understanding of playing first base was that he would play it once in a while, as derived from a conversation with Herzog at the end of last season. Upon considering the Porter situation, he has decided that he does not want to play it every day.”[13]

Ted Simmons – Topps 1980

On December 12, Herzog traded Fingers, Simmons, and Pete Vuckovich to the Brewers for outfielders David Green and Sixto Lezcano and pitchers Dave LaPoint and Lary Sorensen.

The trade was not popular in St. Louis, where Simmons was affectionately known as “Simba” and had been the Cardinals’ best player throughout much of the 1970s.

“He wanted the trade,” Herzog said. “I hope the fans don’t think that because of Darrell Porter, we don’t have Ted Simmons.”[14]

Herzog’s pleas fell on deaf ears.

“From day one, a few of the Cardinals fans (it seemed like the whole stadium) took an instant dislike to me,” Porter wrote in 1984. “As we got into the season, I began to look forward to the road trips – I actually got less abuse from opposing fans than I did from the hometown crowd. And my playing was much better on the road.”[15]

A torn rotator cuff limited Porter to just 61 games that season. When he returned in 1982, Porter hit .231 with 12 homers and 48 RBIs. Along the way, Herzog realized that Porter was no longer the player he had coached in Kansas City.

In 1999, Herzog recounted an instance in which Porter’s competitive fire seemed to be gone.

“One day he struck out four times on 14 pitches and never took the bat off his shoulder,” he wrote. “Guys are going to get the collar once in a while, but man, there are limits. ‘Darrell,’ I said, ‘what the hell are you thinking? Are you prepared? What are you waitin’ for?’ He gave me kind of a dreamy smile, shrugged, and said, ‘Oh well, the Lord will take care of it.’ I said, ‘Darrell, maybe the Lord knows all, but He ain’t gonna get you any base hits. Swing the bat!’”[16]

Darrell Porter – 1984 Topps

Porter did exactly that in the 1982 playoffs. After going 5-for-9 with three doubles to win NLCS MVP honors, he went 8-for-28 (.286) with two doubles, a home run, and five RBIs to win World Series MVP honors as well.

Porter played five seasons in St. Louis, batting .237/.347/.402 over that span with 54 home runs and 249 RBIs. Following the 1985 season, Porter signed with the Rangers, where he played the final two seasons of his career.


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[1] Associated Press, “Porter Agrees To Sign 5-Year Pact With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 7, 1980.

[2] Associated Press, “Porter Agrees To Sign 5-Year Pact With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 7, 1980.

[3] Doug Tucker, “Porter decides to make good on his 1979 vow, after all,” Kansas City Star, December 8, 1980.

[4] Mike McKenzie, “Herzog’s style, money and influence made Porter a Cardinal,” Kansas City Times, December 8, 1980.

[5] Associated Press, “Porter Agrees To Sign 5-Year Pact With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 7, 1980.

[6] Darrell Porter with William Deerfield (1984), Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story, Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, N.Y., Page 233.

[7] Mike McKenzie, “Herzog’s style, money and influence made Porter a Cardinal,” Kansas City Times, December 8, 1980.

[8] Darrell Porter with William Deerfield (1984), Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story, Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, N.Y., Page 233.

[9] Darrell Porter with William Deerfield (1984), Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story, Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, N.Y., Page 233.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Simmons Calls Move To First Base ‘Just Fine,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 8, 1980.

[11] Doug Tucker, “Porter decides to make good on his 1979 vow, after all,” Kansas City Star, December 8, 1980.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Simmons Calls Move To First Base ‘Just Fine,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 8, 1980.

[13] Rick Hummel, “Agent Will Ask Birds To Deal Slighted Simmons,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 9, 1980.

[14] Ed Wilks, “Herzog Defends Deal That Dispatched Simmons,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 1980.

[15] Darrell Porter with William Deerfield (1984), Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story, Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, N.Y., Page 236-237.

[16] Whitey Herzog and Jonathan Pitts (1999), You’re Missin’ a Great Game: From Casey to Ozzie, the Magic of Baseball and How to Get It Back, New York; Berkley Books, Page 172.

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