Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cardboard appreciation: 1981 Topps Traded Darrell Porter

(Today is the start of the 35th World Series that I have watched since I became a baseball fan. For awhile there, it was the high point of my year. But ever since I started working in the sports department, at night, it's been just another obstacle toward deadline. Which is why I'm looking forward to Game 3 and 4 this weekend. I'll get to see all of each game and appreciate the Series for what it is. The best spectacle in sports. Time for Cardboard Appreciation. This is the 122nd in a series):

Max didn't just send me the 1973 Topps Ron Cey card (a.k.a. the Mike Schmidt Rookie Card). He sent me the complete 1981 Topps Traded set, what I consider to be the first traded set (don't give me that '72, '74, '76 mumbo jumbo).

I've coveted this set since I was a teenager. I've already mentioned that I was a year late to the party, ordering up the '82 Traded set (a.k.a. The Ripken Rookie Set) instead. The '81 Traded set has been one of my many, many, many white whales.

Well, now that this Moby is in the boat, I've just started looking through the cards, and let me tell you there is about two weeks of blog material there. The mustaches! The hairdos! The photography!

But I must start with the glasses. And when you're talking glasses, you must kick it off with Darrell Porter.

Porter, as most historians of '70s/'80s baseball know, was a powerful hitting catcher with a cocaine problem.  It's difficult to say how much of his drug addiction had to do with his outward appearance, but addicts are known to let their appearances slide. And there's no mistaking that Porter had some different looks during his playing career.

In fact, those bizarre plexiglass items that Porter is featuring on his '81 Traded card were actually a sign to me that Porter was cleaning himself up. These glasses appeared after his drug problem became known and the rehab had begun. Prior to this and the drug revelation, Porter was sporting much different eye clothing. On Porter's base '81 Topps card, for example:

I didn't think it was possible for the plexiglass frames to be an improvement, but compared with the coke-bottle black frames, they're practically the height of fashion.

Add the mustache and there's no way you want someone like this sitting next to you on a bus.

Yup, the transparent frames are much better. He looks much more welcoming here.

Porter featured the plastic goggles throughout his stay with the Cardinals. He became a born-again Christian and was known as a charitable and personable man.

They may not have been the most attractive accessory, but Porter was a catcher and vision correction simply did not mix with self-preservation behind the plate 30 years ago. Wear what you must to get through nine innings.

These glasses were actually the fifth different kind of specs that Porter had featured during his major league career. And the black-framed coke bottle creations were the fourth.

To see the first, we need to go back to 1972 and a guy named Jerry Bell.

Topps convinced kids that Jerry Bell was a bespectacled young man who favored rectangular frames and wearing batting helmets.

But actually that was a photo of Porter. Bell is the smiling, sideburned gentleman in the center.

By 1974, Porter converted to more practical, more protective eye wear. He was catching in more than 100 games a season by then and needed something that would stand up to all those foul balls to the mask.

I have no advance knowledge of when Porter's drug dependence began, but I wouldn't be surprised if I heard it was in 1975. This is not a picture of a guy who could be trusted in anything other than a motorcycle rally. Even his shades have grown dark.

There was one more year of the shaded goggles -- my guess is Porter is trying too hard to look like Howard Stern here? -- and then came 1979.

Not only did it mark the arrival of Porter's black-frame period, but it was also the best year of his baseball career. He was an All-Star. He drove in 112 runs. He almost hit .300, which wasn't bad for a career .250 batter.

Yet, life was not manageable. During spring training of 1980, Dodger great Don Newcombe visited Royals camp and presented players with 10 questions. Three answers in the affirmative meant a likely substance abuse problem. Porter answered "yes" to all 10 questions, and checked himself into rehab.

He emerged on the other side sober and a Cardinal. The back of this card says Porter agreed to sign with St. Louis while he and his second wife, Deanna, were on their honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean.

It proved a great fit. Porter was MVP in the 1982 League Championship Series and World Series against the Brewers. He remained with the Cardinals through the 1985 season even though his production wasn't what it was with the Royals.

Porter spent his final big league season with the Rangers. The black frames returned, but the old Porter didn't. By all accounts, he was still clean and sober through the end of his career and into "the real world." He worked in broadcasting and in business and raised his children.

Then in 2002, he had a relapse, and he died.

When I first heard the news, I knew immediately that his death was a relapse. I don't know why. Just a natural tendency to think the worst, I guess.

I hope nobody thinks I'm making light of Porter or his drug problem. It's apparent that he had abundant, striking talent coupled with demons that nobody from a sideline perspective will understand. I will always admire Porter for putting it all on display -- the drug issues, the quest to be a better person, the willingness to go out there every day even though something as simple as being able to see on the field was a problem. The glasses just help me tell the tale.

Sure, Porter had some crazy glasses. He was also one hell of a catcher.

And he gave us a card like this:

It doesn't get any awesomer than that, people.

(Yes, I realize this is a player who competed for both the Cardinals and the Rangers. Happy World Series everybody!)


  1. You really know how to weave a story. That was great.

  2. Thank you... thank you... thank you. I was a huge fan of Porter in the 80's... and in some sixth sense way... I always knew someone would write up a blog post to honor him and his glasses.

    Awesome post!

  3. Hadn't seen that '78 Porter before. F'n spectacular shot of a tortured soul.

  4. Please...don't talk jokingly about Darrell Porter. He was a great player, a tortured soul and lived an actual Cinderella story that turned tragic. He was greatly admired by many, including this poster and will never be forgotten. 1982 NL Playoff MVP, WS MVP and WS Champion. That's all you really need to remember about him. That he was a champion and a good guy with a terrible issue which ended up killing him. 'Nuff said.

  5. Darrell Porter is and always will be my favorate player. as an 11-year-old back in 1981, I had the great pleasure to meet him at a church function, and he was incredibly kind and gracious. He sternly warned me about the devistation that drugs caused in his life, and said, "I don't want to see that hell happen to you." He wrote his autobiography in 1983, called "Snap Me Perfect: The Darrell Porter Story"' and I highly recommend it. When he died in 2002, I knew what happened, and I don't mind telling you that I cried the better part of several days. In honor of him, I have a small tattoo on my left wrist that reads simply "DRP15 1952-2002". (the "R" is for his middle name, Ray.)