Vergennes calls itself “the smallest city in America,” and it was in that tiny Addison County city that Henry Porter was born in June 1858. Prior to the War of 1812, Vergennes had been a hotbed of Lake Champlain commerce, but by mid-century its thriving shipping industry had long since faded. The Porters’ stay was brief and not noteworthy: city records reveal no evidence of any Porters living in Vergennes in the years just prior to the Civil War, and it is known that Henry’s family moved to Brockton, Massachusetts, while he was still quite young.
Henry soon made a name throughout the sandlots and semi-pro diamonds of eastern Massachusetts. A right-handed pitcher, he teamed with his catcher-brother Albert to form a battery of local notoriety. From 1878 to 1883 Henry pitched for several teams in the Bay State, and his outstanding record for Holyoke earned him a June 1883 tryout with the National League’s Cleveland Blues. The Blues gave him his start in organized ball by farming him out to Bay City, Michigan, of the Northwest League.
Porter spent parts of two seasons in Bay City, where he “pitched champion ball, aiding it in securing the pennant.” After the 1884 Northwest League season ended, Henry signed on with the Milwaukee Brewers of the short-lived Union Association, making his “major league” debut with that team on September 27, 1884. Appearing in six games with Milwaukee, Henry achieved an unusual trifecta — three wins, three losses and a 3.00 ERA. After the Union Association folded in January, Porter signed on with the Brooklyn Grays of the American Association, also then regarded as a major league.
At Brooklyn’s Washington Park on June 4, 1885, a Vermont-born pitcher faced a Vermont-born batter for the first time ever in a major league game. Henry Porter held Fred Mann hitless that day but issued a bases-loaded walk in the eighth inning to force in the winning run in a 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Despite that defeat, Henry enjoyed his best season in the majors in 1885. On a mediocre fifth-place club, Porter was 33-21 with a 2.78 ERA, tied for third in the Association in wins and complete games, fourth in innings pitched and fifth in strikeouts and winning percentage.
Baseball players tend to be a superstitious lot, and Henry Porter was even more so than most. While pitching for Brooklyn he started wearing a red-trimmed jersey and became convinced that he could not win without it. “A story is told of him that one time in St. Louis the jersey was at the laundry and that he cried because he could not get it,” The Sporting News reported. “One of the directors got it for him before he could pitch.”
Porter put together two more solid seasons as the workhorse of the Brooklyn pitching staff, but each year his ERA grew while his wins, innings pitched and strikeouts shrank. After the 1887 season, St. Louis Browns owner Chris Von Der Ahe dismantled his three-time American Association pennant winner, selling his star pitching tandem of Bob Caruthers and Dave Foutz to Brooklyn. With Porter suddenly expendable, the Grays dispatched him to a hastily-assembled new franchise, the Kansas City Cowboys. Predictably, the Cowboys finished dead last in 1888 and Porter led the Association with 37 losses. Still, he won 18 games for a really terrible team; Kansas City’s eight other pitchers combined to win only 21.
At times Porter still could sparkle. On June 6, 1888, Henry proved that by tossing a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles, the 26th such accomplishment in the history of the major leagues. At the time, however, the feat went largely unnoticed. A sub-headline in the Baltimore Sun mentioned “Porter’s Rare Pitching Feat,” but the game account focused more on the Orioles’ lack of enthusiasm than on Porter’s great pitching:
A game played by eighteen galvanized corpses is a spectacle unexpected in any base-ball city, and yet that was the sight to which the spectators of the Baltimore-Kansas City game at the Huntingdon avenue grounds yesterday were treated. Baltimore was defeated, but there was nothing remarkable in that. Baltimore was shut out, but that has happened before. But it never before occurred when every Baltimore player was doing fairly good work that they were shut out without a single hit.
Within a year of the no-hitter, however, the years of overwork presumably took their toll. In 1889 Porter appeared in only four games for Kansas City and lost all three of his decisions, his ERA skyrocketing to 12.52. At the age of 32, his major league career was over.
Henry Porter’s career was brief but stunning. Over the course of four seasons, 1885-88, Porter pitched more innings than any other hurler in the American Association. Appearing mainly for second-division teams, he averaged 23 wins, 25 losses and 430 innings pitched per season, and went the distance in an incredible 98% of the games he started. Even by 19th-century standards, successive seasons of 33 and 27 wins is impressive, especially when his team was not exactly a forerunner of Stengel‘s Yankees. Overlooking Porter’s brief but disastrous final season, his career ERA is a solid 3.51. The young man from the shores of Lake Champlain had done the Green Mountain State credit.
With his big league days behind him, Henry returned to his adopted hometown of Brockton and continued pitching, playing with numerous teams throughout southern New England over the next four seasons. In 1893 he finally settled down and went to work in Brockton’s famous shoe industry. For more than a decade Henry held a responsible position in one of the Douglas shoe factories. Henry Porter was only 48 when he died on December 30, 1906, at his home on North Montello Street. The Brockton Enterprise reported that he died “[a]fter an illness of long duration”; his death certificate lists the cause as complications arising from pneumonia. Thus ended the life of a Green Mountain Boy who, as his obituary reported, “was known throughout the baseball world as one of the cleverest pitchers in his day.”
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.