Walter “Slim” Porter became the first African-American to
manage an all-white Glenwood League team during the 1960s
By John Dudley
In the spring of 1968, amid some of the worst racially
charged rioting in U.S. history, Walter “Slim” Porter had an
idea he knew might backfire.
He knew it could lead to resistance from both the
African-American and white communities.
He knew his simple message about unity could be swallowed up
and lost in an angry environment that had seen police and
National Guardsmen in other cities respond to the worst of
the disturbances with weapons fire.
He had watched Erie, just weeks earlier, become rocked by
open clashes and protests that spilled into the streets
after a white teacher struck a black student with a
classroom pointer at Academy High School.
Porter knew all that, saw all that, and he pushed ahead
During a time when tensions in this country were so volatile
that economic historian Robert A. Mango said in a 2004 New
York Times article, “a riot could happen almost anywhere,
anytime,” Porter, who is black, went to local high schools
and recruited white ballplayers to form a team in the
Walter “Slim” Porter, 84, former Glenwood League baseball
[CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]
Pete Freed, at left, and Walter “Slim” Porter, at right, are
shown Monday at Ainsworth Field in Erie. In the late 1960s
and early 1970s, Porter, now 84, managed a Glenwood League
baseball team on which Freed, now 66, played. Many of their
games were played at Ainsworth Field. [CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE
Walter “Slim” Porter, at left, and Pete Freed, at right, are
shown Monday at Ainsworth Field in Erie.
[CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]
It was unprecedented, certainly unexpected, but it
For seven summers, Porter’s all-white teams suited up and
played for a black manager, even when, to some people, that
didn’t seem like such a smart move.
Pete Freed played on five of Porter’s teams. Now the
district court administrator for Erie County and then an
emerging high school baseball standout, Freed said whether
the players understood it at the time or not, they were
together for a higher purpose, using baseball to encourage
peaceful coexistence among races.
“I can never remember a problem or anything negative on any
of those teams,” said Freed, 66. “The thing ‘Slim’ always
said was, he didn’t care if we were black, white or orange.
We were there to play baseball and have fun.”
And yet, there were problems. Porter did receive his share
of negative feedback.
And if the players didn’t seem affected by that, it’s
because Porter reminded them over and over that criticism
couldn’t hold up against mutual respect.
“I didn’t have to say anything to them boys about that
except, ‘We are people; blood runs through our veins,’ ”
said Porter, now 84. “I die and you die. If we can just do
this here together, in the name of baseball, that’s all that
Man from Mississippi
Walter Porter was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the
Great Depression, one of 17 children.
His father worked in the fields, and, at age 7, Porter began
steering a plow behind a mule for 18-hour shifts. He earned
50 cents a day.
He moved to Erie in 1959, in his mid-20s, looking for a
better job. He had $10 in his pocket, but soon found work
for the owner of a scrapyard on the east side. He later
drove a tractor-trailer for a long-haul company, and then
drove a bus for the School District of the City of Erie for
30 years until retiring in 2006.
Porter has 17 children of his own, all of them grown, many
now scattered about the country.
He was an athlete who played baseball growing up in
Mississippi and later in Erie. This summer will be his 54th
season umpiring baseball and softball games. He keeps doing
it because he relishes the feeling he gets from being at
ball fields, the energy and excitement, the renewal of
Many of those same things drew him to the local sports scene
in the late 1960s, when he began ingratiating himself within
baseball circles, in particular the city’s highly
competitive Glenwood League, which attracted the best high
school and college players along with many ex-professionals.
At the time, Erie was experiencing fallout from efforts to
integrate schools in the wake of the Supreme Court’s
landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling more than a
By the summer of 1967, violence had erupted across the
country. A report issued that fall by the Senate Permanent
Investigations Committee found already that year police had
responded to 75 riots resulting in 83 deaths, 1,397
injuries, more than 16,000 arrests and an estimated $664
million in property damage and other costs.
Federal troops were dispatched to quell a riot in Detroit.
In Erie, disturbances were reported on three separate days
in July, the committee said.
In her 1996 book, “Journey From Jerusalem: An Illustrated
Introduction to Erie’s African American History, 1795-1995,”
Strong Vincent High School teacher Sarah Thompson noted that
riots and protests broke out in the spring of 1968 at all
four Erie public high schools, the worst of them at Academy
following the incident between the teacher and the student.
A ‘crazy’ proposition
Amid the violence and chaos, Porter saw an opportunity for
sports, for baseball, to provide comfort. The Glenwood
League had black players dotting its rosters and it had a
black manager and an all-black team. What it didn’t have was
an all-white team playing for a black manager.
So Porter went to Mel Witherspoon, whom he had met while
driving a bus for the Head Start program when Witherspoon
was working at Erie’s Booker T. Washington Center.
Decades later, Witherspoon is able to recall the
conversation in great detail.
“The first thing I did was look at him like he was crazy,”
Witherspoon said last week. “I said, ‘Why would you want to
do something like that with all that’s going on?’ ”
“These are good guys that just want to play baseball,” he
responded. “It ain’t about black or white or all that mess
Porter asked for Witherspoon’s blessing. He received that,
along with a promise from Witherspoon to do what he could
financially to get it off the ground. Witherspoon was then
working at the ACT Center, which became the team’s sponsor.
“I said, ‘Whatever you need, we’ll find the money,’ ”
Witherspoon said. “I knew Walt enough to know he could do
it. I give him 110 percent of the credit. He ran with it.”
‘They trusted me’
Freed recalls hearing about Porter’s idea while a senior at
Academy, where he starred in baseball and earned a
scholarship to play at Syracuse University.
He knew Porter was looking for players for a team in the
Glenwood League. But he didn’t realize he was looking
specifically for white players. And he didn’t fully
appreciate that Porter was trying to make a point about
sports’ capacity for healing wounds, even wounds as deep as
those dividing the city and the country at that time.
“That might have been what Slim was thinking,” Freed said,
“but I don’t really recall that coming up. Having gone to
Academy, I wasn’t worried about the interracial part of it,
because we had interracial (interactions) in school every
day. We just wanted to have the chance to play.”
Porter’s first team, in 1968, included players from Academy,
Strong Vincent, Cathedral Prep, East, Tech Memorial and a
few county schools.
The season went by smoothly enough, at least on the field.
Away from it, in the background, Porter heard from members
of both the black and white communities who were unhappy
with what he was doing.
His response was to let the words roll off his back.
“Some on my side didn’t like it,” said Porter, who remembers
being called “Uncle Tom” and was accused of selling out to
the white community. “Some on the other side were saying
things about them boys. That was their opinion; wasn’t
Even the most negative feedback wasn’t enough to deter
Porter, who returned in 1969 with many of the same players
and a few new ones.
The nucleus of the ACT Center teams remained together until
1974, when the majority of the original players had moved on
to jobs, joined the military or simply stopped playing.
Porter still sees some of them occasionally. He stopped to
visit Freed at the Erie County Courthouse recently, and the
conversation caused him to recall his reasons for putting
that first team together 49 years ago this spring.
He feels indebted to the players who bought into his idea,
and to the parents who entrusted him with their sons for the
“These kids, they were great, and their folks were, too,”
Porter said. “I’d have been scared with all this rioting
going on. They trusted me.”
‘It ain’t about no color’
Freed, who played in the Glenwood League until 1985, later
managed in the league and is now a commissioner, believes
Porter’s experiment worked because the motives behind it
“I’ve been dealing with people in my job for a long time, so
I can tell when someone is a good person,” Freed said. “Slim
most certainly has a lot of credibility. He’s a genuine,
down-to-earth extremely honest person.”
Witherspoon credits what Porter did with influencing the way
he runs the inner-city recreational basketball league he
founded more than 25 years ago.
During its first two years, the league had only black
players. Witherspoon made it a point to change that,
reaching out to pull in white players from outside the city,
first from Corry and later from other areas.
“I took a page right out of Walt’s book,” Witherspoon said.
“I said, ‘It ain’t a black basketball league. It’s a
basketball league.’ You look at it now, and you see how
sports can bring people together.”
Porter believed that all those years ago. He continues to
believe it today at a time when racial tensions have
evolved, but have never disappeared.
“We all got problems,” Porter said. “We all get sick; we
suffer. It ain’t about no color. Don’t blame other folks and
point at other people. Just do your part. That’s what I try
to do, best I can, every day. If I treat you with respect,
that’s my part. If you don’t do the same, I can’t do nothing
about that. It ain’t no different now than it was then.”
John Dudley can be reached at 870-1677
Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNdudley