Charles “Charlie” Butler was a pioneer in integrated amateur baseball in Rhode Island. Butler was born in Providence on June 11, 1926, the second to last of six children of Clarence A. and Sarah L. (nee Morris) Butler. His parents raised the Butler siblings in what was then known as the West Elmwood section of Providence and what is known today as the Huntington Industrial area of the city. Charlie’s father ran his own business as an automobile mechanic while Mrs. Butler was truly a full-time homemaker raising the children. Charlie proudly referred to the West Elmwood neighborhood of his youth as a community “where everyone got along.”
Butler attended the Vineyard Street Elementary School (no longer functioning as such), Gilbert Stuart Junior High School (still functioning as such) and Central High School. He graduated from Central High School in June of 1944 and four months later was drafted into the United States Army.
Charlie joined his three older brothers already in the service making the Butlers a four Blue Star Family for the duration of the war. One of Charlie’s older brothers served as a ground crewman with the famed Tuskegee Airmen while another drove for the Red Ball Express keeping supplies on pace with General Patton’s dash of liberation across Europe. As for Charlie, his stateside stations took him to Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania and, finally, to Ft. Lawton, Washington. Ft. Devens and Indiantown Gap were both used as detention camps for German prisoners of war brought to the United States from battlefields throughout the European Theater of Operations (ETO). Charlie remembered the German POWs as being “arrogant” in defeat and not acting as if vanquished. Ft. Lawton was the second largest point of embarkation for U.S. personnel headed for the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) which was Charlie’s destination in the summer of 1945.
In its inaugural season, the Circle A.C. was almost perfect winning its first fourteen games before losing one and then winning all its remaining games to advance to the amateur championship against a highly favored opponent. Circle A.C. won that game on a pinch hit, two out, two run double in the bottom of the 9th inning. The city’s African American community was rightfully proud and the victory held the promise of racial equality to come. The victory was ensured not only by the hit but by Charlie Butler’s consistent, quality pitching throughout the game.
After more than a month-long voyage by troop transport via the Aleutian Islands and Hawaii, Charlie and his fellow soldiers arrived on Okinawa in July of 1945. The island, at that time, had been declared secure after one of the costliest campaigns of the Pacific war starting when it was invaded on April 1, 1945. Charlie’s quartermaster unit took up positions on the Okinawa shore and began training for major logistical operations as an American invasion of the Japanese home islands seemed imminent. The unit prepared to operate ammunition, fuel, food and other depots for supplies deemed vital for an invasion. The Department of War had ordered 500,000 Purple Heart medals in anticipation of invasion casualties.
While on Okinawa, Butler had some time to use his considerable baseball skills in games organized among the various units on the island. He was warned by a colleague not to reveal his pitching prowess “because they’ll have you pitch until your arm falls off!” Butler heeded the advice declining to reveal he could pitch but eventually succumbed to the devil and the ultimate temptation of the flesh – ice cream! A mess hall noncommissioned officer involved with recruiting players for the team bribed Charlie with ample ice cream and, thus, began his Army pitching and playing career.
In August, a month after Butler and his unit arrived on Okinawa, World War II came to an end with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the formal Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945. The secrecy of the Manhattan Project brought complete surprise to Charlie and his fellow G.I.s. The training and rehearsals for the massive logistical support for an invasion of Japan came to a rapid conclusion.
As was the policy at the time, a point system determined the priority of return from overseas for military personnel. Charlie described himself at the time as “single, fancy free and in no hurry to go home points or no points.” He continued his service on Okinawa until returning to the U.S. about a year later and separating from the Army at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. Charlie returned to Providence and the promised job he had held ever so briefly at the Roberts Paper Company in Providence before he was inducted into the Army. Charlie’s other three brothers had returned from service also sound of mind and body to begin life again in peacetime Providence. On September 3, 1947, Charlie wed Gwendolyn Johnson, a Providence girl at a home ceremony performed by a justice of the peace. Life was good.
Butler’s organized team baseball play began at Central High School. He was not given the opportunity to play at Gilbert Stuart Junior High. Like all youth baseball at the time, players honed their skills on the local sandlots in pick-up games whenever the opportunity presented itself. Butler was a gifted, accomplished athlete from the outset. When he returned from military service, amateur baseball was going strong in Rhode Island as it had throughout the war years providing a welcome distraction and recreation for the community. It would also be a foundation of the post war “return to normalcy.”
Butler played for Providence’s all-black team, the Invaders before joining the Circle Athletic Club (Circle A.C.) team organized by Ernest “Biffo” Duarte, a prize fighter and sports promoter from Fox Point and the inspiration behind the city’s first truly integrated team. Duarte scouted the best players – black and white alike – and named his team the Circle Athletic Club. To Duarte, the circle was perfection in every sense and wanted his team to be as perfect as possible also. Duarte struggled to land his team in the Tim O’Neil Amateur League but finally did so in 1949.
Two years later in 1951, the Circle A.C. jumped to the semiprofessional ranks and made history as Rhode Island’s first integrated team to play for the National Baseball World Congress championship in Wichita, Kansas. Circle A.C. defeated teams from Alabama, Arizona and Georgia before falling to the reigning Congress champions, the Indiana Capehearts. Butler and two of his African American teammates performed magnificently in the tournament in spite of dealing with local bias off the field in Wichita. The black players were forced to take rooms in local boarding houses because they were denied accommodations in the team’s hotel. They also needed to use taxi cabs as transportation to and from the tournament games because they were not allowed to ride on the team bus. Charlie had experienced racial prejudice previously but not to such a blatant extent. It did not, however, get the better of him being a gentleman raised in a community “where everyone got along.”
At the time of Charlie’s affiliation with the Circle A.C and its success, major league baseball had turned a corner with the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Butler recalled satisfaction with Robinson’s signing as the first black player in the majors but felt it was something that was simply a matter of time in coming if not by Robinson but by some other notable black player of the era. The press was reporting that the idea of mixing races in the big leagues was a problem for most of the team owners but it certainly made no difference to “Biffo” Duarte who never hesitated to integrate his teams simply looking for the very best players.
While Butler and his black teammates were in Wichita experiencing the local brand of discrimination, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin were in the beginnings of their distinguished major league careers with the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants respectively. Doby was the first black player in the American League having made his debut just three months after Robinson’s season-opening debut with the Dodgers. Had Irvin made his major league debut a season earlier, he and Doby would have been World Series opponents in 1948 when the Indians defeated the Boston Braves in six games. In 1954, however, Doby and Irvin were World Series opponents when the the Giants defeated the Indians in four games. Monte Irvin was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1973 and Larry Doby in 1998.
The allure of amateur baseball began to wane shortly after the Circle A.C. nearly captured the National Congress title in Wichita in 1951. While Charlie continued to play concurrently for his neighborhood West Elmwood Raiders and other Circle players did the same with their local teams, prominent major leaguers like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and many others had returned to their clubs and their fans after military service during the war. The U.S. and the national pastime were returning to normalcy and even the outbreak of the Korean War could not derail the post war prosperity.
Charlie and Gwen had a daughter who lives in Rhode Island today and their daughter and her husband presented the Butlers with two grandchildren – an accomplished artist grandson who resides in Illinois and a NCAA volleyball scholarship granddaughter who resides in Rhode Island and who coaches interscholastic girls’ volleyball.
As Charlie aged a bit and he could no longer easily round up seventeen friends for meaningful baseball games, this talented, all-around athlete turned his attention to golf and tennis pursuits. He truly enjoyed his tennis competition saying there is nothing like “getting the ball on every play.” Charlie finished his working career retiring from the Roberts Paper Company which went through several ownership and name changes over the years. To Charlie, it was the same company he had returned to after his service in World War II. Unfortunately, Gwen Butler predeceased her husband on August 28, 2014 after nearly 57 years of marriage but Charlie always honored her memory with his family, spirit, good humor, humility and sense of community. He resided at his home in East Providence throughout his adult life.
On July 30, 2013, the Pawtucket Red Sox honored Charles Butler and other Negro League athletes in a ceremony at McCoy Stadium. Charlie and others like him received the praise and recognition they so richly deserved but, unfortunately, was so late in arriving.
Charles Butler led a long, distinguished life. A gifted athlete, he used his considerable talents to stand out in so many ways on the baseball diamond. He saw the very best the game had to offer as a hard-throwing righthanded pitcher and outfielder when he was not on the mound. Additionally, he saw the worst of being a championship player facing racial discrimination on a baseball trip to Kansas in 1951 but never let that dampen his spirit of competition and fair play. He and many others of his race were fortunate to play baseball for an individual from Fox Point who simply wanted the best players for his team no matter the color of their skin. Charlie served his country as a very young man a long way from home along with all the others of The Greatest Generation. At the time of his service, the military was segregated but it never prevented Charlie and his three brothers from performing their duties and performing them well as their parents had raised them to do.
Charles Butler was a true gentleman of extraordinary charm, grace, dignity and humility in everything he accomplished. He felt he had been blessed to continue his long, healthy life simply “so he might help others who may need it.” He was a lifelong Rhode Islander and an “Everyman” who did his part to improve race relations through baseball achievements and community pride. Charles H. Butler passed away on March 4, 2021 after a brief illness and was laid to rest in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. Because of the COVID pandemic and the cancellation of ceremonies in 2020, Charlie was unable to receive in person the induction into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame he so richly deserved. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame at its formal ceremonies held on October 23, 2021. His daughter, Ms. Nancy Hardy graciously accepted the induction on behalf of her late father.
Lawrence C. Reid