This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Left-handed pitcher Bill Butland developed a sore arm his first year in the majors, 1940, and pitched with it for a full decade, fighting against the pain to do the only thing he’d ever wanted to do as a youngster – play baseball.
He’d started baseball early and bore the responsibility of caring for a large family early, as well, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Both of his parents were natives of Indiana, and Wilburn Rue Butland was born in Terre Haute on March 22, 1918. His father, Wilburn, painted railroad cars, working in the shop of a railroad. His mother was the former Esther Catlin and at the time of the 1920 census, young Wilburn and his sister Imogene, a year older, lived with both parents in the Catlin family home. Albert Catlin was foreman for a packing company. By 1930, there were four younger children in the family; the seventh joined a little later.
Wilburn attended the elementary schools in Honey Creek and Otter Creek and then Gerstmeyer Technical High School in Terre Haute. He played basketball and baseball in high school. During his senior year he was the center and the high scorer in every basketball game he played save one. But as he reported on an American League questionnaire, “Baseball was all I wanted to play.”
Height had been an advantage in basketball; Butland was 6-feet-5, initially weighing 170 pounds but filling out to a listed major-league playing weight of 185. That height helped him become a pitcher; he’d originally been a first baseman. Butland played American Legion ball and for his high-school team. He reportedly never lost a game his last two years of high school.1
In the spring of 1935, Butland’s senior year, Bill Burwell came to town to manage the unaffiliated Terre Haute Tots in the Class-B Three-I (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) League and he held an open tryout. After shutting down in 1933 and 1934, the league was going to give it another go, and Burwell was hoping to find some local boys to help bolster the team and thus attract a better following. Some 300 boys came out.
It was more than a one-day tryout, but something of a baseball school and Butland quit attending his regular high school and came to Burwell’s school instead day after day. “Finally it came time to break up school,” Butland told Boston sportswriter John Drohan a few years later, “and Bill came to me and asked me how old I was. When I told him 15, he almost flopped. He regained his composure enough to ask me if I had finished high school. When I told him I had two weeks to go, he told me to go back and finish but assured me he would send for me next year.”2
Burwell did send Butland his first contract that fall, for 1936. Butland said, “That certainly made me hot stuff down around the pool hall in Terre Haute.”3
He reported to camp in Florida and on his March 22 birthday was given his first start, in an exhibition game against Milwaukee. He set down the first 13 batters he faced and allowed just two hits in seven innings. Naturally, he’d been apprehensive. Butland later wrote, “I was really scared. I got over that when I talked to Mike Kelley, Donie Bush, and Burwell. That’s the story and the above three fellows are the swellest I have ever met.”4 Bush had joined Minneapolis in the spring of 1936 as pitching coach, working with Burwell and team owner Kelley. It was Kelley’s call and Butland was assigned to pitch for the St. Augustine Saints in the Class-D Florida State League.
Butland pitched in 31 games with a 3.02 ERA. The team finished fourth, but won the league playoffs. His own record was 9-13. In 1937, after a brief stint with Minneapolis, he was 11-6 with Eau Claire, and in 1938 had a very good 19-6 record with the Crookston Pirates in the Northern League, one of the wins a 15-inning, 1-0 victory over Superior. The 14 batters he struck out in a game against Grand Forks remained his personal best. He said he enjoyed pitching more in the cooler weather.
Butland was apparently already needing to help provide for a large family. Given the lengthening Depression, everyone had to help economically any way they could. Butland later wrote Harry Edwards – it’s unclear what year, but the reference to his brother Walter makes it appear to have been in 1938 – that his parents had divorced “a little over a year ago and now I’m the head or man in the family. I’ve been practically supporting them for two years and helped for the last five.”5 He added, “I have five sisters, a brother, and a nephew besides my mother and grandfather, so we you see it’s a family of ten with myself. It gets pretty darn tough during the winter but it’s a lot of fun to see their faces when they see and know what you’re doing for them. My brother is in the C.C.C. camp in Nevada and he’s coming home in another month. He’s 19. My folks just couldn’t get along and my dad wouldn’t and couldn’t help us much. If I make the Red Sox, everything will be swell, and I’m going to. To (sic) much depends on it to fail. It’s a lot of fun and sometimes was tragic.”
Butland persevered and in 1939 won 19 games for the Double-A Minneapolis Millers. He was positioned to have the opportunity to make the Red Sox. There were others after him, but farm system director Billy Evans persuaded Boston to take him and Butland was signed on August 12 for delivery in the spring of 1940.6 Manager Joe Cronin was optimistic about the possibility that Butland could become a regular for the Red Sox, but some in the American Association reportedly thought he could use another year of seasoning, claiming he lacked “strength and stamina to go nine innings against A.L. batting.”7 He was 15-5 at the time Minneapolis sold his contract; oddly, a Boston Globe headline explained that Butland “only loses games at night.”8 Every one of the five losses had been in night games.
The March 22, 1940, Boston Herald contained a note saying that team owner Tom Yawkey had taken a liking to Butland, comparing it to his strong interest in Ted Williams the year before. The same day, an Associated Press story noted that Butland had pitched very well despite “a stiff arm.”9 Fellow rookie Herb Hash, also brought up from the Millers, was used in relief early in the season. As play entered the second half of May, Butland had still not been called upon but Cronin noted the Sox had to play several doubleheaders due to 10 games that had been postponed. Then, he said, “We’ll get a chance to look at Catcher Joe Glenn and Pitcher Bill Butland, our two forgotten men. Butland may be another pleasant surprise for us, just as Hash has been in his relief work. … He’ll get his chance.”10
Butland finally debuted on May 29, in Philadelphia. He earned a Globe headline: “Bill Butland Pitches Red Sox to an 8 to 3 Victory.” His teammates put three runs on the board in the top of the first, Joe Cronin’s bases-clearing double giving the pitcher a bit of an early cushion. Butland gave up 12 hits and walked four, but just the three runs. John Drohan of the Herald said he showed “rare coolness in the pinches.”11
Butland’s second start was at Fenway Park on June 2. He worked seven innings and gave up five runs, three of them in the first when two balls glanced off Bobby Doerr’s glove, one of them ruled an error. Ted Lyons shut out the Red Sox, 6-0. Butland’s third start was his last of 1940, on June 7, another loss after giving up five runs in five innings, three of the runs coming from the four baserunners he’d walked. The team went on a Western trip but Butland stayed home with a sore arm, working out at Fenway. Though Butland was a lefty, the Herald reported he had a “sore right shoulder.”12 X-rays showed a chipped bone.13 Or perhaps bursitis.14 On July 3 he was optioned to the Scranton Miners along with fellow pitcher Mickey Harris. He pitched some, but not much. The Red Sox exercised their option to hold onto rights to Butland, but did not ask him to return at the end of the season. They offered him a conditional contract for 1941.
Butland’s arm was said to be good, and he pitched well in spring training but on March 22 he was optioned to the Louisville Colonels. He was 12-11 (3.76) for Louisville in 1941.
In 1942 it all came together for Bill Butland. The side-armer stuck with the Red Sox all year long again, appeared in 23 games, and finished very strong. For the year, he had a 2.51 earned-run average, the best on the team. He had mostly relieved in the first four months of the season, with just two starts, and was 0-1 until he suddenly got on a roll with a 2-0 shutout of the Athletics on August 6. It was the first of seven consecutive starts that each resulted in a win, and each one against a different team, leaving Butland 7-1 at season’s end.
On November 24, 1942, the Boston Traveler wrote that the Red Sox had been notified that Butland would be headed for the Army. He was originally given a 3-A deferment because he had so many dependents among his family, but apparently work in Terre Haute was so plentiful that many in the family were able to secure employment.15 Butland was inducted at Evansville on December 12.
In 1943 he pitched for the base team at Camp Gordon in Georgia, and married Margie Smith on April 8 – but then shipped out overseas with Army artillery and saw action in the Pacific Theater in the Philippines and Saipan. Indeed, Burt Whitman wrote, “He’s probably been in combat more than any other member of the Red Sox and saw the real stuff in the Philippine invasion. He got little opportunity to play baseball in service.”16 Staff Sergeant Butland was mustered out in time to join the 1946 Red Sox for spring training.
He had some problems with his arm during the springtime but thought he’d worked through them by the time the season began. He got hit hard by the Yankees in a late-April game, then didn’t pitch again until June. He was 1-0, with one good game, but an 11.02 ERA after five appearances. On July 10 Butland was optioned to Louisville. He had a bad arm most of the season, and saw little action in Louisville. The Red Sox won the pennant.
Butland pitched only two more innings in the majors, on May 10, 1947, against the Yankees at Fenway Park. He gave up one run in the two innings of relief. When cutdown time came and the Red Sox had to reduce their roster, Butland was optioned to the Roanoke Red Sox on May 14. He had a good 11-4 season in Roanoke; the Richmond Times-Dispatch called him “one of the more effective pitchers in the Piedmont.”17 Boston did not recall Butland, though, and on November 17 the White Sox-affiliated Hollywood Stars drafted him in that year’s minor-league draft.
Working exclusively in relief, Butland wrapped up his career with a 7-8 season for Hollywood in 1948, a 9-3 record with Toledo in 1949, and 2-1 in 1950, split between Toledo and Syracuse. He finally had to leave the game when his sore arm would not respond to treatment.
After baseball, Butland worked as a machinist, as a plastic machine operator for Visking Co., a division of Union Carbide. He retired as a pipefitter from the Commercial Solvents Corporation.
Bill Butland died at age 79 on September 19, 1997, in Terre Haute. Margie Butland survived him; she retired from Columbia Records Corporation as an artwork coordinator/group leader and died in 2012.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Butland’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 “Red Sox Rookie Was Unbeaten in High School,” Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), April 23, 1940: 14.
2 John Drohan, “Butland Pitches Overture Today,” Boston Herald, May 29, 1940: 19. Despite speaking directly to the reporter, Butland was apparently misquoted. He was, in fact, 17 at the time, as his handwritten letter explains. He wrote that he returned to school and the contract came from Minneapolis that very fall, to report in the spring. Undated letter to unknown recipient in Butland’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
3 John Drohan.
4 Undated letter to unknown recipient, op. cit.
5 Undated letter to Mr. Edwards, in Butland’s Hall of Fame player file.
6 “Red Sox Buy Pitcher Butland, To Send Two to Minneapolis,” Boston Herald, August 13, 1939: 58.
7 Boston Herald, February 6, 1940: 20.
8 “Sox Get Six-Foot-Five Hurler Who Only Loses Games At Night,” Boston Globe, August 13, 1939: B36.
9 “Boston Red Sox Beat Cardinals,” Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), March 22, 1940: 23.
10 Burt Whitman, “Sox Deprived of 45,000 Gate,” Boston Herald, May 20, 1940: 15.
11 John Drohan, “Butland Stops A’s in Debut, 8-3,” Boston Herald, May 30, 1940: 20.
12 Burt Whitman, “Red Sox Rout Milnar, Fall On Indians, 9-5,” Boston Herald, June 13, 1940: 20.
13 “Powell’s Arm Chipped,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 26, 1940: 21.
14 Burt Whitman, “Dad Sisti Signs Son’s Contract,” Boston Herald, January 23, 1941: 17.
15 “Butland Notifies Red Sox He’s Headed for Army Job,” Boston Traveler, November 24, 1942: 15.
16 Burt Whitman, “Braves’ Ryan Ready to Sign; Butland Set,” Boston Herald, January 18, 1946: 31.
17 “Louisville Drafts Jones from Colts,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 19, 1947: 22.