Liberty resident Charlie Butler played for the Youngstown Bears in the forerunner of today’s NBA
By John Bassetti
Three visible signs — two outside and one inside — that define Charlie Butler are evident upon entering his home: the portable basketball hoop [for great-grandchildren] and an American flag outside, and his wife inside.
Butler, who will be 90 on Aug. 15, is a transplanted Chicagoan who played basketball on a Notre Dame team that went 18-2 before he joined the pros. He then entered the Navy during World War II.
Obviously, those phases have passed, but Dorothy Butler remains Charlie’s most cherished link to the past — and present.
They have been married 65 years.
Charlie Butler is believed to be the oldest living former professional player, going back to his National Basketball League days, and he continues to receive a pension established through the NBA Players Association.
“It’s something none of us expected, but were pleased to get,” Butler said of the monetary compensation.
“Today’s players know they’re going to have a pension, but we didn’t.”
Butler, who was about 6-foot-3 when he played — first for the Chicago Gears, then Syracuse, then the Youngstown Bears, said he qualified as a pensioner only because he got credit for his military experience.
“If you came out of the service and had played in the NBL and it added up to at least five years, then you qualified.”
Compensation for players such as Butler, classified as old-timers (those who retired from playing before 1965), became a reality because the NBA Players Association shared its benefits with the league’s pioneers. The pension parity was negotiated with the owners in 1989.
Following a record-setting high school career at Mount Carmel in Chicago, Butler became captain of the Notre Dame team in 1942-43 and played at Madison Square Garden. Notre Dame’s two losses were to Kentucky and a collegiate all-star team.
Butler said that the Irish were supposed to participate in the NIT, but the university’s self-imposed travel restrictions nixed the opportunity.
Upon graduation, Butler joined the Gears, but was quickly snatched up by the Navy.
“He was a 90-day wonder,” said John Butler, the middle son of Charlie and Dorothy Butler’s nine children. John Butler explained: “The Navy got guys out of college and, in 90 days, they were officers.”
Charlie Butler became a lieutenant and had a ship of 11 men.
“He was a 20-something captain of a small ship floating around in the Pacific,” John Butler said.
While at Notre Dame, Charlie Butler played for coach George Keogan, who, after giving 6-10 prospect George Mikan a tryout, told the bespectacled player that he’d make a better scholar than basketball player.
Sitting nearby at the time of the rejection was ND assistant Ray Meyer, who shortly thereafter, became DePaul’s head coach. Mikan followed Meyer and the two enjoyed tremendous success.
Butler, who is mentioned in Meyer’s book, “Coach,” eventually played for the Gears, as did Mikan.
While riding with Mikan and his two also-tall brothers once in Chicago, Butler said that Mikan cut off a cab driver, who exchanged words with Mikan when the two drivers eventually pulled side-by-side.
“He [the cabbie] rolled down his window and swore,” Butler said. “It wasn’t that awful, but he used the Lord’s name.”
Mikan, whom Butler said studied for the priesthood after his Quigley High School days in Chicago, stepped out of the car, as did his brothers.
“If I had a picture of the cab driver as he slowly rolled up the window, it would be priceless,” Butler said.
Mikan then led the Minneapolis Lakers to four NBA championship in five seasons during the early 1950s.
While he was still at Notre Dame, Charlie Butler needed an eye exam, so he visited a doctor’s office. When his eyes cleared after having drops, he saw Dorothy.
“When I went back to school, I told my roommate that I’d seen the most beautiful girl in the world,” Butler said. “I called her and tried to get a date, but she mentioned two other Charlies before she remembered me.”
One of her teachers at Central High in South Bend, Ind. was the late John Wooden. The Butlers eventually became friends with the coaching legend.
After the Gears and the service, Butler joined Syracuse’s pro team before coming to Youngstown in December, 1946 to play for the Bears.
When the Bears were sold to Dow Chemical out of Midland, Mich., in 1947, Butler had an opportunity to play in what became the NBA.
“They sent me a contract, but I didn’t move. My wife said I’m through playing ball. She said we’re going to start playing house. We had kids on the way and we loved Youngstown.”
John Butler and his father attended the NBA’s 50th anniversary in Cleveland and, upon entering an elevator, found themselves in the company of some former NBA greats, such as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Bill Walton.
At a party, they mingled with the 50 greatest all-time players.
“We got a lot of good autographs,” John Butler said.
Charlie Butler said that he was mentioned in the Notre Dame yearbook for a basket that was disallowed because of its nature.
Against New York University, Butler was being guarded on an in-bounds play along the baseline under Notre Dame’s basket. When the defender turned away, Butler bounced the ball off of the NYU player, jumped in bounds, grabbed the ball and made a layup.
“It was a legitimate play, but the ref hadn’t seen anything like it, so it wasn’t counted,” Charlie Butler said.
“He was somewhat of an innovator,” John Butler said. “He could play guard or move into center.”
The Butlers lived in Youngstown for 11 years and Charlie worked for Commercial Shearing, which sent him to Texas for five years to open a district office.
They returned and lived on the North Side.
John Butler said that, at one time, his father was one of 114 old-timers getting pensions.