Even though the All-Star break was just a few days ago, the Royals got an off-day to travel from Detroit back home for a six-game homestand, featuring the bookend teams in the AL East, first-place Baltimore and last-place Cleveland.
Continuing our look at some of the lesser-known members of the 1969 team, here’s the story of pitcher Bill Butler, not to be confused with “Country Breakfast” Billy Butler.
William Franklin Butler was born on March 12, 1947, in Hyattsville, Maryland. However, in his childhood, the family moved to a different DC suburb, Herndon, Virginia. Once the youngster showed promise in baseball, his dad built him a regulation mound in their backyard, with a plywood backstop and a home plate. That paid off when Detroit drafted him out of Herndon High in the 37th round of the 1965 draft. Although Herndon High opened in 1911, Butler was the only major leaguer in school history until 2011. Not surprisingly, he was eventually named to Herndon’s All-Century team and had his number retired by the school.
Anyway, Butler had pretty good success in the minors. Although he was a hard-throwing lefthander, he didn’t have the control issues pitchers of that type often have. He got on the Royals’ radar when he struck out 137 hitters in 96 innings (against 33 walks) at Class AA Montgomery in 1968. Kansas City used the 22nd pick in the 1968 expansion draft to select him. They weren’t expecting him to contribute right away.
But Butler pitched in the Venezuelan winter league that offseason, and there he learned to control his curveball. It wasn’t considered a great curve, but it offset his good fastball well enough to make him dangerous. Butler had a good spring training and made the Opening Day roster as a reliever. His major-league debut came in the second game of the season, when he pitched five scoreless innings in relief (with six strikeouts, one hit, and one walk) against the Twins.
It wasn’t long before Butler was in the rotation, although a couple of ugly starts got him sent back to the bullpen in late May. By mid-June, though, Butler was back in the rotation to stay. He ended up with a 9-10 record and a 3.90 ERA, not too bad for a 22-year-old on an expansion team. In 193 2/3 innings, he led the team in strikeouts with 156 and shutouts with four. One of those was the first one-hitter in team history, on August 9 against Cleveland.
The Royals, therefore, went into the offseason with Butler nearly untouchable in trade discussions. There was one little problem: Butler had already battled a little elbow soreness. That one-hitter came after he missed two weeks with soreness, and he was lifted from a late-season start with the same issue.
Not surprisingly, especially with the relatively primitive state of sports medicine in those days, the problem lingered. And Butler struggled through the 1970 season, posting a 4-12 record. His ERA was only 3.77 in 140 2/3 innings, but his strikeouts fell to 75 and he walked 87. At one point he was demoted to Class AAA Omaha. The Royals also tried changing his delivery to ease the pain in the elbow. But it took offseason surgery to relieve the “nerve irritation.” Butler had a nerve in his elbow moved, plus some scar tissue and calcium deposits removed.
That seemed to work, as Butler had a decent spring. But the Royals started him off in Omaha to keep building arm strength, and he remained there until midseason. Injuries finally opened up a spot for Butler, who had been supplanted in the rotation by Bruce Dal Canton, Mike Hedlund, and Ken Wright. His return was triumphant, a well-pitched seven innings against Oakland in a 6-3 win. But his next five starts were not as good, and he was sent to the bullpen.
He had some success there, but the Royals started him at Omaha again in 1972. He was no longer really in the Royals’ plans, with youngsters like Steve Busby and Paul Splittorff coming along (although Splitt was actually a few months older than Butler). Cleveland purchased Butler from the Royals in July 1972. He didn’t pitch particularly well for the Indians’ organization, and was eventually dealt to Minnesota after the 1973 season.
Butler did pitch for the Twins in 1974 and 1975, posting a 4.94 ERA in 180 1/3 innings over the two seasons. After spending all of 1976 in the minors, he resurfaced for six games with the Twins in 1977, was traded to the Dodgers, and finally was released after the 1978 season.
It might seem like a disappointing story, but Butler, although he didn’t exactly fulfill the promise he showed in 1969, got to play professional baseball for 14 seasons. He is, as best as I can tell, happily retired and living in West Virginia. All in all, I’d say that’s pretty good.
Today’s birthdays: Vida Blue (1949), Carmelo Martinez (1960), Bob Milacki (1964)