By Michael LeCompte
At 5’7” and 140 pounds Tom “Pee Wee” Butts was one of the smallest men to ever play in the Negro League and over a 19 year career he was arguably the best shortstop in the game.
Tom Butts was born in Sparta, Georgia in 1918. He was a baseball and football star in high school, once quarterbacking an entire game after breaking his nose in the first quarter.
He dropped out of high school at 17 to play baseball for the Atlanta Black Crackers. Speaking at the age of 50 Butts was grateful for his career in baseball, but opined that “the one thing I regret was, I shouldn’t have quit high school.”
During his second season in Atlanta the Baltimore Elite Giants offered him a contract after playing against him. He played the next nine seasons with Baltimore, winning one pennant.
Butts was a shortstop with excellent range and a strong, if sometimes erratic arm. During one game early in his career he threw three balls into the stands while attempting to throw runners out at first base. Following advice from his coach he relaxed in the field and learned to field every grounder effortlessly with two hands, which led to his second nickname of “Cool Breeze.” He was widely considered the Phil Rizzuto of the Negro League.
Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s he played in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada. The closest he came to the Major Leagues was playing one season in Nebraska for the Philadelphia A’s single A affiliate.
During his career Butts watched as several teammates made it to the Major Leagues, while he was continuously looked over. He attributed the fact that he never made it more to his age, rather than his race or diminutive size, saying “if I’d been ten years younger, I think I could have made the Major Leagues…if the doors had opened up a little earlier, I think I’d have done pretty good, I could have been up there too.”
Butts finally retired in 1955 after one season with the Texas City Texans of the Big State League.
He passed away at the age of 53 in 1973.
With a .316 batting average and a 19 year career, Tom “Pee Wee” Butts was truly a giant of the Negro League.