An elderly Black man stands for a portrait on a baseball field. he wears a baseball cap and a red sweatshirt with the words "Oakland Babe Ruth" emblazoned on front.
Louie Butler, longtime coach and president of Babe Ruth Little League, poses for a photo at Greenman Field in East Oakland on Oct. 6, 2023. Butler is retiring after over 50 years with the league. Credit: Amir Aziz

Louie Butler didn’t care much for his assistant coach’s radio interview.

“We’ll get to the White House … by hook or by crook,” Wil Ash had emphatically told the CBS affiliate station in an interview playing throughout the day in Ash’s accounting firm offices overlooking Grand Avenue.

As vice president of Oakland Babe Ruth Little League, Butler wanted his 1990 championship teams (the league’s 12 and 13-year-old teams had both won national titles) to attend the Rose Garden ceremony, like every other coach, administrator, and parent at the ad hoc fundraising headquarters. Ash had good intentions, after all, but he shouldn’t have insinuated—even jokingly—that the league would resort to criminal activity.

The White House invitation had come soon after the Cincinnati Reds swept the Oakland A’s in the World Series. The Rose Garden ceremony was four days away, on a Friday, and $20,000 was needed for travel expenses to get the boys to join the Major League Baseball champions.

Butler finalized a press release seeking donations, but he was soliciting sponsors that had already helped fund the teams’ travels that summer to tournaments in Washington and New York.

“I was the only one with a fax machine,” Ash recalls, 33 years later, sitting in his same Grand Lake accounting office. “The last fax we sent on Tuesday was to Bust It Records.”

A short while later, the phone rang.

“Wilner, how much do you need?” asked Stanley Burrell, a former A’s bat boy who rose to hip-hop fame as MC Hammer, and whose record label now sponsored one of the little league’s T-ball teams.

“I told him, ‘11k,’” recalls Ash.

“Come pick up the check,” Hammer said.

A local law firm matched the $11,000, and the boys were off to the White House.

Coach Louie Butler, President of Babe Ruth Little League, points to baseball players that he has coached since they were young at Greenman Field in Oakland on Oct. 6, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Little league dynasties aren’t built on talent alone, and after 55 years of coaching Oakland youth baseball, the last 17 years as Oakland Babe Ruth president, Butler cedes his post knowing that for the league to recapture its glorious past, let alone survive a sharp decline in participation since the pandemic, it needs a resurgence of civic and parental support that once defined its legacy.

“I stayed on as president as long as I could,” Butler said. “I knew it was time for a change.”

Butler has coached against future Hall of Famers and record holders; boys who were denied professional opportunities for not cutting their 1970s afros or 1990s braids; and those who never stood a chance at baseball stardom, yet built confidence at East Oakland’s Greenman Field through the values demanded from a coach who, as a teenager playing semi-professional baseball in 1950s Los Angeles, realized early that he didn’t stand much of a chance himself.

“I was never interested in players playing in the major leagues,” Butler said. “I have a list of players who went on to college, got degrees, and have given back to the community.”

Butler will remain around one more year, he says, as a coach. “I have a bunch of youngsters new to the game,” he concedes. “They might not have the most talent, but they will compete.”

Oakland Babe Ruth had fewer than 200 participants this year, the outgoing president said, down from around 1,000 at its peak. The pandemic closed city parks in 2020, causing many to join other leagues. Promising players have fled to travel-ball teams with deep pockets. A communications “snafu” this year hampered registration, Butler admits.

One of Coach Butler’s players in the Babe Ruth Little League hits a ball during a team practice on Greenman Field. Credit: Amir Aziz

Replacing Butler is Randy Jordan Sr., or “Coach Q,” who began playing for Oakland Babe Ruth in 1973, “when we had the itchy wool uniforms,” and began coaching in 1993. His five sons all played college football, including former Cal receiver Robert Jordan. One nephew, Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Marcus Peters, sponsored an 8-and-under team last year. Oaklander and former Raider Marshawn Lynch sponsored a 10-and-under team, and NFL quarterback Josh Johnson, also from Oakland, has lent support.

“One child at a time,” is Jordan’s philosophy to growing participation. “We have to rebuild and regain the trust. My baseball agenda is a lot different because the times are different.

“Mr. Butler gave me a lot of responsibilities over the last year with the city and the schools. We’re going to bring the community back. Get the fields more manicured. We just lacked attention over the years. Mr. Butler couldn’t do everything by himself.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying.

The A’s, whose community outreach team led by Stephanie Gaywood has supported Oakland Babe Ruth over the years through grants, field upgrades, and equipment donations, honored Butler with a ceremony during their final homestand. A month earlier, at a Greenman Field ceremony in East Oakland hosted by Butler’s son Terry, more than 100 honored the coach.

“Everyone respected Louie Butler,” said Ash, who has coached at Oakland Babe Ruth for most of 33 years. “These were older gentlemen giving up their time. It made a huge difference.”

Players from Babe Ruth Little League carrying the bases from the equipment shed to the Greenman Field diamond in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz
Players from Babe Ruth Little League have team practice on Greenman Field in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Growing up in Los Angeles, Butler was inspired by the Black players of his childhood—Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Maury Wills, Don Newcombe, Joe Black. He played in segregated leagues while attending Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles, where “we were bottom feeders.” As a teenager, he played at Ross Snyder Park, with older men who’d been cut from minor-league teams. “I found out I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be,” Butler said.

The weekend athlete moved to Oakland and continued playing baseball at Lowell, Bushrod, and Raimondi fields. “They were pick-up games,” he said. “You might be on one team one day, and the next day you got picked up by another.” Shortly after Butler injured his knee, his first-born son tried out for a neighborhood baseball team in East Oakland.

“He came home and asked if I’d be one of the coaches,” Butler recalls of that day in 1968. “We had a neighborhood team called the Bombers. We got some old uniforms with no numbers on them, took stencils, and put numbers on the back and ‘Bombers’ on the front.”

Through the 1970s, Butler helped coach a team sponsored by KTVU that touted future MLB All-Star Lloyd Moseby and perennial Gold Glove-winning center fielder Gary Pettis. Butler coached an outfielder named Greg Payton who “could catch anything at that time.” Greg played basketball at De La Salle. His younger brother Gary became an NBA Hall of Famer. Butler recalls first coaching against Rickey Henderson at Golden Gate Park in North Oakland.

A pile of youth gloves on the grass at Greenman Field in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz
Little leaguers reach into a bag of practice balls at Greenman Field. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s youth teams had garnered quite the reputation. The 12-and-younger boys mostly played Young America, while the older kids played Babe Ruth. In 1980, Butler’s team advanced to the regional tournament in Utah. The Oakland club raised $5,000 to rent two vans. Star shortstop Dwight Garner couldn’t make the trip, Butler recalls, and his replacement made six errors in the title game. Garner would have his day, only two years later, tossing a lateral to Cal football teammate Richard Rodgers that led to a Stanford band member famously getting trampled in the end zone as the Golden Bears celebrated “the most amazing, sensational” Big Game victory.

In 1983, national Babe Ruth Baseball (which became Cal Ripken Baseball in 2000) created a 12-and-under Bambino division, which held a World Series similar to the Little League World Series now shown on ESPN.

Oakland became a charter Bambino member and won seven of the first eight World Series titles—1984 in Shelbyville, Indiana; 1986 in Commerce, Georgia; 1987 in Oakland, playing at a renovated Greenman Field; 1988 in Nashua, New Hampshire; 1989 in Wilmington, North Carolina; 1990 in at Longview, Washington; and 1991 in Pueblo, Colorado. 

“There was an article in the (Indiana) paper saying there are more Blacks on the Oakland team than we have in the city,” said Ted Sanders, who preceded Butler as Oakland Babe Ruth president, to The San Francisco Chronicle. Many of the players hadn’t flown on a plane, and they stayed with host parents. “It was definitely culture shock,” said Tyson Ross, who played in the 1998 Bambino World Series in Indiana, and later became an MLB All-Star pitcher.

A player practices throwing during a Babe Ruth Little League practice at Greenman Field in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

With the championship dynasty came sponsorships from local businesses, many from a bustling East 14th corridor, and Oakland entertainers, churches, and college fraternities. Mayor Lionel Wilson and the Oakland City Council provided support, and local contractors volunteered to build a new scoreboard at Greenman Field for the 1987 Babe Ruth World Series. Oakland parents served as host families for incoming teams. “It was a big affair,” Butler said.

When Babe Ruth changed its bylaws to allow acting presidents to coach, Butler succeeded Sanders in 2006. That year, Oakland returned to its most recent 12-and-under World Series, played outside of Baltimore at the Cal Ripken Baseball complex. Ash made the trip as well. 

“Half the team was afraid to fly,” Ash recalls, “‘Momma, take me home!’ 

“We could have gone deeper than we did (in the tournament), but a bounce here, blooper here, break here, we would have gone on.”

Ash’s brother, Clinton, died back in California during the series. 

“I apologized,” said Ash, recalling when he told Butler that he would have to leave the team. “Louie said, ‘There is nothing to apologize about. We’ll take care of your flight back home.’”

Oakland finished in fourth place.

“My God says that if you can save one child a year, you go to heaven,” Ash said. “Louie Butler saved 100 kids a year.”

Nick Lozito is a Sportswriter and designer whose work has appeared in The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He is a graduate of Oakland Technical High School and Sacramento State University.