The Sol Butler Story
Success and Misfortune Followed Hall of Famer
By BERT McGRANE
Register Staff Writer
If the Sol Butler story tends toward the tragic in its later pages, it deals also with the unforgotten feats of the former Dubuque University athlete which, nearly 40 years after he bowed out of competition, now earn him a place in The Des Moines Register's Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.
Butler was a versatile athlete who was at his best in the broad jump.
They say he was the son of a slave. He was broad-cheeked, big-shouldered, lean-legged. He was built very much like the great Babe Ruth.
It was between 1917 and 1919 that he swept across the Iowa horizon, but he was not a native Iowan. The record of his birthplace, in Kansas or Oklahoma, has disappeared with the passing years, but it was as a high school boy in Hutchinson, Kan., that he first won widespread fame.
That was in 1914, when he broke the National Interscholastic record for the 60-yard dash.
Butler's natural gifts ran toward athletics. Things like cups and medals in track and field, or touchdowns or base hits or baskets came easily. But the bad breaks trailed him too.
As a broad jumper he belongs even now with Morgan Taylor of Grinnell and Edward Gordon of Iowa as the greatest ever to hit the takeoff board for Iowa schools.
But in Sol Butler's day the field of activity was restricted. There was no National Collegiate meet and very little indoor competition. Even the Drake Relays, then in their formative years, provided no such event as the broad jump.
Butler had to go to the Penn Relays for that competition and twice he won the championship.
But these really were not bad breaks. They were limitations. The tough situations were scheduled later.
In 1919, to illustrate, Butler won both the 100-yard dash and broad jump at the Penn Relays. Entering military service as a soldier in World War I he represented the U.S. Army in the Inter-Allied Games in Paris.
He won the broad jump and placed in the 100-meter dash. And with the Olympic Games scheduled for renewal in 1920 after the wartime interruption in 1916, Butler was rated as a heavy favorite for the championship. His winning jump at Paris, 24-9 1/2, was only two inches from the Olympic record.
He was considered a strong possibility for a new Olympic record.
Butler went to Antwerp for the 1920 Olympics, but misfortune nailed him quickly.
On his very first jump in the Olympic preliminaries he pulled a tendon and was forced to withdraw. That injury-hampered effort was a shade under 21-8 .
He won our National Amateur Athletic Union championship that same year by broad jumping 24-8.
The Olympic experience was a heartbreaker for Butler. He was not much in evidence on the athletic scene, as a contestant, after that. He went into youth work in the Negro districts of Chicago's south side.
And later, in a Chicago tavern where he was employed, Butler met his death on Dec. 1, 1954. A man named Jimmy Hill, a patron of the tavern, reportedly had been annoying a waitress. Butler ejected the disturber. Hill came back with a gun and shot the former star twice. Butler died in Chicago's Provident hospital.
These are the passing measurements of the athletic ability of Sol Butler:
Once, in competition in his conference on Loras Field in Dubuque, he entered seven events in a track meet. He won five (two dashes, two hurdle races and the broad jump) and finished second twice (high jump and shot put).
In football he was a backfield man, good enough to be a teammate of the famed Jim Thorpe after he left Dubuque. In all he won 12 letters on various Dubuque University teams which added to the national and international acclaim he earned in track, reflect the over-all prowess of the gifted athlete.
In football he played in one of Iowa's memorable games -- a feature in 1918 when the All-Iowa College team became an actuality instead of an assemblage of paper, and came to Des Moines to play the Camp Dodge divisional team in sub-zero weather.
Dubuque University was more widely known as Dubuque Seminary in Butler's day. On its football team he helped win the school's third conference title in 1917.
In that campaign, the Football Guide of 1918 reveals, Dubuque rolled up a startling 125-0 triumph over Buena Vista. Butler won all-state rating. He was primarily a back, but he could fill a lineman's job if the necessity arose.
It was something of a tribute to the football ability of the man that he became a teammate of the great Jim Thorpe with the Canton Bulldogs, after his college days.
One of Butler's greatest days came in the wake of the Inter-Allied Games in Paris in 1919. These games were the wartime counterpart of the Olympics, with the athletes of 18 countries participating.
When Butler came within two inches of the Olympic record in winning the broad jump, he was knighted by King Nicholas of Montenegro. He was invested as a knight of the Third Order of Danilo.
Sol Butler's career had its glittering moments ...
Twice chosen on the all-America track and field team as the best broad jumper in the nation's colleges; once winner of the same distinction in the National A.A.U. field; a double winner in the Penn Relays on one occasion and a one-event champion on another; a national recordholder as a high school boy and an A.A.U. junior champion before he entered college; considered the world's best in he specialty in the wartime games of 1919.
He could have stocked a modest warehouse with the cups, the plaques, the medals and the watches he won.
Butler made two appearances in the Drake Relays. The spectacular success he won at Penn eluded him here, although he was fourth-place winner in the 100-yard dash in 1918 and second in that feature in 1919, when he also anchored the Dubuque team to victory in the half-mile relay. There was no broad jump.
In basketball Butler was a center. He was available for temporary duty in baseball, when his track activities permitted.
He was, without doubt, one of the greatest of the athletes who have represented Iowa schools.
Taken from the book "Hard Road to Glory-Track and Field" by Arthur Ashe, Jr
Solomon W. Butler was an exception. He was the first African-American to star abroad in more than one event. John B Taylor had earned glory in the London Olympics for his specialty, but Butler could do everything. He hailed from Wichita, Kansas, where he was born in 1895. His family had been part of the large migration of blacks to Kansas in 1879. Beginning at Hutchinson High School, he followed his coach to Rock Island (Illinois) High School and flourished.
At a scholastic meet there, Butler won all five events he entered: the 100 yard the 220 yard, 440 yard, the high jump, and the broad jump titles. Illinois officials there after passed a rule then limiting entrants to two events. He also played football and basketball. Entering Dubuque (Iowa) University in 1915, he immediately set records that stood until the depression. Noted the Des Moines Register of December 13, 1915, "Butler is the fastest man who ever set foot on Hawkeye soil."
After graduation he found himself in the Inter-Allied Games in 1919, where he made the third-longest long jump in history, 24 feet 9 1/2 inches behind the world record. He returned to America with five medals and two diplomas after the King of Montenegro presented his awards to him.
Black runners had come quite a distance since W.T.S Jackson began at Amherst. They began at the middle-distance events and ended World War I with a reputation for all-around swiftness.( Ashe,Jr, p.6)