top of page


My life on the bench

Illinois Times

March 11, 1977

Varsity athletics are but one of the frauds worked upon the innocent young by our school systems. For years I nursed a minor grudge over my being relegated to the bench as a high school basketballer, but the truth was that my skills were not nearly good enough to make up for my lack of height, not to mention my lack of seriousness about sport.


My teammates all went on to make useful lives as Army generals, university administrators, prison wardens, entrepreneurs, and school teachers, proving that perhaps I was mistaken when I dismissed the character-building aspect of our mutual time on the bench. Worked for them, anyway.


My equally undistinguished career at a junior-high basketballer are described here


"March madness" is upon us again, the time of year when basketballs and cliches fill the air like leaves on an autumn afternoon. The annual state boys' basketball tournament always reminds me of my own brief career at Springfield High many years ago. I'd spent two years as a starter at Washington Junior High. (Dressed in striped trunks, we looked a lot better than we played; in the 1962 city tournament for ninth graders one forward for Grant named Martin outscored our whole team, 41 to 39.) I made the Senators' sophomore team, but by the time the season ended, I and several teammates of equally modest skills had spent more time on our butts than a cross-country bus driver.


It was like this . . . .


There wasn't much money in the athletic budget for uniforms for the sophs so several of us had to make do with gear handed down from varsity teams long past. Most of the hand-me-downs were so big that some of us had to tape the trunks to our torsos to keep them from falling off. Worse, the numbers on our jerseys half-disappeared when we tucked them into our trunks. It must have given the scorekeeper fits trying to figure out whether to score a foul against No. 10 or No. 18 when he could see only the top half of the number.


One or two of the players didn't need tape because the excess jersreyage padded out their waistlines enough to hold their pants up. But even that sometimes caused trouble. You see, one of the problems caused by wearing hand-me-down uniforms was that some of us had the same number. During one game at the armory—we were playing Lincoln I think—the coach sent in a forward named Dave Kratzer. Dave was wearing the same number as a teammate already on the floor, so the coach ordered a quick change on the bench. When Dave pulled his jersey out, his trunks, bereft of support, fell down to his knees. I think it was then that Dave, standing in front of several hundred wide-eyed fans with nothing standing between him and humiliation but a jock strap, decided to give up organized ball.


Dave was one of a half-dozen bottom-of-the-barrellers who occupied the remoter reaches of the Springfield bench. None of us shared the coach's low opinion of our abilities, of course, and we chafed under our forced irrelevance. We dubbed ourselves "scrubbies," a term of indeterminate meaning that nonetheless managed to convey exactly our situation on the team.


We made the best of it. Torn tendons may threaten the player on the court, for instance, but boredom is the bane of the bench-sitter. Some of scrubbies became close observers of visiting cheerleaders, often attacking the study with such concentration that they lost track of the score ("What score?" ) of the game ("What game?" ) on the floor. Once we even choreographed the bench; at a signal we all simultaneously crossed our right legs, then, at a later signal, uncrossed them and crossed the left legs. Teamwork, coordination — we had it all.


We described ourselves as bench-warmers, but there are no real benches on a basketball court, of course. Folding metal chairs are the rule, and we worried about the shape and condition of these sideline seats the way some of the starters fretted over their ankle wraps and for the same reason — they were essential to our game. (We got blisters like the starters, only they weren't on our feet.)


The worst part about being a bench-warmer was having to warm the "bench." They were always cold, especially in the armory. No one who's never plopped bare thigh on bare metal can appreciate the reluctance with which we trudged to the sideline after our pregame warm-ups. Talk about playing with pain! It got so bad sometimes that we quit jumping up and down to join the huddles because every time we did the chairs would cool off and we'd have to warm them all over again.


Not that we missed much by sitting out the huddles. Huddles grow like onions, with the coach in the center, the starters crowded in a ring around him, the second team outside them, and so on. We scrubbies on the outermost ring were so far away from the coach that we couldn't hear a word he said. (It was a blessing for which we were then insufficiently grateful.) It would have helped if one of use had had the wits to learn to read lips, but, as teammate Phil Neubich once pointed out, if we'd had brains we wouldn't have been there In the first place. Anyway, it didn't matter. The only direction we needed was how to get from the huddle back to the bench.


The only time any of us really got to play was in an unofficial practice game with Lanphier at the end of the year. The coach, having nothing to lose record-wise, put in a few of the scrubbies just to see what he'd missed. We did well, considering. It should have been a triumphant moment. Unfortunately I had assumed that, like always, I would spend the game on the bench, so just before game time I dined on a big bowl of Chilli Man chili. For three quarters that chili and I jumped, ran, started, stopped—did all those things, in sum, that make basketball such a different game from, say, parchesi.


I got twelve points and a killer stomach ache. After the game the coach came into the locker room to offer his congratulations. "You guys looked pretty good out there, " he said, surprised. But I was in no mood for compliments. By then my stomach was going into sudden-death overtime, and the coach's praise, which at any other time might have made even cold chairs and saggy uniforms worthwhile, fell on dead ears. They could have named me pope and I would have said, "Some other time." I parted ways with my coach, my hopes for a basketball career, and my supper all at once in the locker room that night.


The scrubbies finished the sophomore season without making it into the Big Game. The next year five of us forsook varsity ball and formed an intramural squad called, inevitably, "The Scrubbies." We won the SHS championship two years in a row; we were prevented from also winning the ritual season-end games with the faculty squad only by the willingness of those learned gentlemen to cheat like bandits to forestall a loss to a student team.


Several years after high school, one of our loyal band was asked what he'd gotten out of playing for the red and black. He thought for a moment, then said, "That eight-pound MacGregor medicine ball I swiped my junior year." So much for character-building. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page