Buster Bartholomew, coach & educator

Buster Bartholomew, bottom right, during his playing days with the Loami town baseball team about 1909 (Courtesy Phil Shadid)

As an athlete, Buster Bartholomew was a one-armed wonder. But he made his mark as a coach, teacher and booster of country schools.

Homer “Buster” Bartholomew (1891-1943), born in Tuscola, was the son of Charles and Susan Myrtle Bartholomew. His father died when Buster was 6, and his mother found work at a laundry in Decatur. Buster – almost no one ever called him “Homer” – often accompanied his mother to the laundry.

According to a Decatur Herald article, Bartholomew, age 8, was at the laundry, feeding strings into a mangle – a pair of steel rollers that ironed clothes as they went between them – when his left arm got caught in the machine. (It isn’t clear from the story whether Buster was working or playing.) It took 20 minutes to extricate the boy, whose “hand and arm bones and all were simply ground to splinters,” the story said. Bartholomew’s arm had to be amputated up to the shoulder.

“A couple of years later, his mother married Samuel Workman, a widower from Loami who had several grown children and lots of other relatives,” sports historian Phil Shadid said in a speech when Bartholomew was inducted into Hall of Fame at Chatham Glenwood High School in 2010. “Encouraged by his new family to participate in sports despite his handicap, Buster threw the discus and hammer in track for Loami High and played baseball and basketball for area independent teams.”

Shadid, who has done extensive research into Bartholomew’s life and career, wrote elsewhere about Bartholomew’s baseball ability.

“Yes, he played baseball, was a pretty good outfielder. When the ball was hit to him, he would catch it with his glove, flip the ball up in the air, throw the glove away, catch the ball again, and throw it back to the infield. Buster also did a bit of hitting for his team, the Loami Merchants.”

When Loami beat Palmyra 10-3 in August 1909, Bartholomew got a writeup in the Illinois State Register: “The feature of the game was the playing of Bartholomew, the one-armed left fielder of the Loami team. Out of five times at bat he connected safely for three hits and scored four of the 10 runs.”

Bartholomew also played basketball, mostly for a New Berlin town team also named the Merchants. On the court, he didn’t score much, but he was known as a tough defensive guard.  Off the court, he coached the Merchants and arranged their games. Under his leadership, the New Berlin Merchants were one of central Illinois’ best independent teams, regularly beating indies from much larger communities.

When the Merchants trounced Springfield’s Sangamo Meter Works’ team, 82-18, in March 1920, the Register described their style: “The Merchants put up a pretty exhibition of teamwork, passing the ball with lightning-like rapidity around the floor.”

Buster Bartholomew, undated (Phil Shadid)

Bartholomew began his teaching career in one-room schools in the Loami/Berlin area in 1910. He was coaching Berlin’s 7th-8th grade team in 1917, when the New Berlin High School basketball team – which had a new gymnasium, but no coach – needed opponents.

“The grade school boys whipped the high school 58-16,” Shadid writes. “By the following year, the New Berlin principal asked Buster to take over the high school team.”

Bartholomew’s methods brought quick results. The 1919-20 New Berlin team came in second in the inaugural Sangamon County Tournament, and the 1920-21 team finished with a 20-6 record. That team’s star, Roy Breeding, scored 50 points when New Berlin beat Loami 100-0 in October 1920. (Shadid points out that basketball rules at the time required a jump ball after every basket. “Apparently, the Loami kids were on the short side,” he said. “NB would win every jump ball.”)

Chatham High School hired Bartholomew in 1922 to teach and coach all sports. He was promoted to high school principal in 1927.

Shadid summarized Bartholomew’s Chatham coaching record at the Hall of Fame induction.

His first great high school teams were the 1925-26 basketball squads for both the girls and boys. The girls were undefeated in 14 games, while the boys won 19, lost 4, that season. During his career at Chatham, the girls won 90 percent of their games and the boys won 71 percent of their games.

This was also the era of one-class basketball. Unfortunately, Chatham usually ran into Springfield High School during the post-season. In March 1935, with Chatham having its worst record (of Bartholomew’s tenure) at 7 and 14, he said: “The team that beats Chatham in the District (tournament) will win the state.” Chatham, enrollment under 35, played Springfield, enrollment more than 2,500. Springfield won the state championship that year.

Bartholomew’s only other losing season at Chatham was in 1932-33, when the team had a 10-11 record. But that was partly due to Bartholomew’s own decision, Shadid reported.

In late November 1932, Mr. Bartholomew discovered that one of his basketball players had failed to attend school enough days during the first semester; therefore, the principal/coach declared the student ineligible for the remainder of the semester. The team forfeited three lopsided conference wins. … The player was a model student the second semester and was a big star during the following season’s march to a 20-4 record.

Bartholomew’s contributions went beyond coaching. He was instrumental in organizing the Sangamon County Conference for three-year high schools, which gave students at the area’s smallest high schools opportunities to measure themselves against each other in music and speech in addition to sports. He also helped the Illinois State Journal set up an annual boy’s basketball tournament for elementary schools.

Bartholomew was a referee and umpire for high school sports, a principal organizer of the Springfield Officials Association, and coached the Springfield Junior American Legion baseball team.

Bartholomew left Chatham in 1935 to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Illinois. After graduation, the Bath School District in Mason County named him superintendent of schools, high school principal, and athletic director. While living in Mason County, Bartholomew, who played golf one-handed, also managed the Virginia Country Club golf course.

Bartholomew died of chronic heart disease in 1943. Longtime Illinois State Journal sports editor Bob Drysdale remembered Bartholomew in a column when he died.

Buster, as he was known to hundreds of men and women in all walks of life, grew up in central Illinois and has been a vital part of its scholastic and athletic progress for more than two decades. …

And with it all he made hundreds of friends. His influence helped to send scores of boys into successful careers. His kind can not be replaced in the school room, the athletic field or in life.

Buster Bartholomew is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.

Contributor: High school sports historian Phil Shadid inspired this entry, which is based on his research and much of which is taken directly from his writing. Shadid’s web site, Illinois High School Glory Days, is a unique resource for people interested in the history of sports and education in Illinois. Our thanks to him.

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One Response to Buster Bartholomew, coach & educator

  1. Phil Shadid says:

    In researching the Buster story I found an item in Journal sports editor Bob Drysdale’s column from a reader in 1932 who signed the message as “A Past, Present and Future Fan.” “I know of no other teacher in this community who takes more interest in his pupils’ physical welfare than Buster Bartholomew of Chatham. Believe me, he has been the foundation of some mighty clever players too. Perhaps he saw the best fruits of his labor exhibited in Floyd Milby, that all time New Berlin H.S. star back in 1923. That lad learned the rules and tricks of the game from Buster on an outdoor court at Old Berlin, when Buster was teaching there. When New Berlin lost the Springfield district to Taylorville in the semifinals that year, Buster was perched on the front row sidelines, slapping his hand on his knee and watching his old pupil write fame for them both. Wouldn’t the game be more interesting if we had a few more Busters?”

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