When 16-Inch Softball was King in Chicago

When I tell people that I’ve written about the history sixteen-inch softball—a game unique to Chicago and a telling, ask ed indelible part of this city’s history—I’m often asked: “How did it end up that Chicagoans played softball without gloves?” There is no definitive answer.\n\nMaybe it’s because we’re purists. Legend has it that the first softball game was played at Chicago’s Farragut Boat Club on Thanksgiving Day, decease 1887. A group of Ivy League alumni gathered there around a tickertape machine, awaiting the results of a Harvard-Yale football game. An impromptu contest broke out involving a taped-up boxing glove and a broomstick. Runners made their way around a small diamond and fielders handled the squishy ball bare-handed. “Indoors baseball,” later known as softball, was born: no glove required.\n\nBut Ivy Leaguers and boat clubs? This is hardly an origin story fitting of the real Chicago; the city Sandburg called “Hog Butcher for the World.” Maybe that’s part of the reason why many softball old-timers will tell you that no-gloves softball emerged out of the Depression, when Chicago’s laboring class was too poor to purchase the extra equipment. Besides, gloves were a redundancy: no need to sheath working men’s rawhide mitts in rawhide mitts.\n\nAll due respect to softball’s barstool sages, but I suspect the answer to why Chicagoans don’t wear gloves is less romantic. Softball was a neighborhood game played in neighborhood parks, which were plentiful throughout the city. Many were created more than a century ago during the Progressive Era. The idea was to give working Chicagoans “breathing spaces” in densely populated areas. Chicago’s system of abundant parks served as a model for other American cities.\n\nBut many of the plots were small, so fields could not contain smaller, tightly wound balls. Even when struck with great force, it was difficult to lift a sixteen-inch ball out of a neighborhood park. And so Chicago softball involved a bat, a “mush ball,” and no gloves. Hitting required placement over power, pitching involved deceptive angles, and fielding sometimes hurt. Hulking men on a miniature diamond, knocking around a stitched melon, handling it with their bare hands—this was Chicago’s game.\n\nLike other American sports, softball in its early years was a means for children of European immigrants to shed the provincialism of their parents. But softball was also a way of maintaining immigrant communities, as teams throughout the city were often identified by the ethnicity of their players. The owner of a local tavern in a North Side Polish neighborhood might stake the local team in a game against South Side Lithuanians. Members of the community would wager on the outcome of the contest, and drop a nickel in the hat being passed around the bar for drinks to celebrate the victory.\n\nSoftball throughout the 1930s and ’40s provided Chicago with sports heroes and some of its most colorful sports moments before television. Following the 1933 World’s Fair, softball became a professional sport in Chicago. The Windy City League staged games in some of Chicago’s largest venues, like Wrigley Field, Bidwell Stadium, and Parichy Park, where cash-strapped patrons might pay a dime to see three games.\n\nFor the better part of the next two decades, big games drew thousands of spectators who came to witness and wager. The heavy gambling rivaled local racetrack handles, with upward of $10,000 in side bets wagered by players and backers. Local businesses served as sponsors; among the best teams were those supported by Stony Tires, Salerno Cookies, Cool-Vent, First National Bank, and Cinderella Florists.\n\nMany early professional softballers went on to make their names in other sports—Bill Skowron, Phil Cavaretta, Milt Galatzer, and Lou Boudreau, in baseball; Ray Meyer and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (whose African American team, the Brown Bombers, ruled the professional circuit) in basketball.\n\nUnable to compete with national sports after World War II, the Windy City League closed its doors in 1950. But softball remained popular on a local level throughout the ’50s and ’60s. In every neighborhood, kids grew up around softball. They watched games at the local park, shagged balls during practices, and idolized local players.\n\nBut postgame rituals were for adults only. Gathering after the game at a local bar was an important part of the life for many players, and softball managers widely recognized that teams that got along together off the field played better on it. Known for softball, Chicago was even better known for its saloons, and the relationship between softball and the tavern industry was strong. Many bars sponsored teams and tournaments, and in return enjoyed the nightly patronage of droves of local softball players.\n\nAfter the game, bars welcomed players and fans to chat about the evening’s events. Bars were emporia of softball information, the outlets of the softball world. Bibulous players recounted stories of diving catches and game-winning hits; fans bought drinks for the night’s heroes; softball bards recounted tales of the game’s beginnings, its greatest teams, players, and moments, often until the wee hours of the morning.\n\nMany sections of the city and suburbs boasted softball taverns.  Among Chicagoland’s most famous in the late 1970s were Terry’s Parkwood Inn and WGAF on the South Side; Irving O’Brien’s near downtown; Andy’s, River Shannon, and Yak-Zie’s on the North Side; Papa Bears Pub, Bally Much Tavern, Big Banjo, Bojangles, Sportsman Lounge, The Lantern, Vail Lounge, Spring Inn, and Santi’s in the suburbs. Many retired softballers say they miss the late night camaraderie more than the playing.\n\nThe 1970s were a glorious time for sixteen-inch softball in Chicago.  Flashy players on teams with colorful names—Bobcats, Dwarfs, Strikers, Sobies, Bruins, Flamingos—drew numbers of spectators unseen for decades in Chicago. Perhaps the city’s most popular softball facility was Grant Park in the Loop, but the best teams could be found in leagues at Clarendon Park in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and Kelly Park in the Brighton Park area. The best of the best vied for the unofficial city title at the annual Andy Frain tournament at Clarendon Park.\n\nThe sport enjoyed coverage in Chicago’s major newspapers and increased numbers of fans and players participated citywide. In 1975, Chicago’s Windy City Softball magazine, with the support of the Winston cigarette company, sponsored a series of eight local tournaments that culminated in a sixteen-inch “World Series” held at Soldier Field.  Mayor Richard J. Daley declared the week before the championship game “Softball Week” in Chicago.\n\nSixteen-inch softball blossomed in Chicago at a time when the city was undergoing social and economic change. Between 1967 and 1982, the city lost a quarter of a million jobs, and in the 1970s 25 percent of all Chicago factories closed. Chicago’s once massive meatpacking industry, followed by steel and later electric and communications industries, relocated in response to global economic conditions, union demands, and lower profits. But before the fall of industry, union wages afforded the children of workers a college education. This generation filled new positions in the city’s service sector. Unlike other rustbelt towns, a new Chicago rebuilt itself within the shell of the old; as the old industrial economy dwindled, finance, legal services, insurance, and advertising boomed.\n\nWhile the city was losing its manufacturing jobs, the game with working-class roots helped Chicagoans maintain a blue-collar identity. Sons of factory workers, many now working downtown and in the suburbs, ground it out sans gloves on local softball diamonds, maintaining ties to their parents’ working-class neighborhoods.\n\nIncreasingly, Chicago softball players had their names etched on desk plates rather than embroidered on their work shirts; they shed jackets and ties, not dungarees and work boots before slipping into their stretch-knit pants and T-shirts. Like their predecessors, however, softball players in the 1970s and beyond believed that “the day’s really serious business” took place not in the workplace but on the diamond.\n\nAmong Chicago’s most notable softball boosters was Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper columnist and Chicago Daily News team pitcher Mike Royko. For Royko, the city’s affinity with no-gloves softball and its dominance in the sport nationally affirmed the superiority of hardy Chicagoans. While players outside the city would “slink away, moaning about their twisted fingers and painful booboos on their hands,” Chicagoans reveled in the machismo of no-gloves softball.\n\nUntil late in the twentieth century in Chicago, the world of sixteen-inch softball was frequented by women, but dominated by men. Practices, games, and of course postgame activities required extended amounts of time away from families. Many teams competed in multiple leagues, and some teams trained year round. For married men, spousal and family obligations posed a danger to team chemistry and success. League games on weekday nights and tournaments on weekends were the priorities of the summer, and often conflicted with birthdays, weddings, and barbecues.\n\nOver the course of one or more seasons, players developed powerful bonds, further strengthened through postgame rituals, which required tolerant spouses. “I’ve heard that there are wives of some softball players who say an after-the-game drink isn’t necessary,” wrote Edward Claflin in The Great American Softball Book (1978). “These wives have what is called a bad attitude.” The softball life allegedly caused relationship breakups when players preferred the company of their male teammates and the nightly adoration of female fans to wives or steady girlfriends.\n\nAfter enjoying a period of popularity unrivaled since before World War II, interest in sixteen-inch softball began to decline in the 1980s. More women took part in the softball life in Chicago. Many of them had college softball experience and preferred to play twelve-inch softball with gloves. National softball organizations began allowing gloves in sixteen-inch tournaments and devoted more resources and directed more sponsorship dollars toward twelve-inch softball. Many of Chicago’s best teams and players migrated to gloves and the smaller ball. No longer did no-gloves softball get the kind of media coverage it enjoyed when the game attracted the city’s top players.\n\nBut maybe the biggest reason for the decline of softball in Chicago was the suburbanization of the metropolitan area. Increasingly, Chicago’s suburbs became home to corporate offices as well as to small and mid-sized factories that relocated from the city. Between 1972 and 1981, Chicago lost 10 percent of its private-sector jobs while suburban employment increased 25 percent. In the twenty years between 1950 and 1970, the number of suburbanites doubled, and by that latter date, it had surpassed the total residential numbers in Chicago.\n\nIncreasingly, highways rather than the “El” connected teams and leagues to each other. Serious softball leagues and tournaments sprouted up in the working- and middle-class suburbs of Evanston, Harvey, Blue Island, Des Plaines, Downers Grove, Mt. Prospect, and Forest Park. For a time, the sport linked Chicago with outlying towns, creating fluidity among those who had roots in the city and homes in the suburbs. But gradually, suburbanization meant that interest in sixteen-inch softball became less concentrated, players grew tired of making long cross-county treks to play the game, and boys no longer grew up near sixteen-inch diamonds. At the same time, twelve-inch became more popular on larger suburban fields, which could accommodate the long flight of the smaller ball.\n\nBecause it had come to seem a bit passé by the 1980s, the children of Chicago’s newer immigrants—who began to arrive in larger numbers from Latin America, Asia, and Africa by the 1970s—did not take to softball. Moreover, transplants from midwestern colleges settling in gentrified communities, with little knowledge of Chicago softball culture and cursory ties to their neighborhoods, had little interest in playing softball without gloves.\n\nNow, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, sixteen-inch softball in the city proper remains strongest with its largest group of native Chicagoans, African Americans. In 2009, the “Sunday’s Best Softball League” in Washington Park on the South Side held games on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. On some days, more than fifty teams played on thirteen diamonds in front of three thousand spectators. A 2011 Chicago Tonight television report titled “Softball Sundays,” referred to the league at Washington Park as “the biggest, busiest, sixteen-inch softball league in the world.”\n\nFor the most part, the softball life as old-timers knew it is gone. And the nexus of sixteen-inch softball has shifted to the western suburb of Forest Park, home of the Chicago 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame and the “No Glove Nationals” tournament.  Here, at an annual hall of fame induction dinner, retired and still active players love to gather and talk at length about the glory days of sixteen-inch softball in Chicago, and why it is that we play without gloves.\n

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\nFor more of this story, and others like it, pick up Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity edited by Daniel A. Nathan for University of Illinois Press.  See my chapter, “Chicago’s Game.”  Buy the book at U of I Press, Powell’s Books, or Amazon.\n\n \n\n 

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One comment

  1. Ron BaleJ

    When I left Chicago to go off to school in 1949 I played my last 16 inch softball game. Today, some sixty years later, I still remember those wonderful games at Harrison Park and others played in the Cooper School playground on 18th Place near Ashland Avenue. In previous years I had watched two of my favorite neighborhood teams, the Verdons and the Galylords who played at the Cooper School playground league. Ah, those fond memories. rjb