History

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The game of softball started in Chicago on Thanksgiving 1887 at the Farragut Boat Club when Yale and Harvard Alumni wrapped up a boxing glove and started to hit the “ball” with a broomstick. Those men formalized the indoor game, and eventually the game was played outdoors, in Chicago, the parks and school grounds are small, so the ball had to be larger to stay in the park… Thus, the 16″ diameter became the size of choice and game of choice during the depression since only a bat and a ball were needed. No-glove softball has also been famous only in Chicago since the 1920’s.

In an archive tape from 1992, Hall of Famer Tim Maher recited his legendary Poem that is called the National Anthem of 16 Inch Softball, Broadcast on WKKD FM 95.9, where Tim’s broadcast was aired each and Every Sunday Night.

16 INCH SOFTBALL HISTORY – CHICAGO’S GAME

Written by Al Maag

Chicago is well known for many reasons- its architecture, museums, beautiful open lakefront, rich social and political history, blues music, a storied professional sports history, and its diverse ethnic mix. There is a unique sport, though, one that’s been played by thousands of men and women of for generations for both fun and glory for over eight decades, a game that is truly unique to Chicago…16-inch softball.

movie-photo

Chicago softball is played barehanded with gnarled fingers and knuckles that tell stories of errors and victories in games long past. It’s safe to say that most Chicagoans have played the game in school, at a picnic, or in a league play. It’s a fabric of our generations.

16-inch was a perfect game for Chicago’s small neighborhood ball fields and cinder covered school playgrounds-the ball didn’t travel as far as the smaller balls. And the absence of gloves benefited everyone in the tough economic times of the ’30s. Teams had only to chip in ten cents a man for a new ball, and women took to the sport because it was less dangerous baseball. The sport was all-the-more appealing due to its being organized by family, community and ethnic background at first, then sponsored by the companies its players worked for…a tradition that is still largely followed today.

The game of softball is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. This sport for all ages is played with different size diameter balls and with and without gloves. In Chicago the most prevalent game played is slow pitch 16″ softball with no gloves. Many who have played different brands of softball feel 16″ is the best game of softball, because it demands that every fielder must play defense (anyone can catch a ball with a glove) well or become a team liability. Offense play is like baseball; few runs are due to homeruns and it’s basically hit’em where they ain’t and moving runners is a normal strategy. It’s a great game with a unique history.

1949 Champions Kool Vent
Farragut Boat Club
1887

The game of softball started on Thanksgiving Day in 1887 at the farragut Boat Club in Chicago when Yale and Harvard grads were killing time waiting for the tickertape results of the annual football game between both schools. Instead of sitting around they wrapped up a boxing glove, making a soft ball and then played baseball in the gym with a broom. They enjoyed the activity so much they began to formalize rules and game basically became an indoor sport for years.

At the end of the century Lt. Roby from the Minneapolis Fire Department took the sport outdoors by playing the game with a 14″ ball next to the department building for exercise. The sport became popular and leagues began to spring up around the Midwest. Softball became a national sport when army used it for recreation and basically without gloves and pitched underhanded and fast. Balls ranged from 12″ to 17″ in size. The first 16″ balls were made by Frederick DeBeer and was named the Cincher when the stitching was reversed to protect from the rough ground and gravel the games were played on in schoolyards and parks.

Softball was very popular in Chicago especially indoor action in armories. The reason that the ball was 16″ or 17″ in size was based on one main reason. The parks and schoolyards were so small 14″ balls flew out into the street. The 16″ ball worked perfectly and also because of the depression, no one could afford gloves. The sport was accepted and enjoyed by all. The game was very popular way ethnic groups competed. One team of Italians (the Nut House Café) was sponsored by the architect of the St. Valentines Massacre, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurne. He was known to bet $10,000 on his team (value of $100,000 today)!

The first national championship was played at the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago thanks to sponsorship of William Randolph Hearst. Due to the fact most teams that entered the tournament all played with different rules and size balls they finally agreed to play with 14″ ball. Future City titles would be played at Wrigley Field.

Willie Davis Brown Bombers
Hanin, Elson, Divito and Burns in Awards Ceremony

Because of the game’s popularity shown at that event, 16″ no glove softball took on a professional level, when Harry Hanin started the Windy City League the next year and lasted into the 1950. Teams had their own stadiums and charged admission. They attracted thousands of people each night. Remember there were no TV and only two racetracks. Not only were these teams and players infamous representing their areas, but also gambling was the real game outside the lines. Many times they attracted over 10,000 each night and had more attendance than at the Cubs and/or Sox games that day. A few parks included Bidwill Stadium, Parichy, Thillens, and Lane Tech Stadium by Riverview. At most parks there were 3 games each night, leading off were the ladies…Bluebirds and Bloomer Girls were two well known teams. The girls were the foundation of the professional baseball league in the 40’s…and premise of the “League of Their Own” movie

Lettuce
1949 Champions Kool Vent

This was the “Golden Age” of the sport, making teams like the Whitt Hanley Yankees, Brown Bombers, Kool Vent, and Angels of Broadway famous and on every front page of the city sports papers. Players became legends; like no hit pitcher, Lewa Yacilla and Red Hurter was the Babe Ruth of their sport. Two stars of the game were Kool Vent’s Moose Skowron of the N Y Yankees and the Brown Bombers Sweetwater Clifton from the Globetrotters and one the first black athletes to play in the NBA.

Hanin, Elson, Divito and Burns in awards ceremony
Willie Davis
Brown Bombers

One unique part of the game was 10th player was the short center covering the area around second base. (There was no need to play in the outfield) The bases were moved from 45′ to 60′ and ball pitched with a higher and slower arch. Most Chicago citizens in park districts played the no glove game after World War II and the Korean conflict, but not with flair of the Windy City League.

It finally became a national sport in 1963 when the first ASA event was played in Chicago on the Wide World of Sports TV show on ABC. The first venue was won by the soon to be famous Bobcats who win 11 more titles. The game’s greatest rivalry was Bobcats versus the American Rivet Sobies in the 60’s-70’s. The game was still played bare handed until 1973 when local 16 inch ASA Commissioner Reid, felt out of state teams could not compete with Illinois because they were used to playing with gloves in 12″ and 14″ play. He was right and attracted 13 out of state teams, but the gloves never made a difference in the score and Chicago teams still dominated the national tournaments. Because of that fewer out of states played the game seriously other than in the Midwest. The one state with an excellent program is Iowa and their patience paid off in 1995 when the Carpet Country Rollers won the only title in ASA history by a team not from Chicago. They did it in the last inning scoring 3 runs with two outs and winning by one run. What an upset!

No glove softball is still played by all Chicagoans and the best of the best have played at Forest Park’s No Glove Nationals in front of thousands of fans for over 4 decades, without a doubt the premier event each year. The few of the best leagues have been played at Clarendon Park, Portage Park, James Park in Evanston in the North and Washington Park and Kelly Park on the Southside. The best ball today is played in Mt Prospect which is also the site of many ASA National Tournaments.

Many Nationals have been played out of Illinois. In 2004 both the Major and A Nationals were played in Arizona and attracted the most states to compete in 20 years. In fact in Phoenix, they have held the Avnet Business to Business Classic since 2003 reaching 30 plus teams and even getting some title games on television for both the co-ed and men’s divisions. The sport has traveled to different cities due to Chicagoans moving, but the reality is when men and women play the sport they realize it takes more skill, is safer, less time to play, and more fun than 12″. Critics of the 12 inch game say that “anyone catch a ball with a glove…those games take too long because the scores are too high and people are getting hurt.

Schurz High School 1st Public School Champs
Lettuce

There have been games; leagues and tournaments on radio, television and even on the Internet live the past decades. The biggest Grant Park tourney program the Old Style Classic fostered a League on Sports Channel from Forest Park during the summer in the mid 90’s. Household names like Ed Zolna, Mary Pat McGuire, Bill Bereckis, Willie Simpson, Champ Surma, Bobbie Blackstone, Eggs Czarnick, Rich Melman and Larry Kelly have joined 400 peers inducted in the Chicago 16″ Softball Hall of Fame. Since 1996 over 600 people have attended the dinner/ceremonies each year to honor the best of the best organizers, players, umpires and sponsors. The legendary Whitt Hanley Yankees, Kool Vent, Brown Bombers, Bobcats, Sobies, Lettuce, Whips, and now the 45’s as the greatest teams of all time.

Farragut Boat Club 1887
Schurz High School
1st Public School Champs

The Hall of Fame started in 1996 by Tony Reibel and Al Maag after the leaders in the game rallied around Al’s video documentary on the sport that was hosted by MLB Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Brickhouse. Thanks to March Manufacturing Inductee Park was created and now the museum will be opening in 2014 under the direction of Ray Topps and HOF president Ron Kubicki. The game is a thread between generations in Chicago. It’s popular with co-eds, college programs and men and women of all ages. It is still the only sport by every Chicagoan plays in school, at picnics, and league play, even if handicapped or blind. In fact a wheel chair team, the RIC Cubs were inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2011. In 1999 the sport became a lettered sport in the Chicago Public High Schools thanks to the lead by Mike North. Most 16″ fans feel this will keep the game alive with young people. For all ages a new association the SSA was organized recently and has had a big impact on more tournaments being played. Both groups have helped keep Chicago’s love affair with a sport.