By Al Maag
The journey to create the Chicago 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame started in the mid- 70’s with the Windy City Softball magazine staff of Tom Bonen, Bob Campbell from DeBeer and Al Maag. Bonen was the editor and was outstanding at reporting on the contemporary softball scene, but the bonus points were that in every issue he shared stories on the origins of the sport and early pioneers.
He was quite a player on the field and dynamo off starting the Winston Circuit and World Series events which were aired on TV. He also built a stadium in Broadview for the top softball leagues. In those creative days the seed of a Hall of Fame was planted but not watered.
In early 90’s Al Maag the art director of the publication took on a new project with videographer/editor Tom Tillisch (both men worked at Molex) of creating a documentary on the sport with Jack Brickhouse as the host. Maag realized there were no videos on how the game started or anything on 16 Inch Softball. The video was based on all the stories Bonen wrote and then his 2 years of interviews with local softball enthusiasts, associations, museums and players. Once unveiled one Chicago paper called him “the Ken Burns of Softball”.
The documentary had an ending that noted it would be nice to create a hall of fame. Immediately he heard from George Randazzo who had organized the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in the northwest suburbs. His enthusiasm and direction helped move Maag to reach out to the leaders in softball community to attempt creating a Hall.
His first call was to the respected Tony Reibel from American Rivet fame. They organized a meeting with association leaders and competitive team’s managers of the past and present at Hawthorne Park. Their pitch was simple, to accomplish the task everyone had to be neutral and if this group didn’t do it probably no one younger would.
Bob Campbell called Maag after that meeting and was amazed that everyone came, behaved and felt the project was one worth bonding to do.
The initial meetings were held at Randazzo’s HOF and then locations in Oakbrook and eventually Forest Park. The meetings were about formalizing the mission, a board, objectives and then the process on how to nominate and vote. Ron Onesti’s Softball City Show winter event in 1996 was the unveiling of the Chicago 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame.
The location of the first dinner was at Hawthorne Park thanks to Howie Fagan who was VP of marketing. Over 700 people attended the event that honored the best of the best players, managers, organizers, media and umpires of the great game. Softball lover, player and media personality Bob Sirott was host.
As time went on Maag moved to Phoenix, AZ and the HOF board was then led by player Gary Thorson. The board struggled to garner funds and find a physical location in the city, but each annual induction dinner was a success, attracting 600 guests and keeping the vision alive. Their first physical effort to describe our sport and inductees was a website…16inchsoftballhof.com.
On a fateful day during the Forest Park tournament new park director Larry Piekarz suggested to Maag and HOF board member Art Lurie the feasibility of using a small (ex-gas station) building used for art for kids at the corner of Des Plaines and Harrison. It was small but the location was in the middle of Chicagoland, in a park that loved and promoted the sport, the biggest tournament of the year was held there on two great fields. The Forest Park Board of Trustees led by Bud Boy quickly moved to donate the land and park resources for the project.
But the building could only be remodeled on the same footprint, thus was so small no one could figure out how to show all the plaques that would be needed. HOF VP Ray Topps who would lead the construction suggested a clever alternative-put the plaques in an outdoor setting. A design was created and thanks to March Manufacturing’s Fritz Zimmermann the Inductee Park project was funded. The outdoor displays which showed over 500 plaques, along with bricks purchased was unveiled in front of 2,000 happy fans in 2009 with George Bliss as MC featuring Forest Park Mayor Calderone. Following that was a Hall of Fame game which was truly enjoyed and still played annually. The media coverage was outstanding on most TV stations, Tribune and even The NY Times and Wall Street Journal.
One of the best manager’s in the game’s history, Ron Kubicki then became president and under his direction the goal was to build a museum and promote the sport. Now the task ahead was designing the structure, raising the funds and collecting the memorabilia and stories to fill the museum. The interior design was created and built by Motif Exhibits and Ray Topps. Zack Maag created the videos and digital assets while the board and well-wishers donated items including uniforms, trophies, books, photos, bats and balls that made it come alive. Maag created the graphics and historical stories around the room. Many board members and players supported the project with displays, windows, electrical, plumbing, painting, and flooring. Michaelle Maag, Teri Gaglione, Debbie Kubicki, and Debbie Topps made the final touches preparing for the big unveiling. The event was MC’d by George Bliss in July 2014 with the Whiskey’s Quicker band providing entertainment and ribbon cutting by the board. Again, Zimmermann helped fund the project along with sponsors like March, Molex, MB Bank, Maag and Waste Management. Bottom-line no Fritz again- no building. Without a doubt it was a labor of love for Ray Topps who took a small dilapidated structure into a beautiful brick building that utilized every corner of its 2,000 sq. feet. It took 5 years and when it was unveiled people all said the same thing, “I was not expecting it to be this nice or informative”.
The Hall is still looking for donors and sponsors to add more displays and stay open longer. Under Kubicki the board is doing an outstanding job supporting young people seeing the building, helping them play the game. Sometimes with the Chicago Police and seeing more interest with co-eds, over 50 years in age teams and thus living up to the initial mission…to tell the history, build the museum and promote the sport. https://16inchsoftballhof.com/sponsorships/