Grant Park has been the host site for sixteen – inch softball in Chicago for over eight decades. The game fosters camaraderie amongst co-workers; it’s an outlet from work and competition and has driven the players of all ages and professions to step on the field to play the game they love.
Chicago style softball was played in various locations starting in the 1920’s, but sixteen – inch softball grew in popularity in the 1930’s in Grant Park. Over the years players took up the game in grass areas, behind Soldier Field and the Field Museum and at Butler field, near Jackson and Columbus. The area on the west side of Columbus, known as playing “on the top” was a grass area that evolved into fields in the 1980’s. The Chicago Park District answered the demand for field space resulting in sixteen – inch softball fields covering the south end of the downtown park.
Tournaments in 1980’s were a popular spectator sport. One of the most popular tournaments held was the Tournament of Champions. This showcased the 1st place teams from the leagues in Grant Park. The leagues included Park District house leagues and the champs from the various leagues like the Accountant’s, Legal league, Advertising league , Metro, city departments and agencies, to name a few. This was the competition of the best of the best. Many teams have shown longevity in participation in Grant Park. One team in particular held the title for back-to-back years. Commonwealth Edison won the championship from 1990 to 1993 and again in 1995. Teams like Northern Trust, Gillette, CNA, Sun-Time’s, Sargent & Lundy, Bobby McGee’s, Peoples Gas, Railroad Retirement Board, City Engineers, Wild Bunch, KPMG, Mother Hubbard’s, O’Connor and Trans Union participated in the Chicago Park District Men’s leagues and have been around for many years. Women’s Teams rallied with company sponsored teams as Northern Trust, R.R. Donnelley, Amoco, IL Bell/ATT, BCBS and Quaker Oats. In the late 1990’s, as corporate coed leagues grew in size, teams like TNT, Tressler, Grant Thornton, Mesirow Financial, OPCO, Sargent & Lundy, CBOE and UBS crowded the arena in support for 16” softball.
Major sixteen – inch softball Tournaments in Grant Park:
- Metro Tournaments, 1960-70, teams played to advance to the National ASA tournament, very often held in Chicago.
- Chicago Classic, sponsored by the Beverage Companies like Old Style and Miller Lite, teams came from all over to play on the lake front. There’s nothing better than just needing a bat, ball, tape for your fingers and beer!
- World’s Largest No Gloves Tournament 1992 attracted over 200 teams playing for the trophy and prizes that included an all-expense trip to Cancun, Mexico!
- The City Wide Industrial Tournament, this was an intense competition that matched teams from all around the city of Chicago.
- LaSalle Street Tournament hosted local teams where “ringer teams” often entered to snatch up the prize money.
- Mike Royko Memorial tournament honoring Chicago’s most respected newspaper columnist and softball aficionado, held each September, offered softball players one last summer swing.
- Chicago Sixteen – inch Softball Hall of Fame Tournament consisted of men, women, co rec and men over forty divisions. This coveted tournament held 2004-2007 brought out the best of the players.
- City Wide Youth Championships, culminated the season for thousands of kids from across the city parks. These kids continued to keep the game alive!
- Special Olympics Softball, Chicago Park District Special Recreation athletes perform skills tests and competition. The Special Olympics/Special Children’s Charities celebrated their 45th anniversary in July of 2013. In 2014, 481 athletes participated in softball activity in Grant Park.
Leagues throughout the years:
- The Chicago Police League played in Grant Park 1950 – 2013. This brought police officers from all over the city to compete and build camaraderie amongst various division of the police force. The league continues to play within the Chicago Park District.
- The Illinois Bell/Metro Softball League ran in Grant Park from 1960-2005. The last league director, Jeff Wilkens (1990-2005) notes that back in 1974 every diamond in the pit, up top and over by Petrillo were full every day with teams. They had fond memories of practicing by the original band shell with many other teams waiting for the late game. They always had a contest about who could hit the Columbus statue. Wild Bunch won the league championship in 1991,1992, and 1995. When the league disbanded in 2005, the team joined the park district men’s league on Thursday nights and continues to play.
- The Chicago Design League continues the tradition 1999-2014. Nic Rotundo, league director, said that Grant Park gave the Chicago Design League its softball home… and in the grandest of Chicago sixteen – inch tradition on Upper and Lower Hutchinson fields. What makes their league unique is that they started out as a loosely organized squatter’s league in Lincoln Park’s South Field where they survived for twelve years but the late 90’s brought about the need to either formalize, or disband. It was at that point they started play in Grant Park. Over the past fifteen years, thirty-seven teams have competed for 15 Crowns determined at their annual Championship Tournament, the culmination of their season and a tradition known throughout Chicago’s design and construction communities. So the ride so far has been tremendous with no end in sight as far as they are concerned… the sixteen – inch tradition is alive and continuing to thrive in Grant Park.
The running of the leagues and tournaments over the years wouldn’t have happened without the passion for creating great experiences by Buddy Haines, Don Spinella, Lynn Miceli, Ed Cox, Marie Mahay, Jimmy Reye, Steve Dwulat and Joe Sarna. Appreciation goes out to support of The Grant Park Recreation Association, umpires that kept the competition in check, Amateur Softball Association and the Official Umpires Association. Thank you to all who have supported sixteen – inch softball over the decades. As the city’s front yard, Grant Park has hosted many sporting events, concerts and historical events, but the heart of the land still holds true to the game that we all love – sixteen – inch softball.