Larry Downes’s softball journey began at Grant Park about 1968 where his Dad’s Continental Bank team played hundreds of games during his childhood. His Mom would take him downtown on the CTA bus to watch. He would watch them play in the ‘Pit’ at Grant Park. While the games were going on, he would pitch crabapples to himself on the sidelines, hitting them by the 1000s into the train yard behind it. This was all in anticipation that when the game ended they’d pitch the softball to him! It’s where the seed was planted. It’s also why the Grant Park Tourney wins with Lettuce and Licorice meant a lot to him.
A dozen or so years later, Larry’s friend Rick Piwowarczyk put together a team called Full Count. They were fifteen years old in an 18 and under league. They held their own and took their lumps, but it was a start. Rick then led Larry to the Pallbearers, his first men’s league team, when he was nineteen. The Pallbearers were together for twenty-seven years; Larry played for eighteen of them. Rick then created Illusion where they finally enjoyed success with multiple Wentworth Park championships. He grew up and played his early years in the Garfield Ridge area and played wherever and whenever he could. Normandy, Wentworth, Archer, and Strohacker Park were his main leagues, but he’d go anywhere to get a game.
Larry met Tom Balek (HOF) in the fall of 1987 at Normandy Park. That was a game changer! He played all over the city with Tommy, three games a night if they could fit them in; he had a blast! Balek introduced him to major softball and brought him to the Jynx (1988-90 and 2013-14). It led him to his 1st ASA Nationals appearance in 1988 (5th Place). This was an experience he’d dreamed about as a kid watching his Dad. What made it more special was that in the Chicago Metro Qualifier he made a diving catch on the line with runners in scoring position to end the game. They beat the Scooters 6-5 to secure the Jynx’s first ASA Major National bid.
From 1988 on, Larry played in all the best leagues and tournaments the rest of his career. He played at Bedford, Clyde, Hart/Centennial, Majewski Metro, Kelly, Hawthorne, Forest Park, Hodgekins, and Westchester Parks. He played in the ASA Nationals, the USSSA Nationals, the NSA Nationals, Forest Park No Glove Nationals, Windy City, LaCrosse, Marshalltown, Cedar Rapids, Grant Park, and state, all major tournaments.
In 1991, Larry was introduced to Rich Melman (HOF) and most of the Touch team, a team that eventually became Lettuce Softball. This was his first powerhouse team and gave him a chance to play with the guys he grew up watching in the neighborhood. He won his first Forest Park championship that year, and the following year in 1992 he won his first ASA National Championship. This was a childhood goal that became a reality. He returned to Lettuce in 1998 to win his second ASA National championship.
In 1991 the night he won Forest Park with Lettuce, he met Tom “Eggs” Czarnik (HOF) at their post-game celebration at the Pines. Czarnik was his primary rival at the time. He was always intense, always emotional, and was always never satisfied. He was a legend of the game, a winner, a teacher, Larry’s friend, and someone he’d like to emulate on the field one day. Czarnik took Larry and a few others under his wing in the 1990s. He took him to new heights in every aspect of his game but just being around him made Larry a better player. His influence propelled the future of his softball career. They were always in contact, and they finally played major softball together in 1994-95 with PrimeTime, 1998 Lettuce, and 2002 Licorice.
In 1994-1995 Larry played for Bob Russ Sr. (HOF) and Prime Time. He loved playing for Senior who was a true character. It all worked for him although Senior drove many others crazy. Larry had some great times with this team, and the best was at having fun playing softball. We took second place at the ASA Nationals both years and won the Pro League once at Forest Park. In 2000- 2003 he moved on to Mike North’s Licorice team led by Bob Russ, Senior again, and by “Eggs” in 2002. They won the 2000 and 2002 ASA National Championships and a Forest Park and Grant Park title as well.
In 1993 Larry met Bob Rascia (HOF) from the 45’s. The 45’s were a team from Elmwood Park that was established in 1966. It was one of his best decisions ever! He played on a lot of teams over the years, and no one believed in or was more loyal to him than Bob Rascia. When other teams weren’t sure, or he was badly injured, Bob never questioned anything and always had a place for him. They played ten years together and it should have been many more.
There were a lot of great years of softball and they were all special in some way. The decade Larry spent with the 45’s was by far the most rewarding season for him. In 1996 they pulled off one of the greatest upsets in softball at Forest Park by winning five games by one run and defeating Lettuce in the final. They were Underdogs in every game and no one picked them to win it. Larry ran three balls down in the championship game that went over the scoreboard in center field. He caught them in the crowd that ringed the outfield. It was a great victory and cemented the 45’s as a perennial contender for years to come. In 1997 Larry’s Dad became ill with cancer and passed away abruptly early in the season. Larry went back to playing immediately because he knew that’s where his Dad would want him to be. He proceeded to go on a streak of hits, home runs, and catches that he really couldn’t explain. He remembers Nick Pinto calling him ‘Superman’ for the next three months, and they still laugh about it today. Larry’s pretty sure his Dad was watching somewhere, because it sure felt like it.
While with the 45’s Larry won more than 650 games, including six ASA National Championships, six Forest Park Championships, seven Classic League Titles, five Westchester/Hodgkins League Titles, and a host of other major tournaments. It was one of the greatest runs in softball history.
When not coaching girls’ 12-inch softball, Larry plays for Pete Digioia and his brother Chris on Players Inc. They took third at the SSA Nationals in 2017 and he received a 2nd Team All American award at fifty years old. He’s not done just yet; go Inc!
Larry played softball with speed and hustle on both offense and defense. His aggressiveness on the bases put a ton of pressure on the defense to make clean plays. He was left-handed and could hit to every field. He could hit for power but specialized in hitting the ground ball through the infield. Grounders always gave him a high on-base percentage and set the table for his teammates. He turned basic ground ball outs into hits. Singles to the outfield were doubles. Anything through the gap or over a head was a homerun. He scored from first on singles and tagged two bases on fly ball outs regularly. Nothing makes him smile more than causing chaos on the base paths, be it the ‘Little League Homer’ or the one hopper to the pitcher for a hit. On defense he primarily played center field and later in his career right field. He loved to run and could cover a lot ground with his speed. He was able to take away a lot of would be hits.
Larry has played competitive sixteen-inch softball for thirty-five years and competed in over 3000 games. He played one hundred fifty plus games a year in the first twenty, and it slowed down a bit after. He is thankful for all opportunities he received through the years, and the great teammates, coaches, and opponents he played with along the way.
Major Championships Won
• Eight A.S.A National Championships. Lettuce
1992, Lettuce 1998. Licorice 2000 and 2002,
Miller 45’s 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007.
• Eight Forest Park Championships. Lettuce 1991,
Bud 45’s 1996, Licorice 2002, Miller 45’s 2004,
2006 2007 2008 2009 Miller 45s
• Ten Mt Prospect Classic League titles- Majewski
• Nine Hodgekins/Westchester /Gordon Park
• Four Grant Park Tournament
• Five Chicagoland Classic Tournament
• Five North South Tournament
• Three Windy City Challenges
• Eight ASA State Tournaments
• One Clyde Park Title 1988, undefeated 18-0 my
first year playing major (Jynx)
• Four Marshalltown Classics
• Two Hawthorne Tournaments
• 2006 MVP of the ASA National Tournament
• Five time 1st Team ASA All American Awards =
45’s, Prime Time, and Licorice
• Enshrined as an All Time Classic League Team
Member – Mt Prospect Park District.
He thanks his loving wife and daughter, his supportive mother, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, nieces (Olivia and Abby) and his nephew, Andrew, his friends, and teammates, who have supported him throughout the years. He sends a big shout out to his current #1 fans: Kate, Jenna, and Jillian, his brother Chris for being his biggest fan and for doing anything he could to help whatever team he was on in his youth Most of all, he thanks his father Larry Sr. who taught him to play this game with passion, desire, hustle and to play it to the best of his ability on every single play. He urges everyone to never take games off and to play hard every game, league and championship, with passion.