Mike Royko

It is a great source of pride to many older softball players that the quintessential Chicago newspaper man, Mike Royko, who grew up playing 16” on the streets and playgrounds of the city’s north side, loved 16” softball. His love of the game and it’s traditions was so deep that when he wrote of it in one of his columns, you could almost hear the “thwock!” of a well hit Clincher, and see the dust drifting across a Grant Park infield. Like tavern culture and ward politics, softball was in Royko’s blood, and it showed in his writing. Like every other devotee to the sport, Royko cherished it as a welcome release from the pressures of work and life. In his writings, Royko conveyed, as only he could, both the greatness and the goofiness of the sport and the people who played it. The columns were small gems, and would have been a great read in some obscure newsletter. The fact that Royko’s take on “Chicago’s Game” was being eagerly read by anywhere from one to several million people was the icing on the cake. One evening in 1977, Royko stopped by Kelly Park to watch aging Sobees’ outfielder Eddie “The Champ” Surma play. In the resulting column, Royko marveled at the skill and longevity of Surma, who was then in his mid forties and still playing outfield at the top levels of softball. Royko also used the occasion to ridicule modern day professional baseball players who didn’t possess half the heart and drive that men like Surma regularly brought to an amateur sport, simply out of their passion for the game. Another time Royko wrote of his law suit against the Chicago Park District for allowing the use of gloves in it’s Grant Park 16” league. Royko won that suit, in part due to help from an old west side ward boss and ex-16” player who testified on Royko’s behalf. The man, Bernie Neistein, is quoted as saying, “Gloves? The only time anybody on our team ever wore any kind of gloves was when they didn’t want to leave fingerprints.” Another column stemmed from an invitation by the Chicago Metro ASA to throw out the first pitch at a Men’s Major National tournament in Harvey. Royko turned them down flat, and spent 800 withering words, ripping into the organization for allowing players, in his words, to wear “those things” on their hands. Quoting Slats Grobnik, Royko asked, “what’s next? Players wearing bras?.” In what was perhaps the greatest column ever written about softball, Royko described the game in which he broke his ankle in the first inning and played the entire game on it. He didn’t even know he’d broken it until the next day. “Hit a double too,” he bragged, like a thousand other dusty athletes had done before him. Royko also managed and pitched for the Chicago Daily News, and later, the Sun Times teams. He was instrumental in getting the Chicago 16” World Series tournament televised on WTTW, channel 11, in the 1970’s. During that broadcast, Royko’s announcing colleague in the booth that day introduced a player coming up to bat by saying, “In real life, he’s a fireman.” Royko hesitated a second, then replied scornfully, “Buddy, this IS real life.” A true Chicagoan, Royko wasn’t above stretching the rules when it came to securing players. There’s a photo of the Daily News’ 1974 championship team in F. Richard Ciccone’s recent book on Royko. A crowd of players in Daily News uniforms are standing around Billy Goat Tavern owner Sam Sianis, who’s holding a large trophy, and Royko, who’s grinning like a kid on the first day of summer vacation. And there in the front row, one holding a copy of Windy City Softball, and the other a poster advertising the Chicago World Series of Softball, are noted Chicago newspapermen Mike Tallo and Tom Bonen. Can you say “ringers”? Welcome to our Hall of Fame, Mike. We’re honored to have you with us.