Softball History Paper

Thanksgiving Day (November 24) 1887 probably seemed like an ordinary holiday for many Chicagoans. At the time, the city’s population and economy both endured the process of rapid expansion. Railroads and shipping highlighted the significance of the Windy City’s status as the United States’ primary metropolis west of the Appalachians. New technology, such as electrification, slowly made its way into the everyday lives of locals. There is little doubt that the date signifies part of an exciting era in the history of the city, but it certainly could not compare with the day of the Chicago Fire sixteen years earlier, October 8, 1871, or the opening of the Columbian Exposition in the near future, May 1, 1893. Nevertheless, that Thanksgiving Day ultimately proved to be an important marker in the cultural history of Chicago.

At the Farragut Boat Club on the South Side of the city, a group of Harvard and Yale alumni paid attention to the news of the annual football game via tickertape machine (Yale eventually won, 17 to 8). One nameless person, perhaps out of boredom, picked up a boxing glove and started throwing it around. Another eventually grabbed a broomstick and tried to hit the glove with it. Suddenly, these bright, white-collar Ivy League alumni came up with a novel idea: an improvised game of indoor baseball. The men taped the glove to give it a spherical shape, like a baseball, and then divided into two teams (likely by alma mater) and played ball. The final score remains disputed to this day, as some sources (Doster) claim it ended in a tie at forty-one runs apiece, while others (Grossman) say the final score finished at forty-one to forty runs.[1] Win, lose, or tie, the ingenious manner of passing time would become a Chicago tradition over the next century.

This game of indoor baseball evolved into softball, a sport similar to baseball that is enjoyed throughout the country today. The city where it originated, however, maintains its own unique version of the game: sixteen-inch softball. The local sport itself evolved over the coming decades, but its evolution should not be seen as haphazard, because its changes occurred as reactions to the demographic, spatial, and cultural dynamics of Chicago itself. Sixteen-inch softball is very much a symbol and reflection of the city and its inhabitants.

In order to understand the environment in which softball originated, the popularity of its predecessor, baseball, must be understood. In the late-nineteenth century baseball truly occupied the heart of a changing fascination with athletics and sports in the United States. In the earlier decades of the nineteenth century horse racing and boxing attracted large numbers of urban residents to sporting events, but these contests eventually became marred by their ties to gambling.[2] Baseball seemed to lack such links with gambling (on the surface, at least), and many saw it as an honest, democratic sport representative of life in an American city. Spectators identified with their favorite teams and players, often representing the home city, and pictured each contest as a metaphor for their own lives, trying to defeat the other team while playing within the rules of the game. In this case, the other team symbolized competing businesses or workers while the umpires stood in for politicians who enforced laws, often to the chagrin of city residents.[3]

Metaphors aside, the urban population of the United States appreciated baseball thanks to its fast pace, combination of teamwork and individual achievement, balanced field, unpredictability, and most importantly, its countryside atmosphere. Transplants from rural areas missed the open fields and fresh air, but a nominally-priced ticket offered a couple of hours of escape from the hectic pace of life, crowded confines, and factory jobs of the city.[4]

Baseball gradually became a standardized sport during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Although popular belief attributes the game’s foundation to Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York in 1839, baseball, like cricket, actually derived from the English sport of rounders. During the 1840s and 1850s, baseball belonged to the affluent classes who had leisure time to play, but working-class Americans soon adopted the pastime. While the sport became increasingly popular, it lacked a wide-accepted set of rules. The Civil War changed that; military men enjoyed playing the game in their spare time, and to make it acceptable to participants from across the country, a standardized version developed by the end of the war. The establishment of professional leagues following the conflict ensured a nationalized genre.[5]

Although baseball still holds the name “national pastime,” it fascinated Chicagoans more so than any other metropolitan area in the country. Large parks such as Jackson, Humboldt, and Garfield Parks provided ample recreational spaces on the outskirts of the city for those residents who could afford the transportation fees. By the 1880s these parks bowed to popular demand and added baseball diamonds to serve locals’ enjoyment of the sport. As great as these accommodations seemed, they did little for the lower-class citizens who lived in neighborhoods lacking green spaces and could not afford the trip to one of the grand parks. Nevertheless, such deficiencies did not go unnoticed, as social welfare figures like Jane Addams encouraged the city to build smaller green spaces of only one to five acres. Although these parks provided hardly any open space compared to their luscious counterparts, they would be large enough for local children to play many games and sports. Even those activities that required large fields, like football or baseball, could be improvised to fit the more compact parks. Chicago built ninety of these smaller green spaces in the first two decades of the twentieth century. They would play a key role in the development of sixteen-inch softball in the Windy City.[6]

Still, even though baseball proved to be widely popular and maintained a standard format, it would only seem natural for people to continue improvising the rules and regulations much like children playing on a sandlot.[7] After all, improvisation is a staple of American creativity and accounts for how Americans derived baseball itself from rounders. It also provided some bored Ivy Leaguers watching a tape machine with the inspiration to discover the game of softball, and they would not be the last people to tinker with the new sport.

After the first game of softball, or “indoor baseball,” as participants called it back then, took place on Thanksgiving in 1887, the Farragut club members found the game so thrilling that George W. Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, decided to make up the rules of the new activity while his colleague and co-worker Augustus J. White created an appropriate bat and ball for indoor use, and they and the other Ivy League alumni would meet back at the club the following Saturday to play the first official game. By next winter, several exclusive clubs came together to form the Midwinter League.[8]

Like its outdoor predecessor, indoor baseball originally belonged to upper-class citizens, but before long, middle-class Chicagoans started playing it themselves. In an era where electrification altered the nature of indoor activities, and gymnasiums, armories, and fitness clubs became commonplace, it seemed almost inevitable. Schools, businesses, cycling clubs, neighborhoods, ethnic groups, military regiments, and religious organizations all started forming their own indoor baseball teams by the early 1890s.[9] As the sport shifted from elite clubs to more diverse organizations and participants, its popularity exploded throughout the Chicago area. In 1896 the Cook County High School Indoor Baseball League formed, and it would continue play until 1913.[10]

Between the impromptu game of whacking a boxing glove with a broomstick and the resulting numerous incarnations of softball that exist today, a great deal of national experimentation defined the first fifty or so years of the sport. The game remained an indoor sport in Chicago during the early twentieth century, understandably because of the Windy City’s less-than-ideal weather for outdoor activities most of the year. Still, this marked an era before the creation and spread of basketball and volleyball; indoor baseball seemed to be an appropriate winter event for Chicagoans.

As the years passed, many Chicagoans started to take the sport outdoors. The spectacle of indoor baseball diminished by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917. The reasons behind this transition remain somewhat of a mystery. The surging popularity of basketball, another indoor game, could provide an answer, but this explanation seems too simplistic. Perhaps the game’s popularity expanded beyond that which could be accommodated by indoor venues in the city. The similarity to baseball may have given the indoor activity a strange feel, as America’s pastime is almost always ideally set outdoors on a warm, sunny day. Another explanation could be that the sport in particular became so cherished by its fans and players that they refused to part with it for the summer. After all, by 1907 indoor baseball moved outside and adopted the name “playground ball,” which used a sixteen-inch ball.[11] Whatever the case, economics and spatial accommodations would eventually ensure the game’s solidification as an outdoor event.

While softball’s popularity gradually rose in the Chicago area, it also took root in many other parts of the country during the early twentieth century. Minneapolis proved to be an active center for the game and a Midwest rival for Chicago in the development of the sport. Softball arrived in Minnesota thanks to Lewis Rober, a firefighter who brought the pastime with him from the Windy City. The league established by Rober included teams arranged by fire departments throughout Minneapolis. Rober’s station house number 11 team adopted the name “Kittens.” They likely performed well, because the league shared a name with them, as locals called it the “Kitten League.” Not only that, an early moniker for the game of softball happened to be “kitten ball,” surely confirming the importance of Minneapolis for the sport’s early influence. Unlike Chicagoans, however, Minnesotans played softball, or more appropriately, “kitten ball,” using a fourteen-inch ball, many of which Rober made himself.[12]

Other major cities in the United States tinkered with softball and created their own versions. The seventeen-inch ball which proved to be popular for indoor baseball in early-twentieth-century Chicago eventually made its way down to New Orleans, where it became “cabbage ball,” a game still enjoyed in the Crescent City today. In Denver, the sport received the name “softball,” which would shortly be adopted nationally after years of various monikers in different parts of the nation.[13] Although the activity finally earned a standard title by the 1930s, unifying the country to play one widespread version of the game would not be as simple. While many cities and regions took up the sport in the first decades of the 1900s, all of them could trace their origin back to Chicago, where it would retain its passion among fans and players for years to come.

Although athletic activities predominantly served males in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, softball maintains an affiliation with women reaching back to its earliest days. Sports symbolized physical strength, competition, power, and pride, traits that are often associated with masculinity, even today. Baseball especially fit in with recreational activities dominated by males. Zane Grey confirmed this fact by saying, “Every boy likes base-ball, and if he doesn’t he’s not a boy.”[14] Women did not seem to belong in most sports, but softball proved to be an exception. Because of the smaller dimensions of softball, as opposed to baseball, and the softer projectile as implied by the game’s moniker, the pastime earned a reputation as gentle enough for women.[15] Unfortunately, softball received misogynist characterizations as a result of its perceived appropriateness for women, derided as “sissy ball,” “panty waist,” and “Nancy ball.”[16] Despite these negative characterizations, the game remained attractive to countless men and women and could not deter their participation.

Even back at the turn of the twentieth century, women competed in indoor baseball, as high schools and other community organizations fielded teams. By the 1920s, businesses and corporations sponsored women’s softball teams. The encouragement of athletics resulted from business efforts to undermine union formation but also to advertise, promote camaraderie among workers, loyalty to the company, and support the well-being and contentment of employees. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, the Ontario Women’s Softball Association, sponsored by organizations such as Kellogg’s, and Silverwood Dairy, offered many women the chance to play recreational softball, and, if good enough at the game, a career (they could only be on the team if employed). Many of the female players, including Hazel Shackleton and Gladys Oliver, came from nearby farming communities, where open space and a need for labor allowed them to foster their physical strength and athletic skills. The Great Depression witnessed the end of many corporate sports teams in an effort to save finances.[17] Still, softball offered many women an opportunity to lead an independent life and make a name for themselves. The activity would continue to open doors for women in the future.

In 1929, the Great Depression shook the world’s economy, and Chicagoans felt its dire affects over the next decade or so. While it proved to be a trying time for many individuals and families, softball offered some substantial relief from the suffering. Chicagoans of the working-classes could no longer afford a wide array of entertainment options including movies, shopping, and professional sporting events. Even playing sports like golf cost too much for some people. On the other hand, softball, especially the sixteen-inch version, remained in the price-range of many individuals down on their luck. Because the large ball would not travel as far or as fast as a baseball or smaller softball, one did not need a glove to play the game; furthermore, compacted playing fields would be suitable for the activity, an advantage for the less wealthy residents of certain city neighborhoods, especially since even the poorer parts of Chicago had parks or green spaces. On top of that, teams of ten or more participants could each pitch in a little money to pay for a bat and a ball, as players could share these equipment pieces. As for the spectators, amateur games between local teams generally priced tickets low, if not free, so softball offered a form of entertainment available for many spectators or players. Not surprisingly, because of these factors, the popularity of sixteen-inch softball skyrocketed in Chicago during the 1930s.[18]

The 1930s marked not only a surge in the popularity of various styles of softball but also the professional turn of the game. In 1930, the Chicago Herald American Tournament took place for the first time, and this endeavor, which included hundreds of teams and needed several weeks to play out, succeeded immensely.[19] Softball could be more than simply a neighborhood pastime; it had the potential to be marketed as a spectator sport for a wide audience. Softball games happened to be some of the most popular exhibits at the 1933 Century of Progress World Fair in Chicago. Tournaments existed for teams in twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-, and sixteen-inch versions of the game, for both men and women. Collectively, over three-hundred-fifty thousand people supposedly attended the tournaments.[20] They proved so successful that an annual tournament took place at Soldier Field for the remainder of the decade. The Windy City League, the sport’s first professional organization, also formed during this time period. Their games attracted thousands of fans to some of the city’s largest stadiums, including Wrigley Field, Bidwell Stadium, and Parichy Park. They not only came to watch one of their favorite events, but also because of great prices, as tickets often sold for no more than a dime and usually included multiple games.[21] Chicago and other parts of the United States needed something to lift their spirits during a time of economic stress and rising political tensions around the world, and softball served in many ways as their release from contemporary problems, if only for an hour or two.

Much of this excitement, however, died with the onset of American entry into World War II in 1941. At a time when many citizens entered the service and others dealt with government rations and long work hours to supply the war effort, softball simply took a back seat to more urgent issues. That said, the game did not completely disappear. Many individuals serving their country enjoyed the sport in their spare time.[22]

In civilian life, women’s leagues, in a somewhat improvised act by their founders, filled much of the void left by the glory days of the 1930s.[23] Women played on recreational teams since the days of indoor baseball, and by the 1930s, some teams proved to be highly talented. To the shock of some spectators, women teams often won exhibition contests against men’s teams.[24] This success bred a negative stigma towards women’s softball, as many players received masculine or lesbian portrayals by popular media. The negative stereotypes concerning softball encouraged Philip K. Wrigley, founder of the All-American Girls Baseball League, to distance itself from women’s softball as much as possible. The AAGBL accomplished this by outfitting its athletes in skirts and makeup, shining a spotlight on players with husbands and children, and committing its teams to assist community-support organizations.[25] On the other hand, the National Girls Baseball League, founded in Chicago, embraced the success of women’s softball by inviting four of the best recreational softball teams to join the league as the first teams. The NGBL also maintained a style of play closer to softball, instead of baseball, with underhand pitching, traditional softball uniforms, and smaller fields.[26] Both leagues enjoyed great success during the mid- to late-1940s, as most teams based themselves in smaller, Midwestern cities without Major League Baseball teams, and these communities took great pride in the women that represented them. This led to high attendance and local attention during the aforementioned peak years. For example, when the AAGBL’s Rockford Peaches faced dire financial straits, fans raised money to maintain the team.[27] Although the women’s baseball leagues ultimately folded in the 1950s, women’s amateur softball teams like the Peoria Dieselettes continued to thrive.[28] Even though these women received far less fanfare than their male major-league counterparts and faced gender biases against women in sports that continue to plague American society to this day, it marked a significant step in a close affiliation between women and softball, one that slowly continued to grow into the twenty-first century, when the game (particularly the national twelve-inch version) is largely seen as a female activity, especially in schools and youth leagues.

Sixteen-inch softball regained its status as a popular Chicago summer activity following World War II. The Windy City League folded in 1950, and softball’s prominence as a professional sport never bounced back to its prewar levels. Still, the game thrived among locals and amateurs, and would continue as such through the 1990s. The Amateur Softball Association (ASA) tried to take the sixteen-inch version nationwide starting with an annual no-gloves tournament based in Chicago in 1963, but teams from the metropolitan area dominated.[29] The 1986 ASA Sixteen-Inch Nationals in Mount Prospect, for example, included a disproportionate representation from the local communities, with seventeen teams from the Chicago area, six from Iowa, three from Wisconsin, three from Indiana, two from South Dakota, and a single team each from Ohio and New York.[30] Even when someone from outside Chicagoland won the tournament, it almost always happened to be a team from the Midwest. Even though the sport remained regional, Chicagoans had no problem with this situation; many even took pride in it as a distinction of a true Windy City native.

Given the proliferation of television and suburbanization of many American cities during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, one may wonder how neighborhood teams managed to attract so much fanfare and participation during this time period. For starters, television, still in its infancy, offered far fewer entertainment options than it did in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, when cable and satellite would offer dozens of channels and programs. On top of that, summer programming mostly featured reruns, as people often preferred to spend time outdoors and take advantage of the warm weather while it lasted.

While Major League Baseball maintained its popularity and reputation as America’s national pastime, television, much like its predecessor radio, simply could not compete with watching games live in person. A small screen simply failed to give spectators the full-field vision of the sport needed to enhance the suspense. Fans at a game can see for themselves the position of the anticipating fielders, the tension on the field before every pitch, the atmosphere within the stadium throughout the game, and so on. The people watching a game on a TV can usually only see the batter and the pitcher. Furthermore, for much of the era under discussion, TV images lacked color and quality definition, making the experience even worse. To make matters worse for Chicago baseball fans, the Cubs and White Sox played horribly during the decades following World War II. The North-Siders failed to make it to the playoffs every season from 1946 through 1983, and the South-Siders qualified just once between 1920 and 1982. Many sixteen-inch players and fans doubt it, but it seems plausible that sixteen-inch softball benefitted from a lack of quality competition from professional baseball. If Chicagoans wanted to watch a game played on a diamond field, they felt better off going to a neighborhood park where they knew many of the players, paid little to no money for admission, travelled a short distance, could see multiple games, and visit their favorite bar or tavern with the team afterwards. As Al Maag recalls, many sixteen-inch softball games brought out more fans than either the Cubs or White Sox.[31]

Besides the lack of TV options and lousy major-league teams, sixteen-inch softball games maintained an appealing arrangement. Most games offered two or three contests per evening, with the women’s teams usually playing first at 6 pm or 6:30 pm, and then the men’s teams taking the field at about 8 pm or 9 pm. Fans paid to see many games, especially the ones featuring better, more competitive teams, but they clearly felt the experience validated the price, as demonstrated by high attendance figures.[32]

Though suburbanization proved to be a drain on the urban population during the second half of the twentieth century, Chicagoans left their hometown for surrounding communities very gradually. As long as the Windy City maintained its industrial work base, it remained economically viable. Only after the loss of such jobs starting in the 1970s would Chicago’s job market really begin to suffer. Even if doctors and lawyers left the city for large suburban homes with expansive lots, it hardly meant anything for the game of softball. The sixteen-inch version, despite its elite origins at the Farragut Boat Club and some white-collar players, always possessed a blue-collar heart, and its participants took great pride in this identity. Nevertheless, individuals who moved out of the city as adults did not forget about a favorite sport of their youth. Even after relocating to places like Evanston, Oak Park, or Mount Prospect or taking higher-paying, white-collar positions, many men continued to play the game either in the city or starting leagues in the suburbs.[33] Some athletes even took advantage of the expansion of the metropolitan area by competing for suburban teams. A 1986 Chicago Tribune article mentions John West, a teacher at the Hyde Park Career Academy who spent his Thursday evenings driving across the city up to Evanston for a game, then driving back down across Chicago again to play with a team in Blue Island on the same night. West also played with teams in Lincoln Park and Avalon Park on other days of the week.[34] Despite their newfound success, they would not forget where they started in life.

Many recreational teams predominantly competed against nearby groups. Maag, for example, mostly played other teams from the north side of Chicago or Evanston.[35] George Vournazos, based in the west suburbs, faced teams from the west side and nearby communities.[36] Tournaments, however, brought together the best groups who would otherwise never meet. These events, therefore, brought out the most fans and received wide coverage in the local media.[37]

It is a wonder what aspects comprised the culture of sixteen-inch softball and what made it reflect the culture of the Windy City. For starters, the sport served as a means of fitting into American society for foreign immigrants who settled in the Chicago area seeking a better life than they had in their home country. For children who spoke little to no English, softball served as an activity through which boys and girls could develop bonds and friendships with one another, despite cultural or linguistic differences. This logic, however, implies that families of various extractions maintained a presence in every neighborhood throughout the city, which often proved not to be the case, especially in a city as segregated as Chicago. This situation, however, failed to stop specific immigrant and ethnic communities from acquiring a passion for the game. Baseball could also serve as a means of transitioning into American society, and the transition from that sport to its cousin, softball, would be rather easy considering the similar structures of the games. National League president Morgan Bulkeley promoted the sport to immigrants, saying, “There is nothing which will help quicker and better to amalgamate the foreign born, and those born of foreign parents in this country, than to give them a little good bringing up in the good old-fashioned game of Base Ball.”[38] While baseball certainly did its part to welcome immigrants to the culture of the United States on a national scale, as well as in the Chicago area, sixteen-inch softball proved to be as much of a blending experience in the Windy City. New Americans learned the how to play softball from locals and then played on neighborhood teams, many of which happened to be comprised of one nationality. Indeed, individual city teams featured rosters exclusively or at least predominantly of one ethnicity; some of these identities included Polish-, German-, Italian-, Jewish-, African-, and Irish-Americans.[39] Sixteen-inch softball, therefore, reflected the blending and presence of many cultures within the city of Chicago as well as their controversial separation.

As is the case with most other sports, gambling maintained a large presence within the culture of sixteen-inch softball. After all, nothing demonstrated affluence and confidence more than showing that one had expendable money and solidly believed in his or her abilities. Even if the money could not really be considered “expendable,” individuals always wanted to supplement their finances and would especially be willing to risk them if pride could be augmented as well. Al Maag’s Molex team normally avoided betting on games, because losing money had the potential to damage team morale and chemistry. If teammates started blaming others for losing them money through subpar performances, it would certainly ruin friendships and take much of the fun out of the game. Molex only bet when challenged, to back up their confidence, and generally wagered about fifty to one hundred dollars as a team. Some teams, however, put their money on the line. These included the best organizations who felt very confident about their chances of winning. Some bet up to ten thousand dollars on one game.[40] Not surprisingly, gambling’s affiliation with softball reaches back to the pastime’s early days, as notable criminals such as Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn played for and financed teams. These mobsters often made wagers on games worth thousands of dollars, and they almost certainly tried to fix contests or game the system in some way. Of course, regular, mostly-law-abiding civilians gambled on the sport as well, especially since games occurred frequently and generally proved to be easier to attend than the racetracks.[41] Al Maag confirms that the contests between the best teams at the biggest venues, including Clarendon and Kelly Parks, attracted the bulk of gamblers.[42]

Another popular aspect of sporting events, drinking, provided a central role for sixteen-inch softball. As Christopher Lamberti wrote in his essay on the game, “softball was for everyone, but postgame rituals were for adults only.”[43] After sweating it out and physically draining themselves out on the diamond, nothing sounded better to athletes and fans than celebrating, win or lose, with some cold beers down at the local bar. Friends, family, girlfriends, and want-to-be-girlfriends often joined them. Maag’s Molex team used a local tavern called The Speakeasy as its usual gathering place after the games. Mary Pat McGuire’s Rosecrown team had Cullinan’s Stadium Club as its meeting place.[44] George Bliss’s team gathered at McGaffer’s in Forest Park.[45] Players and fans generally stayed for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half at the bar, leaving at about 10 pm or 11 pm, although the length of the gathering varied based on the day of the week, as people would linger on Fridays or Saturdays. Today, Maag looks back and wonders, jokingly, “How did we drink and go to work the next day?”[46] Not only did nearby taverns serve as a gathering space after the games, they also bankrolled many teams. Financially, these businesses succeeded rather well through such partnerships.[47] In such cases, the sponsoring bar would be the unofficial locker room where players changed into uniform, and the bartender took on the role of equipment manager by stashing the team’s personal items and duffle bags in safe places. These drinking establishments even provided teams and fans with coolers full of drinks for the games themselves. Afterwards, the neighborhood tavern became a local version of Cheers, each with its own Sam Malone, or several of them, recounting the highlights of the day’s contests or reminiscing about his own long-past, glorious playing days. Sixteen-inch softball undoubtedly maintained a Chicago flavor, but drinking some cans of Old Style in bars such as Irving O’Brien’s or Papa Bears Pub gave it an even more distinct Windy City flair.[48]

Just as important as becoming American, gambling, and drinking, softball gave blue-collar Chicagoans the chance to be a local hero. Regardless of where the individual athletes worked, how they made ends meet, or the quality of their lives, all of that ceased to matter once they stepped on the diamond. At that point, the eyes of neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family laid on the local softball team, and the players often basked in it. Maag feels that the mix of individuals from various backgrounds made for one of the more interesting aspects of the game; teammates did not care about one’s job, only playing ability.[49] The field served as the stage upon which they could show off their skills. Unlike other sports, sixteen-inch softball did not require its participants to be in outstanding physical shape. Even today, many of the best players are between forty and sixty years of age.[50] The large, squishy Clincher flew off the bat in a manner quite unlike that of a standard baseball or even a twelve-inch softball. It also softened as innings progressed, changing game play even more and giving those with experience an advantage.[51] With such a compact field and a ball that rarely travelled very far, the key to winning relied on well-placed hits and strategic fielding rather than slugging home runs; for pitchers the objective did not call for fiercely firing balls across home plate but instead tossing the Clincher underhanded and high in the air in order to force the batter to hit it right to the defense for an out. Eddie Zolna, the only sixteen-inch player in the ASA Hall of Fame before this year, contrasts the nature of twelve-inch softball with his version, explaining,

I respect twelve-inch ball, but I’m not crazy about the way it’s played today. In fast-pitch, a good pitcher’ll strike out fifteen to eighteen a game, and everyone else stands around with his hands in his pockets. Twelve-inch slow pitch at the national level has turned into a game for 275-pound whales. I read where one team averages sixteen home runs a game. They should call it Home Run Ball. Sixteen-inch is different. Everybody hits the ball solid three-four times a game. Everybody gets chances in the field. Everybody goes home feeling like he’s done something. What could be better, especially for kids?[52]

The game seemed to ask its players to rely more on instincts and experience rather than power and speed.[53] Hence, middle-aged athletes could perform at a level to make them competitive with teenagers. Softball proved to be a sport one could reasonably play well for decades, something fans and participants could hold onto amid changes throughout the years.

On top of that, the softball diamond acted as an equalizer for Chicagoans hailing from various walks of life. White-collar and blue-collar did not exist on the field, only teammates. Lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives rubbed elbows with factory workers, manual laborers, and construction workers. In a sense, softball gave all of them the opportunity to put workplace differences behind and cooperate as teammates tossing the ball from one to another to get out an opposing batter. On the other hand, the activity also yielded working-class Chicagoans with a chance to upstage and perhaps even humiliate their overseers. Imagine the joy a unionized steelworker would have tagging out the company president at home plate to secure his team’s victory. Even for those individuals who refused to join a team with others in different careers, leagues existed for industrial workers, lawyers, police officers, and firefighters.[54] Legendary softball player Steve Prostran summarized the beauty of the game for regular folks, exclaiming “off the field I was just a regular Joe going to work, but on the softball field at night, in these parks, I was somebody.”[55]

Softball proved to be more than simply a game for many Chicagoans. Rather, it seemed to take over their lives completely. Some individuals, like the aforementioned West, played on more than one team; given the proliferation of various leagues throughout the metropolitan area, athletes certainly maintained the opportunity, and teams usually showed little concern for these instances, unless said person competed with another organization in their own league. Although most people involved in sixteen-inch softball limited the amount of time devoted to the sport to a reasonable standard, some men seriously stressed their family lives and marriages. Too much time on the diamond and away from the family even caused some divorces.[56] George Bliss recalls that his wife complained about the amount of time he spent playing softball and being away from his family back in the game’s heyday. The sport failed to cause enough stress to ruin their marriage, but it certainly led to its share of divorces.[57]

It is a wonder how some men could become so obsessed with a game to the point where wives and children leave them. Actually, it makes quite a bit of sense. Fathers and husbands showed so much passion for the game because it offered them a chance to relive their younger days as well as the athletic glories, such as major-league dreams, that somehow eluded them. Softball brought them back to a time when they lacked the responsibilities of a job, a marriage, a family, and a home, among other things. These concerns weighed heavily on nearly all adult Americans in the mid- to late-twentieth century, regardless of class or occupation. Going to the local field on warm summer evenings and jostling around with friends over some cold beers for a few hours relieved the pressures of everyday life. “It’s addictive,” said Bliss, “it brings back your childhood.”[58]

This explanation makes sense, but it fails to explain why sixteen-inch softball in particular served as an outlet for so many Chicagoans. After all, bowling, pool, broomball, or cycling, just to name a few athletic activities, could all provide the relief offered by softball. Softball, however, holds a special place in American culture. As a variation on baseball, the “national pastime,” it is a game children all over the country learn to play from a very early age. Baseball itself is such a staple of American springs and summers that nearly every community has a field or sandlot where kids, or even adults, can play. Furthermore, those athletes who prove to be so gifted at the sport become revered major league baseball players. Today, early in the twenty-first century, baseball no longer dominates the professional sporting world the way it used to, given various work stoppages in the last decades of the twentieth century as well as the steroids scandals that followed. Back in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, on the other hand, baseball certainly maintained a prominent place in the heart of American society. Hence, boys grew up in that era playing baseball or something similar to it, dreaming of becoming the next Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, or Pete Rose. About twenty notable sixteen-inch softball players reached Major League Baseball, and other athletes passionate about the game sometimes earned tryouts with major-league teams. Keith Filkens, shortstop for the 1986 ASA National Sixteen-Inch Tournament contenders Miller Big Guys, auditioned for the Minnesota Twins earlier that year.[59] That proved to be the edge softball had over other sports. As umpire Don Kirch explained to a Chicago Tribune reporter, “The way I see kids today, a lot of them are more interested in going to school than playing sports. They want to be doctors and lawyers. We wanted to be ballplayers.”[60]

As for the sixteen-inch version of softball, it served as a point of regional pride. The aforementioned factors, including adaptability to the Chicago environment and no need for gloves, made the activity practical for the Windy City. As Chicagoans continued to play the game while other cities declined to embrace it, it became a distinct character of the Second City’s culture. Teams from the metropolitan area consistently won national titles in sixteen-inch softball, and even though Americans from other parts of the nation took little to no interest in the sport, it gave Chicago bragging rights in something. This would be especially important as industrial jobs left the city and the Midwest towards the end of the century. Indianapolis can have its 500 race, Miami its jai alai, the Twin Cities its hockey. In Chicago, they played sixteen-inch softball.

Even though men predominantly accounted for the majority of sixteen-inch softball players, women certainly maintained a place in the game. As mentioned before, softball included female participants since the nineteenth century, a time when women generally avoided sports all together. Nevertheless, they lacked much of the social approbation received by men playing the game, even in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Mary Pat McGuire, the first woman ever inducted into the Sixteen-Inch Softball Hall of Fame, remembers some of the taunts directed at her by fans, such as “throwing like a girl” or back-handed compliments like “playing like a guy.”[61]

Despite these circumstances, there seemed to be some sort of place for women in sixteen-inch softball. Most of the early games in double- or triple-header contests included women’s teams, and many tournaments had a co-ed arrangement.[62] Bliss recalls playing on teams with women and enjoying it.[63] McGuire received a great deal of support from her family, and other female players did as well. McGuire takes pride in being a woman succeeding in a sport without many others.[64]

Still, the culture of sixteen-inch softball cannot be solely blamed for its proportionate lack of female participation. Ironically, according to McGuire, Title IX, the 1972 landmark act prohibiting gendered bias in sports, discouraged the participation of girls in sixteen-inch softball. Once schools and park districts started offering girls teams in softball, they predominantly focused on the twelve-inch, fast-pitch genre. Therefore, while many more females took up softball, organized sports led them away from sixteen-inch softball, especially at a time when many women’s teams started taking interest in the sixteen-inch game.[65] On top of that, as a “contact” sport, baseball received an exemption from Title IX-mandated integration. Hence, Little League Baseball remains a boys’ game, while girls mostly have to settle for Little League Softball, as few opportunities are provided for them to play baseball.[66]

While many sixteen-inch fans and players remain orthodox to the classic rules of the game, some controversial changes, perhaps inevitably, appeared recently in the sport, including gloves. Tim Maher thinks sixteen-inch with gloves is sacrilegious, as using them defeats the whole purpose of playing with a larger ball. Other changes proved to be less controversial. In this case, Maher cites the rule introduced in the 1960s where fouling with two strikes is an out. More recently, in the 1990s, the “mope” rule went along those lines by declaring a ball hit out of bounds (out of the park, but not necessarily any foul ball) to be an automatic out. These changes certainly reduced the length of play and saved nearby residents and eager fans a great deal of stress.[67]

Although softball remains a popular sport in the Chicago area today, its golden age is over. It popularity started declining in the late 1970s, but it still maintained a large role in the culture of Chicago sports up until the turn of the twenty-first century. Maag and Tom Bonen produced Windy City Softball Magazine, covering the game’s history and contemporary teams and players, from 1973 to 1977.[68] Local newspapers covered local softball teams on a regular basis well into the 1990s. The Chicago Tribune covered multiple tournaments in Blue Island, Mount Prospect, Skokie, Des Plaines, and Ogden Park, discussing teams like the Bucks, Badgers, Flamingoes, Unknown Wild Bunch, Railbirds, Safari Tigers, and Rolling Dice as if they competed in Major League Baseball.[69] Local television and radio stations covered games by schedule, especially on Sunday evenings. Bliss hosted a sports radio show on WCBR-FM based in Arlington Heights in the early 1990s. Another sports radio station offered a telephone hotline reporting scores and statistics; it received about four- or five-hundred calls per day.[70]

The Chicago-based Sports Channel maintained a live, Sunday night show, called Super 16” League, between 8 pm and 10 pm. The program ran from 1994 to 1998 under the production of Rich Mehlman and sponsored by sports radio station The Score, Old Style Beer, and Rizza auto dealers. Steve Kashul, Mike North, and Bliss served as the hosts.[71] It definitely had an intimate, Chicago-based feel to it, as demonstrated by the thick accents of the hosts with lines such as “George is already bothering me, and it’s only the second inning” and sideline camera angles right along the edge of the field. The commercials played along with the Chicago and softball themes by showing advertisements for local car dealers and businesses, Vienna Beef hot dogs, and beer. Only the best teams would appear on the program, which presented tournaments and playoffs, and they often received the sponsorships of major corporations, especially beer companies like Miller, Old Style, and Budweiser, whose logos appeared on athletes’ uniforms. The bleachers surrounding the diamond hosted hundreds of spectators, and aside from the occasional dispute with the umpire over rulings, everyone genuinely seemed to have a good time.[72]

Many sports experts and journalists blame the downfall on deindustrialization in the city at the time, along with the flow of Chicagoans to the suburbs, many of them following their old careers or looking for new ones. Chicago lost one out of every ten of it private-sector jobs in the decade spanning 1972 through 1981; meanwhile, the number of jobs in the suburbs increased by a quarter. By 1970, the total population of suburban Chicagoland surpassed that of the city itself.[73] Christopher Lamberti believes that the diffusion of the metropolitan population happened to be the primary culprit in the growing disinterest in sixteen-inch softball. Travelling from one suburb to another could mean driving for thirty, even forty, miles along the Tri-State Tollway, a much greater inconvenience than taking the “El” a few miles through the city.[74] While some sixteen-inch softball players like West might be willing to accommodate such circumstances, many people would not. After all, even those transplants to the suburbs who held onto the game would likely be unable to play in multiple leagues thanks to the greater distances.

Lamberti also links the decline of sixteen-inch softball to another aspect of suburbanization, namely the availability of more space. The large softball accommodated smaller city diamonds, but the newer communities outside Chicago offered larger fields to its residents. Furthermore, since suburban households generally had higher incomes than their urban counterparts, spending money on equipment such as gloves posed less of a problem.[75] Hence, a convenience that drove many Chicagoans to the sport a half-century earlier no longer seemed viable.

These conclusions are rather logical, but they alone cannot explain the downfall of the sixteen-inch game. For example, men do not seem to have embraced other genres of softball in recent decades. There are other reasons why the pastime largely disappeared from Chicagoland parks, backyards, and playgrounds.

For starters, many transplants likely forgot their Chicago roots after moving to locations such as Lake, DuPage, or Will Counties. The process might not occur right away, but more likely over the years. The suburbs offer newer and better venues for softball than can be found in the city. Majewski Metro Park in Mount Prospect, built in the 1980s, hosts an annual tournament that includes some of the best teams in the country.[76] While doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives continued to play the game while still living in the Windy City, this explanation can be attributed to location. The local diamond, neighborhood tavern, and fellow teammates happened to reside right around the corner. Continuing to play softball in this situation would be easy. Once Chicago natives left for the suburbs, on the other hand, all of the essentials for a deep involvement in the sport went out of sight, and eventually, out of mind. Going down to the city on a regular basis could be a major hassle. Besides, individuals and their families now enjoyed a new set of entertainment options thanks to a large house, expansive yard, and greater automotive mobility. The new suburbanites often maintained too many other priorities, including other sports like football, soccer, and lacrosse, to spend most summer weeknights and weekends playing a game while enjoying beers to be a suitable lifestyle.[77]

Shifting demographics likely plays a part in the decline of sixteen-inch softball participation. Along with many Chicagoans fleeing the city for the suburbs, many leave the area altogether, escaping high taxes, a post-industrial economy, or political dysfunction and seeking greener pastures in Wisconsin, Indiana, or other parts of the United States. Some of these transplants bring the game with them to their new hometown, hoping to convert twelve-inch enthusiasts to a new style. Some efforts are successful, like Maag’s introduction of the game to Arizona-natives, albeit using gloves.[78] Other attempts fail fast. Chicago-native Buddy Haines remembers introducing, or at least trying to, Texans to sixteen-inch softball. He instructed them to take off their mitts. They said, “No way.”[79]

One manner in which sixteen-inch softball continues to thrive and expand is through wheelchair softball. Larry Labiak, a sixteen-inch Hall of Famer as a member of the RIC Chicago Cubs, wheelchair champions, enjoys the sport, because the compressed dimensions serves wheelchair-bound athletes well. The teams in the National Wheelchair Softball Association use manual, lightweight chairs and play on hard surfaces like parking lots or tennis courts, as grass is too cumbersome for their mobility.

The league maintains teams across the country, from California to New York, and many states in between. Like other softball leagues, the NWSA has participants from diverse backgrounds, including salesmen, accountants, disabled veterans, and even a former Major League Baseball prospect, Brett Rasmussen. These players do not practice or play as many games as some other sixteen-inch softball players, practicing about twice a week and playing in several weekend tournaments during the summer, mostly around the Midwest. The play of the game itself can be just as physical as any softball game. Labiak, a catcher, is not afraid to make contact with baserunners attempting to reach home plate. The RIC Chicago Cubs even play able-bodied teams in exhibition games, such as the Cicero Fire and Police Department teams, often in fundraising events.

Although he may occasionally have a headstrong attitude, Labiak finds sixteen-inch softball to be the “perfect way to spend a summer day or evening.” “Playing softball is a release of energy and stress,” says Labiak, “and provides a positive bonding and healing element for many disabled players.”[80] These athletes develop friendships just as strong and durable as those among other softball players. Labiak currently works for the Chicago Park District and spends a great deal of time promoting wheelchair sports for recreational and children’s teams.[81]

Although sixteen-inch softball does not enjoy the popularity it once commanded, its place in the cultural history of Chicago is preserved by the physical establishment of the Sixteen-Inch Softball Hall of Fame in west-suburban Forest Park. Although the game maintains a distinct Chicago style of establishing its own genre of things, including deep-dish pizza and bungalows, it has the potential to go anywhere in today’s global village. Maag himself envisions it, declaring, “I’d like to see it played globally.”[82] Regardless of what part of the world takes up sixteen-inch softball, its heart will always be in the Windy City.

Sixteen-inch softball’s rise and fall can be directly linked with the cultural changes of Chicago’s sporting world. Though its heyday passed long ago, the game’s place in the Windy City remains distinct. For a few decades, it served as an expression of blue-collar masculinity. Still, it is a unique sport. Hopefully it will continue to be played in the Chicago area, and perhaps elsewhere, for years to come, even if its significance to its participants changes dramatically.

[1] Chicago’s Game, 16-Inch Softball: The First Historical Documentary on Softball, directed by Al Maag and Tom Tillisch (1995; Chicago: Chicago Softball Promotions, 1995), DVD.

[2] Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 154-57.

[3] Ibid, 179-80.

[4] Ibid, 175-90.

[5] Ibid, 159-63.

[6] Steven A. Riess, “Introduction: The History of Sports in Chicago,” in Steven A. Riess and Gerald R. Gems, the Chicago Sports Reader: 100 Years of Sports in the Windy City (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 9-11.

[7] Barth, City People, 176-77.

[8] Patrick Mallory, “The Game They All Played: Chicago Baseball, 1876-1906,” PhD diss. (Chicago: Loyola University Chicago, 2013), 106-11.

[9] Ibid, 116-20.

[10] Ibid, 126.

[11] Riess, “Introduction,” 26.

[12] Ron Kubicki, “Softball Has a Rich, Exciting History Starting in Chicago 125 Years Ago,” in be a Part of History: Help Build the Hall of Fame Museum in Forest Park, IL (brochure, Naperville, IL: Kellen Company, 2012), 5-6.

[13] Ibid, 6.

[14] Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 3.

[15] Susan K. Cahn, “No Freaks, No Amazons, No Boyish Bobs,” in Steven A. Riess and Gerald R. Gems, the Chicago Sports Reader: 100 Years of Sports in the Windy City (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 302-04.

[16] Jennifer Ring, “Invisible Women in America’s National Pastime…or ‘She’s good. It’s History, Man.’” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2013): 62.

[17] Carly Adams, “’I Just Felt like I Belonged to Them’: Women’s Industrial Softball, London, Ontario, 1923-1935,” Journal of Sport History, Vol. 38, No. 1 (April 2011): 76-89.

[18] Chicago’s Game, 16-Inch Softball: The First Historical Documentary on Softball, directed by Al Maag and Tom Tillisch (1995; Chicago: Chicago Softball Promotions, 1995), DVD.

[19] Kubicki, “Softball Has a Rich, Exciting History Starting in Chicago 125 Years Ago,” 6.

[20] Ron Grossman, “Our Kind of Sport-Right off the Bat,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 2012.

[21] Christopher Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” in Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity, ed. Daniel A. Nathan (Urbana, Chicago, Springfield: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2013), 94-95.

[22] Peter Aspden, “It’s Just like a Bad Soap Opera: Olympic Beach Volleyball: Peter Aspden Watches a Sport that is All about Photo Opportunities and Sponsorship,” Financial Times (London ed.), July 27, 1996.

[23] Chicago’s Game, 16-Inch Softball: The First Historical Documentary on Softball, directed by Al Maag and Tom Tillisch (1995; Chicago: Chicago Softball Promotions, 1995), DVD.

[24] Cahn, “No Freaks, No Amazons, No Boyish Bobs,” 304.

[25] Ibid, 304-09.

[26] Ibid, 305-06.

[27] Ibid, 302.

[28] Ibid, 310.

[29] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 95.

[30] Jack Thompson, “Suburban Park Host to 16-inch Nationals,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1986.

[31] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[32] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[33] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 99-100.

[34] Marla Donato, “Going Batty: For true believers, home, family, and job can’t compete with a 16-inch Chicago softball,” Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1986.

[35] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[36] George Bliss and George Vournazos, in discussion with the author, April 22, 2017.

[37] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[38] Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 4.

[39] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 95.

[40] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[41] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 94-95.

[42] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[43] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 96.

[44] Mary Pat McGuire, in discussion with the author, April 21, 2017.

[45] George Bliss and George Vournazos, in discussion with the author, April 22, 2017.

[46] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[47] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[48] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 96-97.

[49] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[50] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[51]Julie Hanna, “Clincher Shortage Brings out New Brand of 16-inch Softball,” Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1992.

[52] Frederick C. Klein, “On Sports: Windy City Softballer,” Wall Street Journal (Eastern ed.), July 7, 1989.

[53] deBeer presents 16-Inch Softball: A Game for Everyone!, directed by Cal Covert (1998; Chicago: Bob Campbell Enterprises, 1998), DVD.

[54] Marla Donato, “Going Batty: For true believers, home, family, and job can’t compete with a 16-inch Chicago softball,” Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1986.

[55] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 100.

[56] Chicago’s Game, 16-Inch Softball: The First Historical Documentary on Softball, directed by Al Maag and Tom Tillisch (1995; Chicago: Chicago Softball Promotions, 1995), DVD.

[57] George Bliss and George Vournazos, in discussion with the author, April 22, 2017.

[58] George Bliss and George Vournazos, in discussion with the author, April 22, 2017.

[59] Jack Thompson, “Suburban Park Host to 16-inch Nationals,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1986.

[60] Ron Grossman, “Our Kind of Sport-Right off the Bat,” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 2012.

[61] Mary Pat McGuire, in discussion with the author, April 21, 2017.

[62] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[63] George Bliss and George Vournazos, in discussion with the author, April 22, 2017.

[64] Mary Pat McGuire, in discussion with the author, April 21, 2017.

[65] Mary Pat McGuire, in discussion with the author, April 21, 2017.

[66] Jennifer Ring, “Invisible Women in America’s National Pastime…or ‘She’s good. It’s History, Man.’” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2013): 62-65.

[67]Tim Maher, in discussion with the author, April 29, 2017.

[68] Adam Doster, “Gloves Off: The History and Uncertain Future of the Second City’s Mutant Strain of Softball,” The Classical, August 9, 2012.

[69] Bob Sakamoto, “Top Softball Teams Ready for Round 4,” Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1983.

[70] George Bliss and George Vournazos, in discussion with the author, April 22, 2017.

[71] George Bliss and George Vournazos, in discussion with the author, April 22, 2017.

[72] “Classic 16-Inch Softball on TV SportsVision 1994,” George Bliss Channel on YouTube, accessed April 22, 2017

[73] Lamberti, “Chicago’s Game,” 103-104.

[74] Ibid, 104.

[75] Ibid, 104.

[76] Jack Thompson, “Suburban Park Host to 16-inch Nationals,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1986.

[77] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[78] Al Maag, in discussion with the author, April 14, 2017.

[79] Karen Anderson, “Coed Teams, Mitts All Part of 16-inch Softball Evolution,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1991.

[80] Larry Labiak, in discussion with the author, May 1, 2017.

[81] Larry Labiak, in discussion with the author, May 1, 2017.

[82] Monica Davey, “Gloveless Players Hold on to Softball Dreams,” New York Times, September 17, 2009.