Gloves off

An inside look at the history and uncertain future of Chicago's mutant strain of softball

Topics: The Classical, Sports, softball, Chicago, Rahm Emanuel,

Gloves off(Adam Doster)
This originally appeared on The Classical.

The North Siders are trying to overcome a 4–2 deficit in the final inning of the annual Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame Game. Runners are on first and second with nobody out. At the plate is Jimmy Nalen, the potential go-ahead run. Nalen’s commemorative blue t-shirt is tucked snugly into his royal blue baseball pants. His face, wrinkled after years working as a union electrician, is partially obscured by coke-bottle glasses and a baby blue bucket hat. At 77, the oldest player on the team looks more like a Wrigley Field usher than a ball player.
The Classical
Nalen delivered plenty of clutch hits over the years. For four decades, starting in the early 1950s, he patrolled the outfield of Chicagoland’s snug softball diamonds. At the plate, he laced line drives into the gaps and rounded the short base paths with blistering speed. On this humid late-July afternoon, as the 2003 HOF inductee takes a few warm-up swings, the spectators and players at a western suburban park—about 300 in total—shower him with a standing ovation. It’s a heartwarming moment, the loudest cheer of the day, and a visceral reminder that Chicagoans who play or watch 16-inch softball, the town’s most parochial and distinctive pastime, take pride in its rich history.

They also take the games remarkably seriously. This becomes clear seconds after the applause dies down and Nalen steps into the batter’s box. The South Siders in the field may have clapped, but they aren’t interested in watching the lean man in the bucket hat steal their victory. On the first pitch he sees, Nalen takes one shuffle-step and strokes a hard grounder back up the middle. The pitcher sucks it up effortlessly with his bare hands, pivots, and rifles the ball to his teammate at second base, who makes a crisp turn and guns Nalen down at first by seven steps, killing the rally. A lazy fly ball from the following hitter secures a victory for Nalen’s cross-town rivals, spoiling a fairy-tale finish. Sure, it was an exhibition game, with bloated rosters, silly chatter, and excess pageantry. But when that oversized orb comes soaring off the bat, Chicagoans don’t mess around.



Standing with his friends behind the backstop, Al Maag is thrilled to see Nalen and the other legends taking cuts and playing catch. Sixteen years ago, in an effort to preserve the legacy of the sport he skipped weddings and funerals to play, he and several other softball diehards co-founded the 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame, an institution designed to honor the players, teams, umpires, managers, and writers who championed Chicago’s favorite gloveless game. Since then, Maag and his crew have inducted almost 350 people into the Hall and scoured Chicagoland for antique bats, balls, photos, and uniforms. It’s their hope that within the calendar year, should they raise the necessary funds, these artifacts will line the walls of a physical museum, one that’s adjacent to the existing plaque display (and giant replica softball) they’ve mounted at “Inductee Park” in suburban Forest Park. “It may not happen right away,” says current Hall of Fame president Ron Kubicki. “But it’s going to happen.”

The structure can’t open soon enough. 125 years after the game was founded, fewer and fewer locals are playing 16-inch softball, once the most popular regional sport in America. Like the stockyards and steel mills before it, this cornerstone of mid-century Chicago is in danger of disappearing forever.

***

Chicagoans may not like to admit it, but their hard-nosed, working-class game has aristocratic roots. On Thanksgiving Day 1887, at the tony Farragut Boat Club on the South Side, 20 alumni gathered around the club’s ticker tape machine to track the results of the annual Harvard-Yale football game, played that year at the Polo Grounds in New York City. When the news broke that the Bulldogs had beaten the Crimson 17–8, an overenthusiastic Yalie chucked an old boxing glove at one of his Harvard peers. To defend himself, the Boston Brahmin grabbed a nearby broom handle and swatted the glove away. Inspiration struck George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, who tied together the laces of the boxing glove, chalked out a baseball diamond on the club’s gym floor, and split the men into two teams. Mitts were not available, and thus not used. “A big soft ball and a small bat—that was the central idea,” the Chicago Tribune wrote of that first game, which ended in a 41–41 tie. A new sport was born.

The earliest athletes to try Hancock’s creation couldn’t agree on a name—indoor-outdoor baseball, kitten ball, pumpkin ball, and mush ball were all used—but they agreed that it was fun as hell to play. Through the first quarter of the 20th century, crowds of hundreds would jam Knights of Columbus halls and armories to watch men whack around grapefruit-sized balls. (George Halas and his brother were mainstays.) The sport moved outside in the 1920s onto schoolyards and fields too small for baseball. Cheap, easy to understand, and playable in confined spaces, softball was perfectly suited for a bulging city with new immigrants and widespread unemployment. Its popularity surged during the Depression. When Chicago hosted the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, a sports editor for the Chicago American organized a national tournament featuring 12-, 13-, 14-, and 16-inch divisions. Over 350,000 people attended. The Amateur Softball Association (ASA) incorporated the following year.

There’s no definitive theory as to why Chicagoans embraced the version of softball played with a 16-inch ball and without gloves rather than the 12-inch gloved game, which became the standard virtually everywhere else in the country. Harry Hannin and his Windy City Softball League surely had something to do with it. Hannin was a glad-handing press agent who, having watched people stream towards softball diamonds during the 1933 world’s fair, figured there was a buck to be made promoting the sport every summer. In 1934, he launched the Windy City Softball League, a semi-pro outfit that would use a 16-inch Clincher ball exclusively [1].

Ball Til You Fall

League games weren’t run-of-the-mill schoolyard affairs: Teams played at stadiums with grandstands and lights, local newspapers offered coverage comparable to the Cubs and White Sox, and the best athletes in the city were recruited with the promise of big paydays, be it from bets between players or rewards passed along from owners, bookies, and well-heeled spectators. For 14 seasons, thousands of fans paid 75 cents a head to watch teams like the Brown Bombers, Salerno Cookies, and Cinderella Florists do battle each summer night. Red Hurter, a slugger who clocked a record 31 homers in 1947, and Vern Parry, who once hit safely in 54 consecutive games, became household names. More than twenty other 16-inch players—Moose Skowron, Lou Boudreau, Phil Cavaretta—would eventually play major league baseball. Through their high-quality play, Hannin’s boys demonstrated to a new generation of Chicago athletes all the traits that make this peculiar game great.

What do devotees like so much about it? 16-inch softball rewards men and women who are both smart and tough. It’s also simple to play, but difficult to play well. The Clincher (the most popular brand of ball) might be easy to see while it floats toward the plate, but even the strongest batters can’t muscle the white lump more than 250 feet with any regularity, narrowing the gaps. On top of that, the defense has an extra fielder playing “short-center” (and two if you count the pitcher, who can execute a “drag step,” in which he or she scrambles backward into an infield position following each pitch); infielders can get rid of the ball quickly because they don’t have to transfer it from their glove to their throwing hand; and pitchers can confuse their opponent by varying the speed and angle of their delivery, adding goofy spin, and even hesitating several times (balking, in baseball terms) before letting go of a pitch, thereby disrupting a batter’s timing.

To reach base consistently, hitters must rely on bat control. The most common approach is to deposit line drives just over the infielders’ heads by taking a whack at the softball right after it begins its rapid descent, often with a mild tomahawk swing. Truly skilled batters will “cut” the ball, or guide it through defensive holes by striking it at various points on its cover. [2] It’s more chess than checkers. As Tribune sports columnist Mike Conklin once wrote (August 26, 1974), “Eager newcomers, who usually try to power the ball and get pop-ups and grounders instead, quickly learn there are subtleties.”

That the 16-inch game is physically demanding and indigenous to Chicago adds to its appeal. The language used to justify the sport’s superiority is laced with machismo, and in some ways confirms the pervasiveness of Second City Syndrome. New Yorkers don’t play it. Angelenos don’t play it. Calloused Chicagoans with broken fingers, gnarled knuckles, and giant calves do.

***

As the Windy City League gained its foothold in Chicago, 16-inch softball simultaneously seeped into the ethnic neighborhoods that formed (and then ossified) in the first half of the 20th century. On the first page of Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March, the titular character remarks, “We never played anything but softball.” Bellow knew his hometown. Kids played at recess, after school, and during summer breaks. Every park in the city had a league. No family reunion or birthday party was complete without a Clincher. In a 1981 interview with the Tribune, one player described the pressure to compete without gloves as “an evolutionary ritual.”

After Hannin’s league disbanded in 1948, and the children of the Depression grew up, the most talented ballers joined teams like the Sobies and Rogues that formed the hyper-competitive weeknight leagues at Kelly Park on the South Side and Clarendon Park on the North. Gambling proceeds and tournament prize money still circulated, which helped with recruiting. Ron “Beetlebomb” Braasch, one local manager, was known to entice players with creative gifts: a German shepherd puppy, a repossessed television, a uniform fitted by an Italian tailor. Winning helped, too. Insurance salesman Eddie Zolna, for example, assembled the legendary Bobcats in 1951, and his squad dominated the sport for nearly three decades, taking home the first national ASA tournament in 1964 and 11 of the next 15. Players would do anything to join Eddie Z.

The vast majority of Chicagoans weren’t skilled enough to compete in those top divisions, so each spring they found spots in picnic games or on industrial teams, squads sponsored by area employers. Legendary Chicago newsman Mike Royko was the sport’s most public champion, pitching for and managing the Chicago Daily Newsside, which played in Grant Park’s Media League. In 1977, when the city allowed some teams to wear gloves, the sarcastic columnist famously sued the Chicago Park District. The change was made after his team paid its $240 entry fee, he argued, making it impossible to withdraw and find a league “in which men played like men.” He won.

Some players’ commitment to 16-inch challenged the very definition of “recreational” sports. It wasn’t uncommon to find men squeezing in several games at different ballfields each night. Park supervisors regularly called employers and made up excuses for their tardy employees. “Softball widows” is a phrase that pops up frequently in contemporary trend pieces about the sport. On the afternoon my girlfriend was born, her father made sure his wife and new daughter were healthy and happy before leaving the hospital to take the diamond that night.

No other U.S. city had a game so idiosyncratic yet so broadly popular. Even in the early 1980s, years after the sport’s popularity peaked, local papers reported that hundreds of leagues, thousands of teams, and some 250,000 people in the metropolitan area played the grassroots game annually. “They come from all walks of life—stockbroker, teacher, cop, bus driver,” Conklin once wrote. “For many, it’s the most important part of their day.”

***

Al Maag honed his softball chops playing pickup games at Farnsworth Elementary in Jefferson Park, on the city’s far Northwest side. “There’s an old saying that when you’re born in Chicago, the first two things you get are a pacifier and a 16-inch softball,” he says. “I’ve been playing all my life.” In his twenties, just as his career in graphic design and public relations was taking off, Maag helped commercial banker Tom Bonen produce Windy City Softball Magazine, a short-lived (1973–1977) but widely-read journal detailing the sport’s history and profiling its contemporary stars. Years later, Maag found a box of the old magazines in his basement while packing up for a move to the west coast. Flipping through, he realized how comprehensive Bonen’s little magazine was. “He was a great communicator,” Maag says now, “and he was able to capture how it all got started.”

On a whim, Maag called up the ASA. They didn’t know of anyone who had attempted to tell the sweeping story of 16-inch softball. Maag realized he was the perfect man for the job: He had access to Bonen’s archives; having establishing Molex as one of the best industrial teams in the western suburbs, he had followed the sport closely in the decade after Bonen ceased publication; he had video experience from his PR work; and the topic was near and dear to his heart. Over three years, Maag interviewed some 200 Chicagoans, “many of whom didn’t like each other very much,” before writing and producing Chicago’s Game (1993), the first (and to my knowledge only) 16-inch softball documentary ever made. Out of that video project came the idea for the Hall of Fame, a physical space he and friend Tony Riebel hoped would help preserve the amateur sport they loved.

Future home of the 16-Inch Hall of Fame

For over a decade, the pair struggled to find an affordable site in Chicago in which to house their memorabilia, holding a series of frustrating meetings with officials from the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, Navy Pier, Soldier Field, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. (“We keep running into brick walls,” one board member told the Chicago Reader in 2004. “We need someone who can get the mayor’s ear.”)All the while, they introduced new inductees each year [3] at an annual dinner and posted short biographies on their website, culling information and stray statistics from media reports, scrapbooks, and memory. Finally, in 2007, inner-ring suburb Forest Park offered to sell Maag a 1,500-square-foot building and some land next to its park district fields for $1. He jumped at the opportunity. The first stage of the project—Inductee Park, where plaques of all the members are displayed—cost $175,000 and was completed three years ago. In early August, thanks to a new loan, board members will begin to rehab and expand their bland acquisition, which will ultimately feature interactive displays, photos, jerseys, and old equipment. It’ll take a lot of work and even more luck, but Maag would like to lock down enough corporate and personal donations to open for business formally sometime in 2013. “We just want to tell the story of the game,” he says, “because we think it’s a great story.”

Privately, the folks who attended this year’s Hall of Fame game dream that the museum will spark new interest in a Chicago tradition that’s been dying a slow death for three decades. Old timers blame everything from video games and the citywide popularity of basketball to the rise of cash-flush 12-inch national tournaments, but suburbanization is the main culprit. When folks fled Chicago’s city limits in increasing numbers between the 1960s and 1980s, old neighborhood ties were severed. And the children of those families—raised in towns with wide open spaces for little league diamonds, not to mention soccer fields and tennis courts—had no reason to pick up a Clincher. Neither do Chicago imports who didn’t grow up with the game. Of the 2,200 softball teams that registered last year with the city’s two largest recreational sports organizations, just 680 signed up for 16-inch leagues. [4] “The stats from our leagues show that 12-inch is more popular,” Chris Hastings, vice president of the Chicago Sport and Social Club, writes over email, “and that gap is increasing every year.”

In the mid-1990s, Logan Square native and restaurateur Rich Mehlman tried to revive the feel of the Windy City League by organizing the championship Lettuce team and airing games on local television stations (my first introduction to 16-inch). There are still a few pockets of activity, too: Forest Park hosts a prestigious No Glove National Tournament each summer and the Chicago Public Schools run a moderately popular 16-inch varsity program in the fall. But for every sign of hope, there are several corresponding signs of doom. On a recent summer evening at Clarendon Park, one of the Hall of Fame’s featured parks, only two of the four fields were occupied, and both with 12-inch games. After the Hall of Fame Game, I took a trip to 31st and Lake Park Avenue, site of the old Farragut Club. I’d read there was a plaque somewhere in the vicinity commemorating Hancock’s first game, but all I could find was a little diamond whose outfield turf has seen better days. Hell, one of the players in the North-South game was nicknamed “Matlock.” The Daleys played softball. Rahm Emanuel? Nope.

And maybe that’s all right. One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time for one subculture to maintain its momentum. Sports have changed. Neighborhoods have changed. In a city trying desperately to assert itself on the global stage, most of its citizens now have straight fingers and functional knuckles.

All photos by Adam Doster

[1] Originally manufactured by Frederick DeBeer’s sporting goods company, the stitching on a Clincher is reversed to protect the seams from rough playing surfaces. The 16-inch variety also gets softer as the game progresses.

[2] If a bucket was placed in center field, a Chicago truck driver named Jake Jakobi—arguably the best leadoff hitter ever to play the game—could “put a ball in it half the time” (Tribune, June 28 1981).

[3] The voting process is comprehensive, although the board of directors gets the final say.

[4] I play softball eight months out of the year, and always with a 12-inch hardball and gloves.

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