For north-siders who miss the sweet nadir of the Chicago Cubs—those glory decades when the team’s inferiority meant you could haggle a scalped ticket down to five bucks and later drape your legs over the empty seat in front of you—there’s a way to recapture some of that feeling. Now imagine this: five diamonds bustling on a muggy midsummer Tuesday night with games of 16-inch softball, the homegrown recreational (beer-drinking) sport that’s about as Chicago as the Cubs. Some might consider such a backdrop a crackerjack substitute for Wrigley Field. I’d suggest bringing your own seat; there aren’t likely to be any bleachers.
With a bigger ball, no gloves, and more broken fingers, a game of 16-inch softball can often lumber along with the grace of a bulldozer—and in that respect it provides great theater for spectators. There’s a delicate beauty to watching a mid-30s Chicago lifer sweat out a rainbow shot as it cuts through the wind and mutates into a cantaloupe-size knuckleball. The horror of somehow having to corral that thing with your bare hands—don’t trap it with your chest!—adds a level of realness to the game that 12-inch doesn’t offer.
And perhaps to the disbelief of some, a game of 16-inch is not exclusively for beer-bellied jamokes. A player’s intensity isn’t guaranteed to be dulled by an innocent can or two of Old Style nestled in the damp grass of the outfield. Expletives will still fly and investment bankers will still be happy to slide into the ankles of advertising copywriters—very often for an audience of no one. But for baseball fans exasperated by crowds and the rigamarole of navigating a stadium on a shoestring budget, the entertainment provided by 16-inch-softball leagues is free, plentiful, and brief (each game is one hour long).
Brian Irving, the vice president of operations for Chicago Sport & Social Club—which organizes 16-inch leagues across the city—believes the best bets for rec-league action during the week are at Grant Park’s Upper Hutchinson Field (Monday through Wednesday, 6-8:30 PM) or Lincoln Park South (Tuesday or Wednesday, 6:30-10:30 PM). The former offers four fields of 16-inch softball, the latter five. A little farther west, Union Park hosts leagues on Mondays and Wednesdays.
If you’re looking for something closer to your house, simply head out the front door and walk toward any park with a diamond—this is Chicago, there’s likely to be one nearby. If there’s a 16-inch league in progress, come back the next week with a lawn chair and a handheld radio turned to the Cubs (or Sox) game. Settle in and enjoy the pleasant alternative. v