Sixteen-inch softball is more than a game to guys like Tony Reibel. It’s how they spent their childhoods, it’s what Chicago was like when they were kids, it’s where they met their best friends.
“Softball was a way of life in the city,” says Reibel, a short center who played on about 100 teams throughout Chicagoland in his younger years. He’s 71 now. “Even in the era ahead of mine, it didn’t take much to play a softball game. It didn’t take a lot of money, so everyone played.”
Reibel is so passionate about the game that in 1996 he, with about 15 other enthusiasts, built a 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame. They’ve since inducted more than 100 former players, managers, and “friends of softball” and collected memorabilia. Actually, “built” might not be the right word: so far, the hall exists only in cyberspace and in boxes in Reibel’s Park Ridge basement.
The hall’s Web site (www.chi16in-halloffame.com, now down while being revamped but expected back up by March), contains short biographies on each of its inductees along with whatever statistics have been pulled together from recollections, media accounts, and former players’ scrapbooks. (Official records have not been kept in the mostly amateur sport.)
One learns, for example, that Bill “Eggs” Bromley was known for both clutch hitting and being “Mr. Chatterbox.” John “Wimpy” O’Connor was never a power hitter, but “his defensive skills spoke volumes during the 50s and 60s.” Ladislaus “Bingy” Boblak once halted a furious rally by a 12th Ward Democratic team that had scored six runs and had the bases loaded, pitching hitless the rest of the way and driving in two runs in the next inning to defeat the 12th Ward 8-6.
The hall of fame’s organizers say the 16-inch game is an integral part of Chicago neighborhood cultural history–one that’s slowly dying as younger generations find other forms of entertainment. “When we were growing up, there were five channels on TV, no cable, no video games, no nothing,” says cofounder Al Maag, who’s 54. “Now kids play soccer, lacrosse, and, unfortunately, stay home playing video games.”
Maag and his colleagues think the sport deserves something more permanent than a URL. “You can’t get the feel and the experience when you’re doing something on the Internet,” says Gary Thorsen, president of the hall of fame since 1999. “Would you want to have the baseball hall of fame on the Internet?” To find a home, organizers have met 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,” says Thorsen. “We need someone who can get the mayor’s ear.”
That someone might be 40th Ward alderman Pat O’Connor, who won the 2002 Richard J. Daley Friend of Softball Award, partly because of the tournament his office has run for 20 years in Mather Park. Last month he met with Tim Mitchell, then chief of infrastructure and operations, in the mayor’s office to try to persuade the city to give the hall a space. Mitchell told O’Connor he’d consider it, but he hasn’t given him an answer yet. Part of the holdup is that the hall’s organizers don’t think they should have to pay for the facility. “We’re not asking for a lot of space,” says O’Connor. “But this game is a big enough thing, and it’s unique to Chicago. It does deserve a space.”
Sixteen-inch softball was, for decades, the ultimate “poor man’s game,” because all players needed was a bat and ball, says Thorsen, 53, who started playing at the age of eight in suburban Wood Dale. “The game came into being because of the neighborhoods and the closeness of people who lived in Chicago,” he says. “It didn’t cost you anything to play. And it became a neighborhood rivalry thing.”
Maag, a public relations man and longtime northwest-side player who produced a video in the mid-90s on the history of softball in Chicago, conceived the hall of fame while collecting the photos, stories, and scrapbooks for that project. He says 16-inch softball traces its roots to Chicago-area Yale and Harvard alumni who gathered at Farragut Boat Club, near Navy Pier, on Thanksgiving Day in 1887 to watch the ticker tape for reports about the Yale-Harvard football game. Bored, they wrapped a boxing glove in ropes and started batting it around with a broomstick.
The game found its way into the city’s neighborhoods, where it was embraced by poor and working-class people. First played indoors, the game spread throughout the neighborhood-park system over the next few decades. The typical city park didn’t lend itself to the more juiced 12-inch ball. “You could hit a 12-inch ball out of the park,” Maag says, meaning potentially through someone’s window.
Sixteen-inch softball requires coaching–or at least a regular pickup game–to learn to play well, says Thorsen. If 12-inch softball is like playing checkers, he says, 16-inch is like chess. Because the ball is heavier than a standard softball, hitters need to rely more on bat control than sheer power. “There’s an art to it,” he says. “You have to be more precise. You can’t get up there and swing that bat without knowing where it’s going.”
The game had its heyday from the late 20s to the early 50s, when professional teams were formed and thousands came out to watch the games. “You can’t get a softball score in the paper today, or at least it’s unusual,” says Maag. “In the 20s, 30s, 40s, it was on the front page with the Cubs.”
The sport’s popularity dropped off in the 50s with the advent of television and other forms of entertainment, but it never lost favor among baby boomers, some of whom still play well into their 50s.
“The greatness of this game is because it’s unique to Chicagoland,” says John Mitchell, Illinois state 16-inch softball director for the National Softball Association. Though there are teams in Iowa, Wisconsin, California, and New York, Chicago is “the only place in the country where the game is played at a level of talent and with the number of teams who participate. It’s a neighborhood game. You play the game growing up, with your friends from high school and college, and after you become young adults.”
“When we were playing it, everybody played,” Maag says. “Every park in the city was filled with softball players all summer long.” These days Thorsen estimates there are about 2,000 teams in Chicago and the suburbs, down from a peak of about 3,000.
Most of the several hundred people who attended this year’s hall of fame induction ceremony, held on January 10 at Hawthorne Race Track in Cicero, seemed to know one another–there was a lot of hand-shaking, back slapping, storytelling, and laughing. But Thorsen says the group’s purpose is not to break bread and tell stories about the old days. “If we don’t get a hall of fame, none of this means anything,” he says.
To memorialize the game, the organizers envision interactive exhibits that would include DVDs of star players, big games, and great plays. The hall also would contain displays on the game’s heritage, ballparks, equipment, teams, jerseys, sponsors, leagues, tournaments, and the participation of children, women, and African-Americans.
Thorsen says he’d need about 1,500 square feet to be able to display all the memorabilia in cases organized by era. “Then you could see the evolution of softball over the years–the balls, the bats, the spikes,” he says. For example, the 16-inch balls were once injected with water to make them heavier and harder to hit. And in the old days players went to great lengths to make their wooden bats more potent. “They would put metal in it. They would load it with BBs. They would fill it up with wood putty and sand it down so you couldn’t tell. I’m sure we’ve got some of those around.”
Maag is confident former players–and, in many cases, their next of kin–will “come out of the woodwork” once a permanent site is established. “I think people who have had family members pass away, they’re going to be sitting on [memorabilia] and say, ‘Geez, I’d like to make sure my father is remembered,'” he says. “But we need a site–until that happens, people will just go, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever.'”
Alderman O’Connor says the organizers’ request for a freebie isn’t unreasonable. “There’s all sorts of little community museums that exist,” he says. “There’s precedent of the city trying to preserve histories that they think are worthwhile.” He cites the Edgewater Historical Society, housed in an old firehouse, as an example. (The historical society bought the building from the city in the mid-90s for $3,000, but since then it’s cost them $310,000 to repair and renovate it, says EHS president Kathy Gemperle.)
David Kennedy, the city’s director of sports development, with whom the hall’s organizers have spoken about the possibility of a city-owned site, says examples also exist of small museums hosted in larger public facilities. The Museum of Broadcast Communications, for instance, was incubated in the Chicago Cultural Center before recently acquiring its own space. But Kennedy says such opportunities are uncommon, adding that most facilities the city could provide are either office or warehouse space. “That’s been the challenge, finding a venue that would make sense,” he says. “Sticking it in the lobby of City Hall doesn’t make any sense. What I think they’re looking for is something like Navy Pier that would be a draw.”
The organizers say they had a “positive” meeting with Jon Clay, general manager of Navy Pier, three years ago. They told him that while they were not necessarily offering to pay rent, their exhibits would generate foot traffic. Softball players might head up to the pier after a game at Grant Park, say, to see the exhibits and then have a beer at a nearby tavern. “It’s not that they’re giving us the space,” Thorsen says. “They’re bringing in revenue based on the fact that we’re there.” The hall’s annual dinner also could be held at the pier, he adds.
They haven’t been able to get in touch with Clay since. “He didn’t even give us the courtesy of a return phone call,” says Thorsen. Clay couldn’t be reached for a response on the matter.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.