|Indoor Baseball (softball), 1905.|
Note the 2 to 2½ inch thick wooden dowel that's about 35" long for a bat.
Chicago is well known for many reasons — its architecture, museums, beautiful open lakefront, rich social and political history, blues music, a storied professional sports history, and diverse ethnic mix. There is a unique sport, though, one that’s been played by thousands of men and women for generations for both fun and glory for over eight decades, a game that is truly unique to Chicago — 16-inch softball.
|A 1920s Official 16-inch League Softball.|
|1920s Manufacturer Stamp.|
16-inch was a perfect game for Chicago’s small neighborhood ball fields and cinder-covered school playgrounds. The ball didn’t travel as far as the smaller 12" and 14" softballs. And the absence of gloves benefited everyone in the tough economic times of the 1930s. Teams had only to chip in 10¢ a man for a new ball, and women took to the sport because it was less dangerous than a regular baseball. The sport was all the more appealing due to its being organized by families, community, and ethnic backgrounds at first. Then teams were sponsored by the companies its players worked for — a tradition that is still largely followed today.
The game of softball is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. This sport, for all ages, is played with different size diameter balls and with and without gloves. In Chicago, the most prevalent game played is slow pitch 16″ softball with no gloves. Many who have played different brands of softball feel 16″ is the best game of softball because it demands that every fielder play defense (anyone can catch a ball with a glove) well or become a team liability. Offense play is like baseball; few runs are due to home runs, and it’s basically hit’em where they ain’t, and moving runners is a normal strategy. It’s a great game with a unique history.
The first national championship was played at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago thanks to the sponsorship of William Randolph Hearst. Due to the fact most teams that entered the tournament all played with different rules and size balls, they finally agreed to play with a 14″ ball. Future City titles would be played at Wrigley Field.
Because of the game’s popularity shown at that event, 16″ no glove softball took on a professional level when Harry Hanin started the "Windy City League" the next year in 1934 and lasted into the 1950s. Teams had their own stadiums and charged admission. They attracted thousands of people each night. Remember, there was no TV and only two racetracks. These teams and players infamous represented their areas, but gambling was the real game outside the lines. They often attracted over 10,000 each night and had more attendance than at the Cubs and/or Sox games that day.
During the Chicago softball craze, teams played in these neighborhood baseball and softball (12" & 16") parks:
- Admiral Stadium at River Road between Rand & Golf Roads in Des Plaines.
- American Giants Park at 39th and Wentworth in Chicago.
- Bidwell Stadium at 1975 E 75th St. in Chicago.
- Gill Stadium at 1107 E 87th St. in Chicago.
- Hilburn Stadium 5500 N Wolcott in Chicago.
- Lane Stadium next to Riverview Park was at Western and Addison in Chicago.
- Mills Stadium at 4600 W. Lake Street in Chicago.
- Parichy Memorial Stadium at Harrison and Harlem in Forest Park.
- Rock-Ola Stadium at 4200 N Central Ave in Chicago.
- Shewbridge Field at 74th St and Aberdeen St. in Chicago.
- Sparta Stadium at Kostner and 21st Street in Chicago.
- Spencer Coals Park at 4200 N. Central Avenue in Chicago.
- Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. (Originally named Marshall Field)
- North Town Currency Stadium (Thillens Stadium) at Devon and Kedzie in Chicago.
|Thillens was originally named "North Town Currency Stadium."|
|Click to read my story about meeting Ray Rayner at Thillens Stadium.|
|Parichy Memorial Stadium, Forest Park, IL.|
Many of the visiting men's teams feature unusual costumes such as clown uniforms, grass skirts, and natural beards to inject color into the game. In addition, such novelties as playing the game on mules are introduced occasionally.
Many weekend games began with the women's teams. "Bloomer Girls" baseball teams barnstormed the United States from the 1890s to 1934, playing local town, semi-pro, and minor league men's teams. They traveled across the country, across states, and town-to-town by rail, bringing their own fences, tents, and grandstands with them, and their schedules were grueling. In 1903, the Boston Bloomer Girls played and won 28 games in 26 days. Over the July Fourth weekend of that year alone, they played six games in five different towns in Oklahoma.
Then came the "All-American Girls Professional Baseball League" (AAGPBL), a professional women's baseball league founded by Philip K. Wrigley from 1943 to 1954. The women's initial tryouts were held at Chicago's Wrigley Field. In the first season, the league played a hybrid game of baseball and softball using a 12-inch ball. The AAGPBL was the forerunner of women's professional league sports in the United States. Over 600 women played in the league, which consisted of eventually 10 teams located in the American Midwest. In 1948, league attendance peaked at over 900,000 spectators. The most successful team, the Rockford Peaches, won a league-best four championships. The 1992 motion picture "A League of Their Own" is a mostly fictionalized account of its early days and stars.
|Lane Stadium, (Lane Tech College Prep H.S.), Western and Addison, Chicago.|
No glove softball is still played by all Chicagoans, and the best of the best have played Forest Park’s No Glove Nationals in front of thousands of fans for 5 decades, without a doubt the premier event each year. A few of the best leagues have been played at Clarendon Park, Portage Park, James Park in Evanston, and Mt.Prospect Park in the Northside and Washington Park, Clyde, Oak Lawn, and Kelly Park on the Southside.
When former President Jimmy Carter, a softball enthusiast, was presented with a 16-inch softball during a 1998 Chicago visit, the unfamiliar object fascinated him. It's not surprising that he had never seen one before because although thousands of games of 16-inch softball fill Chicago's parks every summer Sunday, President Cater only knew about 12" softballs.
Many ASA Nationals have been played out of Illinois, usually in Iowa. In 2004 both the Major and ASA Nationals were played in Arizona and attracted the most states to compete in 20 years. In fact, in Phoenix, they have held the "Avnet Business to Business Classic" since 2003, reaching 30 plus teams and even getting some title games on television for both the co-ed and men’s divisions.
ALTERNATIVE: Who and where 'softball' was invented.
A lieutenant with the Minneapolis, Minnesota Fire Department, Lewis Rober was pushing 40 and perhaps getting a little flabby. So in 1895, he devised a sporting alternative to keep himself and his fellow firefighters fit between runs. Rober is widely considered the founding father of softball — at least the outdoor version of the game now enjoyed by 40 million people. He took the basics of baseball, shrank the field, and used a cushy ball pitched underhand. With no gloves needed and less time required, the recreational version of baseball took off.
|This photo was taken around 1995; outside the "16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame" was this stone and brass "Farragut Boathouse Monument," commemorating the birth of softball in Chicago in 1887. It was originally placed at 31st Street and Lake Park Avenue in Chicago but is currently in storage with the city. A new 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame opened in Forest Park in 2009.|
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
 Robert Rae Jr. (c.1853-1920) was born in Philadelphia and came to Chicago with his parents in 1860. The son of a prominent lawyer, he was educated in Chicago's public schools and entered the office of architect Henry Lord Gay in about 1872. Two years later, he was appointed assistant chief engineer of the Chicago & South Atlantic Railroad, a position he held for several years before starting his own architectural office in Chicago in about 1880. Rae's practice focused on small-scale commercial buildings and residences in eclectic historical styles.
Great story - thanks! Made me smile today and admire my gnarled knuckle :-)ReplyDelete
Another great read, I used to love watching it as a kid at Kelvin Park and later playing it as a teen and young adult.ReplyDelete
Raised on a Clincher! Wouldn't have it any other way! Kelly Park. South side Chicago!ReplyDelete
absolutely fantastic. Proud to say I am a memeber of the 16" Softball Hall of Fame in Forest Park, IllinoisReplyDelete
I didn't see anyone named "Unmkown" in the 16" Softball Hall of Fame.Delete
Played softball for many years in Grant Park. My Uncle is a member of the softball hall of fame and recognized as the best hitter in the 1940's. My Dad told me many stories of betting in the stands and how attendance for the games would rival the MLB team that was in town.ReplyDelete
grant park were the best teamsDelete
I remember watching a lot of softball played at Kells Park on southwest corner of Chicago Ave. and Kedzie when I was growing up in Chicago. Extremely competitive game with lots of extraordinary athletes.ReplyDelete
I remember walking to Kells Park whenever they had a game, hoping someone would hit a window on the Rock Ola building across the street. I lived on Francisco just north of Chicago Ave.Delete
Gosh, I just saw this story and was going to write about Kells Park and saw what previous people wrote/ Lived 1.5 blocks away, played it everyday in the playground at Morse school on Sawyer Ave. Also, remember the Bobacats and Eddie Zolna and huge crowds at Kells. Great pitcher. Previous posts, guess we were neighbors in the "old neighborhood."Delete
Thank you for the information and education. I'm 60 years old born in Chicago and love softball. I never knew. Again thank youReplyDelete
We played it at Paul Revere park, Welles Park, Neighborhood Boys (now also girls) club, coonley school (on gravel) among others. Not to mention games in narrow alleys where we had to learn to hit to center field. A great sport for small spaces.ReplyDelete
So you must be from St. Benedict's. Played at Coonley as we had homerooms play each other. Bulk of my games were in my neighborhood at Kells Park and Morse School, where 16" reigned supreme.Delete
I just loved this game, played for many years from when I was 19 to about 35 and then moved to Kansas. I tried two seasons of 12inch mitt softball and gave it up, just was not the same.ReplyDelete
My dads name was Bappy Fagan. He played from the mid 30’s up until WW2. As a Chicago policeman he’d take us to games they had against the local firehouse teams. When my dad was at bat the outfielders would be backed up against cars parked on the street. Pretty much a legend on the south side.ReplyDelete
Wonderful story, incredible group! Fascinating reads are keeping my mind young; now, as for my body...ReplyDelete
My dad played for the Ducks in the 80’s. Anyone ever hear of them?ReplyDelete
National Champions in 1986. The Ducks team is being inducted to the Chicago 16" Softball Hall of Fame this yearDelete
Great article, we played on the Southside, 19th ward league, Brainerd,Ridge Park. Age did not matter you can play this game forever. Serious competition, every player participated that was what made 16" softball a great game.ReplyDelete
Did not know re Lane Tech...interesting.ReplyDelete
Never understood why 16 was not popular elsewhere.'
Wish I still hand my "softball" pants, with the buckled bottoms...my only expense.
Step dad loved it and called it "kitten ball." Was from MN.
Terrific article Neil, as per usual. I recall when they opened the F.P. Hall of Fame and occasionally there would be a game going when we would drive by. All those players with bent fingers! You have a coupla typos but I imagine you don't have the luxury of a proof reader. Thanks for this. I love Chicago and all her ONLY IN CHICAGOLAND traditions and treats.ReplyDelete
Interesting. Please point out the typos.Delete
Only because I seem to Always notice this stuff, NOT to criticize: President Cater -- Minneapolis, Minnisota Fire Department. I thought there was one more but I cannot see it again today. Your work is MUCH appreciated Neil. JVDelete
Graduated from GP in June '56. Boys had all usual competitive sports but not 16" softball. Girls had "zip" Thank god things have changed. Although I did play football for two years the highlight of my athletic career was a game of 16" played every spring between the seniors and the juniors. We the juniors came up for last bats and behind by 2 runs. We got 2 men on base, 2 outs, and yours truly comes to bat. Still remember Tom Slaninka, pitcher, Bill Zavadil left field. I really hit it and Zavadil took off after it. I got a home run, they didnt score in their half of the inning and we "juniors" won the game.Delete
It was incredible. Spring 1955, 65 years ago. I've never forgotten.
Did CPS high schools have official 16-inch teams? My dad played while at Gage Park, and I've always thought his was a school team. The Owls, by the way.ReplyDelete
I Sent to Gage Park HS and graduated in 1970. No school affiliated softball teams but Gage Park HS did have a regular baseball team. I played many times in 16" leagues at the Gage Park park district fields. Maybe this is where he played also.Delete
We played at Chase Park and Welles Park. The Catholic schools had very competitive games all the time.ReplyDelete
Love the history! Grew up by Chase Park and went to Lane Tech. Great to learn the ties to softball. Playing senior sb in Dallas, now I can explain the Clincher I have that everyone thinks is some kind of leather covered tumor! 😆🥎Delete
Played in the alley and on the street as well as in Portage or Wilson Parks. Got scars from stitches where the ball hit my glasses and they broke. Never even heard of 12 inch till I went downstate to U of I.ReplyDelete
My father played ball on and industrial team. Many fond memories and then going to a area bar after they won. Thanks for postingReplyDelete
I am 84 years old. I lived in Albany Park in the 1940s. There was an empty lot at the corner of Keystone and Lawrence. We played 16 inch softball in that lot starting as soon as the snow melted until the snow started again in late November. There was not enough room to have a right field, and since none of us were left handed, and we didn't have enough kids to field 2 nine player teams we played without a first baseman, a right fielder and a second baseman. That meant that for a put out at first the pitcher's hands were out if the fielder got the ball to the pitcher when he was on the mound. Each team also had to supply its own catcher, who was on the honor system to make put outs at home plate.ReplyDelete
Was explaining left handed batting problems to my wife when teams were short on fielders. You recounted a few I had forgotten. I usually played in "picked up" games in an empty lot at 79th and Harvard on the south side. Any lot was called a "prairie"Delete
Great story. we played on the west side in Kells Park already noted, and mostly in the school yard at Morse School. Right field was always closed, and pitcher's hands were out. Probably played a minimum of a 1,000 games growing up. Ah, the good old days. God bless you sir.Delete
You missed one of the best parks to play in. And it hosted U.S. tournaments in the 60's and 70's. And that's Clarendon Park on Clarendon between Montrose and Wilson. Lights for nite games and a center field scoreboard that my brother and I kept score on.ReplyDelete
I worked at Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center and the stone and brass "Farragut Boathouse Monument" was located on the campus. Very few people seemed aware of it's presence.ReplyDelete
I still have a screwed up finger from a game I was playing in a forest preserve near Forest Park.ReplyDelete
Watching my bro John Stopa play during the 60s at Claredon and many other good players like Joe Jacobi(Dwarfs), Lou Galubic,(Bob Cats) and the list just goes on and on .ReplyDelete
Broke my hand pitching 16".Line drive right back me. It was either my hand or singing soprano.ReplyDelete
They forgot Mt. Greenwood Park, home of the very best 16” players in the city.ReplyDelete
SAYRE PARK NW SIDE CHICAGO always had competive games...Sayres Tap was a premier softball team in the 80sReplyDelete