|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.