Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The History of 16-inch Softball in Chicago, Illinois.

The game of softball started in Chicago on Thanksgiving 1887 at the "Farragut Boat Club" when Yale and Harvard Alumni wrapped up a boxing glove and started to hit the “ball” with a broomstick. Those men formalized the indoor game, and eventually, the game was played outdoors. In Chicago, the parks and school grounds were small, so the ball had to be larger to stay in the park.
Indoor Baseball (softball), 1905.
Note the 2 to 2½ inch thick wooden dowel that's about 35" long for a bat.
The 16″ ball became the size of choice and game of choice during the Great Depression since only a bat and a ball were needed. No-glove 16" softball has also been famous in Chicago alone since the 1920s.

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 its diverse ethnic mix. There is a unique sport, though, one that’s been played by thousands of men and women of 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.
Chicago softball is played barehanded with gnarled fingers and knuckles that tell stories of errors and victories in games long past. It’s safe to say that most Chicagoans have played the game in school, at a picnic, and Sunday pick-up games in Chicagoland parks, or in league play. 

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 background 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 must 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 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. Not only were these teams and players infamous representing their areas, but also gambling was the real game outside the lines. Many times, they 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.
Pre-Thillens Stadium; North Town Stadium, Devon and Kedzie, Chicago
Click picture to read my story about Ray Rayner and Thillens Stadium.
The Cubs had invested money in the Little League park at the corner of Devon and Kedzie, in West Rogers Park. Since they contributed to a $2 million renovation in 2006, the scoreboard reads “Cubs Field.”
Parichy Memorial Stadium, Forest Park, IL.
Most all the semi-professional parks were lighted for night play, and a considerable portion of the attendance was reported on evenings during the week and were frequently doubleheaders. The usual Saturday and Sunday games were frequently tripleheaders.

To inject color into the game many of the visiting men's teams feature unusual costumes such as clown uniforms, grass skirts, and natural beards. 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 with them their own fences, tents, and grandstands, 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) which was a professional women's baseball league founded by Philip K. Wrigley which existed 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 the early days of the league and its stars.
Lane Stadium, (Lane Tech College Prep H.S.), Western and Addison, Chicago.
In 1973 the local 16-inch ASA Commissioner felt that out of state teams could not compete with Illinois because they were used to playing with gloves in 12″ and 14″ play. He was right. He attracted 13 out of state teams for a new league. The gloves never made a difference in the score and Chicago teams still dominated the national tournaments. Because of that fewer out of states teams played the game seriously other than in the Midwest. The one state with an excellent program was Iowa and their patience paid off in 1995 when the "Carpet Country Rollers" won the only title in ASA history by a team, not from Chicago. They did it in the last inning scoring 3 runs with two outs and winning by one run. What an upset!

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. The 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.
The sport has traveled to different cities due to Chicagoans moving, but the reality is when men and women play 16-inch ball, they realize it takes more skill, is safer, less time to play, and is more fun than 12-inch softball. Critics of the 12-inch game say that “anyone can catch a ball with a glove." Those games take too long because the scores are too high, and people are getting hurt.

An alternative version of who and where 'softball' was invented:
A lieutenant with the Minneapolis, Minnisota 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," which commemorates the birth of softball in Chicago in 1887. It was originally placed at 31st Street and Lake Park Avenue in Chicago but currently is in storage with the city. A new 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame opened in Forest Park in 2009.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

35 comments:

  1. Great story - thanks! Made me smile today and admire my gnarled knuckle :-)

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  2. 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.

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  3. Raised on a Clincher! Wouldn't have it any other way! Kelly Park. South side Chicago!

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  4. absolutely fantastic. Proud to say I am a memeber of the 16" Softball Hall of Fame in Forest Park, Illinois

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    1. I didn't see anyone named "Unmkown" in the 16" Softball Hall of Fame.

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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.

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    1. 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.

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    2. 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."

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  7. Thank you for the information and education. I'm 60 years old born in Chicago and love softball. I never knew. Again thank you

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  8. 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.

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    1. 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.

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  9. 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.

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  10. 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.

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  11. Wonderful story, incredible group! Fascinating reads are keeping my mind young; now, as for my body...

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  12. My dad played for the Ducks in the 80’s. Anyone ever hear of them?

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    1. National Champions in 1986. The Ducks team is being inducted to the Chicago 16" Softball Hall of Fame this year

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  13. 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.

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  14. Did not know re Lane Tech...interesting.

    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.

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  15. 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.

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    1. 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. JV

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  16. 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.

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    1. 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.

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  17. We played at Chase Park and Welles Park. The Catholic schools had very competitive games all the time.



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  18. 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.

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  19. My father played ball on and industrial team. Many fond memories and then going to a area bar after they won. Thanks for posting

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  20. 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.

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    1. 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"

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    2. 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.

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  21. 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.

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  22. 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.

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  23. I still have a screwed up finger from a game I was playing in a forest preserve near Forest Park.

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  24. 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 .

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