16″ softball: the Chicago game
When I lived in Iowa, I did get a chance to play a bit with a 16″ softball: enormous and, after a certain amount of play, soft indeed. The game requires no gloves because of the ball’s softness, and that makes it a terrific casual game: the equipment is down to the ball and the bat. I was reminded of it by Adam Doster’s article “Gloves Off” in The Classical:
The North Siders are trying to overcome a 4–2 deficit in the final inning of the annual Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame Game. Runners are on first and second with nobody out. At the plate is Jimmy Nalen, the potential go-ahead run. Nalen’s commemorative blue t-shirt is tucked snugly into his royal blue baseball pants. His face, wrinkled after years working as a union electrician, is partially obscured by coke-bottle glasses and a baby blue bucket hat. At 77, the oldest player on the team looks more like a Wrigley Field usher than a ball player.
Nalen delivered plenty of clutch hits over the years: for four decades, starting in the early 1950s, he patrolled the outfield of Chicagoland’s snug softball diamonds. At the plate, he laced line drives into the gaps and rounded the short base paths with blistering speed. On this humid late-July afternoon, as the 2003 HOF inductee takes a few warm-up swings, the spectators and players at a western suburban park—about 300 in total—shower him with a standing ovation. It’s a heartwarming moment, the loudest cheer of the day, and a visceral reminder that Chicagoans who play or watch 16-inch softball, the town’s most parochial and distinctive pastime, take pride in its rich history.
They also take the games remarkably seriously. This becomes clear seconds after the applause dies down and Nalen steps into the batter’s box. The South Siders in the field may have clapped, but they aren’t interested in watching the lean man in the bucket hat steal their victory. On the first pitch he sees, Nalen takes one shuffle-step and strokes a hard grounder back up the middle. The pitcher sucks it up effortlessly with his bare hands, pivots, and rifles the ball to his teammate at second base, who makes a crisp turn and guns Nalen down at first by seven steps, killing the rally. A lazy fly ball from the following hitter secures a victory for Nalen’s cross-town rivals, spoiling a fairy-tale finish. Sure, it was an exhibition game, with bloated rosters, silly chatter, and excess pageantry. But when that oversized orb comes soaring off the bat, Chicagoans don’t mess around.
Standing with his friends behind the backstop, Al Maag is thrilled to see Nalen and the other legends taking cuts and playing catch. Sixteen years ago, in an effort to preserve the legacy of the sport he skipped weddings and funerals to play, he and several other softball diehards co-founded the 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame, an institution designed to honor the players, teams, umpires, managers, and writers who championed Chicago’s favorite gloveless game. Since then, Maag and his crew have inducted almost 350 people into the Hall and scoured Chicagoland for antique bats, balls, photos, and uniforms. It’s their hope that within the calendar year, should they raise the necessary funds, these artifacts will line the walls of a physical museum, one that’s adjacent to the existing plaque display (and giant replica softball) they’ve mounted at “Inductee Park” in suburban Forest Park. “It may not happen right away,” says current Hall of Fame president Ron Kubicki. “But it’s going to happen.”
The structure can’t open soon enough. 125 years after the game was founded, fewer and fewer locals are playing 16-inch softball, once the most popular regional sport in America. Like the stockyards and steel mills before it, this cornerstone of mid-century Chicago is in danger of disappearing forever.
Chicagoans may not like to admit it, but their hard-nosed, working-class game has aristocratic roots. On Thanksgiving Day 1887, at the tony Farragut Boat Club on the South Side, 20 alumni gathered around the club’s ticker tape machine to track the results of the annual Harvard-Yale football game, played that year at the Polo Grounds in New York City. When the news broke that the Bulldogs had beaten the Crimson 17–8, an overenthusiastic Yalie chucked an old boxing glove at one of his Harvard peers. To defend himself, the Boston Brahmin grabbed a nearby broom handle and swatted the glove away. Inspiration struck George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, who tied together the laces of the boxing glove, chalked out a baseball diamond on the club’s gym floor, and split the men into two teams. Mitts were not available, and thus not used. “A big soft ball and a small bat—that was the central idea,” the Chicago Tribune wrote of that first game, which ended in a 41–41 tie. A new sport was born. . .
Continue reading. It’s a terrific game to play in a park or schoolyard. It will be sad if it vanishes—but then, I like duckpins more than ten-pins (and in particular Baltimore duckpins: 3 balls per frame).