After the Lollapalooza concert and the celebration for the Chicago Cubs World Series victory party left Grant Park muddy mess, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Park Dist. [CPD] have declared Lower Hutchinson Field a disaster area.
Indeed fences that have circled the fields since last Summer may stay up until Lollapalooza crowds returns again this Summer to wreck the fields again.
As a result, the venerable 16-inch Chicago-style softball leagues that have competed for decades in Grant Park have been banished for the 2017 season. Some of Grant Park’s games are being squeezed into the four Upper Hutchinson diamonds at Columbus and Balbo, and other will be scheduled as doubleheaders at other city parks scattered along the lakefront at Waveland and other fields which already have a full schedule of games.
This blaspheme of Chicago’s Game—16-inch slow pitch softball—apparently happened because the CPD is broke and cannot in a timely manner fund repairs to the swamp-like Lower Hutchinson Field, fondly known as “The Valley.”
Softball players also are asking what happened to the $155 million that Lollapalooza organizers paid to the CPD? The Cubs paid for some repairs at Grant Park, but November was too late in the season for new grass to be planted.
For 16-inch softball lovers in Chicago, the shutdown of Grant Park softball could be compared with closing the Washington, D.C. Mall—that amazing open, pond-filled and forever green public space between The Capitol Building, Washington Monument and the Abe Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital—and transforming it into a drag-racing venue for one of President Donald Trump’s post-election rallies.
When you consider that tens of thousands of Chicagoans play softball, closing Grant Park—one of the city’s biggest leagues for classic 16-inch Chicago-style softball for the 2017 season is a shocker. The move comes on the heels of removing the historic Lake Shore Park Saloon Softball League on Chicago and Michigan avenues in Streeterville. Political analysts say these decisions could be considered a classic faux pas that could help Mayor Emanuel lose his next election.
While the popularity of the game may have slipped a bit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the sport of 16-inch softball experienced resurgence in 1999, when Chicago Public Schools adopted the game as a high-school sport.
Today, there are an estimated 200,000 people playing the game nearly every day on about 10,000 Chicago-area teams, ranging from Sunday pickup games and co-ed leagues to public high-school and church league teams, to “B” saloon leagues and the A softball leagues at Hamlin Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side, to nearly professional teams with the Mount Prospect and Forest Park AA leagues in the suburbs.
The problems with the fields in Grant Park are not new and neither is the now-annual damaged caused by Lollapalooza. Drainage in The Valley has been an issue for decades, going back to an era when the CPD did still have money to work with.
With Grant Park’s fields left fallow in 2017, a politically correct alternative would be to take this opportunity to redesign Grant Park’s softball fields to measure up to some of the modern, well-planned facilities such as those now being utilized at Robert E. James Park in Evanston. Improvements could be paid for in part by Mayor Emanuel’s $26-million “Save Chicago’s Treasures” initiative with money coming from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ grant funding and the Park District’s capital funds.
An informal poll of Chicago softball historians, experts and players humbly makes the following design and construction suggestions:
• Infrastructure improvements. For decades, the Grant Park Valley has suffered from such poor rain water drainage that hundreds of games had to be moved from the mud-filled diamonds to the grass. Therefore, a new drainage system must be installed. We built the Water Reclaimation Districts Big Tunnel and reverse the Chicago River, so we know well how to move water.
• Diamond redesign. Instead of the archaic field layout at Grant Park, which lines eight diamonds around the perimeter of Lower Hutchinson Field, the CPD should draft plans for the popular “pin-wheel” design, which creates clusters of four softball diamonds together. Infields would feature high-tech drain tile, and virtually water proof sand-clay “kitty-litter” infield surface.
From an aerial view, the modern pin-wheel design resembles a four-leaf clover with space for landscaped walkways in between. For Grant Park, there likely would be space for three of the pin-wheel diamond clusters for a total of up to 12 softball fields.
Another benefit of the new design would be outfielder injury reduction because the left fielder from one diamond wouldn’t be playing back-to-back with the right fielder from another team on an adjoining field.
• Tournament facilities. For tournament softball, including the resurrection of the Mike Royko 16-inch Classic, fencing would be installed in the outfield, and room for three beer vending stations at the center of each pin-wheel. Thousands of spectators would bring folding chairs and view games from the grassy knolls around the edges of The Valley.
• Multi-purpose event flexibility. Each cluster of four diamonds would have removable light-weight and rust proof aluminum backstops and players benches. The backstops and benches fit into pre-installed, in-ground collars and would be easily removable to provide open space for concerts and the next Cubs World Series celebration.
To save millions of dollars in annual landscape restoration fees and prevent future damage to The Valley celebration and event fields, the budget should include installation of Astro Turf instead of natural grass. During events, tarps should be provided and be anchored down to cover the infield surfaces.
• Columbus Dr. parking. Another design innovation should be the creation of vertical metered automobile parking for softball players and tournament spectators along both sides of Columbus Dr. from Balbo to Roosevelt Rd. Columbus is such a wide boulevard that if cars were park front-end-first toward the curb, there would be space for hundreds of vehicles. At a meter fee of $5 an hour week nights from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., plus day-long tournaments on weekends, cash would flow into city coffers.
• Monument in mothballs. A crowning touch to the redesign and restoration of Grant Park would be rededication and installation of the stone and brass Farragut Boathouse monument that commemorates the birth of the game of softball in Chicago. Several years ago, the monument was placed “in fine art storage with the City of Chicago’s Public Art Program,” according to the Dept. of Cultural Affairs.
Royko & Grant Park
This restored downtown Chicago softball mecca should be renamed “Mike Royko Field,” after the famed newspaper columnist and promoter of 16-inch softball. Why name The Valley after Mike Royko?
In the 1970s, the game of softball was reviving and Grant Park, dubbed “the hub of Midwest softball” with 31 Industrial Men’s Leagues fielding 352 teams and 38 Powder-Puff teams in five industrial women’s leagues playing on 20 diamonds.
Royko arrived at Grant Park after pitching and managing the Chicago Daily News team to Media League Championships in 1973 and 1974. The Daily News moved up to the tough Grant Park Industrial League to take on some AA-ringer-loaded squads from Commonwealth Edison, Peoples Gas, Continental Bank, IBM, Illinois Bell, Hilton Hotels, and the 1st District Chicago Police.
By 1975, the Daily News’ second season in Grant Park, a sly Royko had learned how to build a winner. Since most of the great teams in Grant Park were loaded with ringers (players who actually did not work for the companies for which they played), to balance his squad Mike decided to add a few “AA leg men” to the staff, complete with photo ID cards and paycheck stubs.
The Daily News team posted an 18-1 record in 1975, but lost 13-12 in the Tournament of Champions finals to Environmental Control, another great team loaded with city workers and several Italian ringers from Taylor St.
A no-gloves game
In the spring of 1977, Royko learned that Grant Park softball director Buddy Haines was about to allow the use of gloves in league play. Royko, a saloon player and a traditionalist who grew up on the roster of his father’s Blue Sky Lounge team, saw gloves as a threat and a menace to traditional Chicago-style softball.
He filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court that argued it was against the traditions of the Windy City game to allow gloves. The judge, an elderly Jewish man who grew up on the West Side playing softball, ruled in Royko’s favor. “Gloves in a 16-inch softball game—that’s not Chicago-style,” the judge said.
South Sider Mory Ephraim, player-manager of Peoples Gas, one of Grant Park’s leading teams, said: “Mike Royko’s right. Only sissies wear gloves in 16-inch softball. Gloves ruin the game.”
Don DeBat currently is writing, “Chicago’s Game,” a book on the history of 16-inch softball. For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.
Historians say the Chicago game of softball was born as an indoor sport in 1887 at the Farragut Boat Club at 31st Street and Lake Park Ave. on Chicago’s South Side. About 20 club members were gathered in the gymnasium of the clubhouse on Thanksgiving Day to follow via telegram the progress of the annual Harvard-Yale football game.
One of the young members picked up a stray boxing glove, and tossed to another member who batted the glove back. George Hancock, an inspired spectator, drew a baseball diamond on the gym floor, tied up the laces around the boxing glove to form a sphere and the players swatted it with a broomstick.
He outlined a rough set of rules, and for the remainder of the evening the members played “Indoor Baseball.” The game caught on and by the end of the winter the Farragut team was playing indoor baseball with other clubs.