Where would classic 16-inch Chicago-style softball be without a loyal sponsor—your local saloon?
Softball team managers might tell you losing a good sponsor is worse than losing a wife. And while that’s probably not true, thousands of teams go courting sponsors every season at the corner saloon, the neighborhood funeral home, auto agency, realty office or the pizza parlor down the block.
Celebrating at the sponsor’s saloon or bowling alley after a good game is part of the legend of Chicago softball. Every softball team is looking for the sports-minded businessman who would like a little promotional exposure and doesn’t mind parting with a few hundred dollars for a league entry fee and some lettered cotton T-shirts.
Often, the saloon owner/sponsor played on a competitive softball team as a youth and still has a love for the game.
Steve Nicoli, 52, owner of Tripoli Tap at 1147 W. Armitage Ave. in Lincoln Park, is a former 16-inch pitcher and outfielder for The Store saloon, which sponsored teams at Lake Shore Park, Oz Park and Hamlin Park.
Now, Nicoli’s Tripoli Tap sponsors the Vintage Risk softball team which plays Wednesday nights at nearby Trebes Park, at Webster and Racine, and Stocks & Jocks, a co-ed team at Seward Park on Division St. “Sponsoring a softball team is good for business,” said Nicoli.
Vintage Risk won championships at Trebes Park 2014, 2015 and 2016, spent a chunk of its $1,800 in jackpot winnings on a season ending party at Tripoli Tap, and a jacket party in early spring, he said.
Tripoli Tap attracts all types of sports fans who watch games on eight 50-inch TVs while enjoying cold brews, burgers and some of the best charcoal-barbequed jumbo chicken wings on the North Side. On balmy summer evenings, the establishment’s beer garden is filled with neighborhood patrons drinking and dining.
The Burwood Tap
A good softball sponsor even can last longer than a good marriage. Back in 1979, when the Burwood Tap first started sponsoring Solidarity at Trebes Park, the manager of the team met Polish-American saloonkeeper Al Rompza while playing handball at the Irving Park YMCA.
Rompza asked the manager why his team was named Solidarity, and the answer was the roster was filled with Polish-American players with names like Placek, Skowronski, Sortal, Wysocki, Dudek, Oleksy and Gorzynski,
In the early-1980s, when Rompza opened the Ultimate Sports Bar on Armitage and Sedgwick in Old Town his partner, Jimmy Rittenberg, owned Juke Box Saturday Night on the Lincoln Avenue saloon strip. With Solidarity playing at Oz Park, it made sense to hold the post-game festivities, including Jitter Bug and Twist contests while platters were spun in the interior of a 1957 Chevy convertible at Juke Box Saturday Night, just around the corner from Oz Park.
Before Rompza purchased the old Grover’s Oyster Bar on Irving Park Road in 1988, just east of Western, and renamed it Chicago Joe’s Saloon, he made sure to offer softball team sponsorships to his teams, including Solidarity, which recently had won a championship in the tough Kosciuszko Park league, and now was expanding under the name Risk.
Chicago Joe’s will celebrate its 30th anniversary in business in 2018, noted owner A.J. Rompza, Al’s son, who also manages The Burwood Tap. The sports-bar restaurant has sponsored the Vintage Risk softball team, a mix of young and older guys, for 29 years.
Vintage Risk won six championships at Horner Park and Trebes Park in 2014, 2015 and 2016—a rare six-peat run not repeated by many Chicago 16-inch softball teams. Teammates held their victory party washing down buckets of jumbo chicken wings with pitchers of beer in Chicago Joe’s outdoor garden.
Chicago Joe’s once was such a softball mecca it sponsored teams virtually every week night. Years ago one of its female bartenders played 16-inch softball on five teams.
Billy Goat Saloon
Perhaps one of the most genuine softball bars in Chicago is the legendary Billy Goat saloon on lower-level Kinzie Street near Michigan Avenue’s wealthy “Magnificent Mile.”
On the door is a sign, “Butt in Anytime,” and once you step through this immortal portal you’ll find yourself in a newspaper and sports museum.
Dozens of photos of long-gone newspaper reporters, columnists and editors line the greasy walls of this establishment, made famous by John Belushi’s “Cheeseborger, cheeseburger—Pepsi, No Coke,” quip, which was a parody of Billy Goat’s Greek owner and proprietor Sam Sianis.
The Billy Goat features three rooms—a long, L-shaped bar on the right side is highlighted by the “Wise-Guy’s Corner.” A small “VIP Room” is toward the back, just to the right of the large greasy grill where Sam and his crew prepare such delicacies as the famed double-cheese burger, or the egg-and-cheese sandwich. Condiments, including fresh sliced pickles, onions, relish, ketchup and mustard are nearby.
The big room to the left of the door is where Mike Royko’s Hall-of-Fame Daily News-Sun-Times softball team held some of its greatest parties following hundreds of games played at Grant Park, including the famed “Royko at the Goat” post-game party immortalized on YouTube.
A window sill in this room is lined with a dozen softball trophies—awards of some of the newspaper team’s championships in the 1970s and 1980s, an era that included the infamous party that was highlighted by Royko feeding Sam’s goat a $5 bill while the barnyard creature was wearing a Daily News softball team shirt. Moments later, the goat bleated and relieved himself. In the words of Sam Sianis, “Mike! He give you change!”
Over a 35-year history, The Daily News/Sun-Times 16-inch softball team won over 30 championships and more than 500 of games at Grant Park, Lincoln Park and Lake Shore Park and in tournaments, including the Grant Park Old Style Tournament in 1993-1994, and the Grant Park Tournament of Champions in 1999.
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.