While America protests the future of more than 700 Civil War statues and monuments sprinkled in public spaces from coast to coast, Chicago is bickering about removing an old Roman column from a pedestal outside of Soldier Field near Burnham Harbor.
The problem with the 18-foot-tall, 2,000-year-old Corinthian column is it was a gift of public art to the city from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in conjunction with the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Ald. Ed Burke (14th) want the Chicago Park District to remove the green-toned breccia stone column from its pedestal. They also want to rename Balbo Drive because it honors Italo Balbo, an Italian Air Force general, who later bombed unarmed Africans in Ethiopia, and helped Mussolini rise to power.
The column sports an inscription that honors fascist Italy and commemorates Balbo’s celebrated trans-Atlantic flight of 24 sea-planes from Rome to Chicago for the World’s Fair. It originally was erected on a podium at the entrance to the Italian Pavilion at the World’s Fair and remained there long after the event ended.
Later it was moved to its current landscaped spot behind a wrought-iron fence on the lakefront jogging path forgotten until former Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) tried to have it removed in 2011.
Considering the monument’s dark political history, Burke told the Chicago Tribune: “I thought it was surprising more people hadn’t demanded this thing go.”
Here’s hoping the Roman column will eventually end up in a museum, shipped back to Rome, or claimed by Italian-Americans as an icon on Taylor Street in the Little Italy neighborhood on the Near West Side. The question is: Once it is gone, what will the Park District place on that beautiful pedestal near Burnham Harbor?
• Monument in mothballs. A happy ending to this story would be installation and rededication of the famed stone and brass “Chicago’s Game” monument on that podium to commemorate the birth of the game of 16-inch softball in Chicago. Several years ago, the handsome softball monument was removed from its original site at 31st Street and Lake Park Avenue on Chicago’s South Side and placed “in fine art storage with the City of Chicago’s Public Art Program,” according to the Department of Cultural Affairs.
• Boxing-Glove Lore. 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. 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.
Hancock 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.
By the 1920s, 16-inch softball moved outdoors. It was the perfect game to be played in alleys, compact gravel schoolyards and parks across the Windy City. Later, 12-inch softball became popular outside of Chicago, and merged with baseball. Eventually the game was played around the world using the smaller ball and gloves and mitts were allowed.
• Mike Royko Boulevard. With the Chicago’s Game monument in a place of honor on that pedestal at Burnham Harbor, the next logical move would be to rename Balbo Drive “Mike Royko Boulevard,” after the Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper columnist and promoter of 16-inch softball. Today, Balbo Drive is the northern boundary of the Grant Park valley where Royko played hundreds of softball games.
Along with pitching and winning many softball championships for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times and Royko’s Raiders in the 1970s and 1980s at Grant Park and other North Side parks, Royko wrote dozens of newspaper columns and told amusing stories about the subtleties Chicago’s game.
A popular celebrity, later in his career, Royko was invited to pitch in a AA tournament in Wisconsin for the World Championship Strikers team. Visit “Royko at the Goat” on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpuXfcx0pRU
Royko also will be remembered for filing a historic lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court that argued it was against the traditions of the Windy City game to allow gloves. A saloon player who grew up on the roster of his father’s Blue Sky Lounge team, Royko saw gloves as a threat and a menace to traditional Chicago-style softball.
The Circuit Court 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.
For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.