Chicago 16-Inch Softball HOF Beats Nascar In Grant Park
Chicago, the “City of Big Shoulders” does have some clout when it comes to respect for the game of slow-pitch softball.
The Chicago 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame, a group of HOF-inductees, and media people, apparently have rescued the Grant Park softball season from the clutches of NASCAR, which earlier cancelled the 2023 season.
“We will have a softball season in Grant Park after all,” said umpire and player/manager Michael Stern, who alerted media to the cancellation. “The official word is that the Chicago Park District (CPD) and NASCAR have agreed to allow softball to be played while race preparation is going on.”
The NASCAR event is scheduled to be run from June 22nd through July 5th on Columbus Drive and the Outer Drive—forming a loop around Grant Park.
Earlier, Paul Rowan, president of the 16-inch Chicago Softball Hall of Fame, said: “I think what made it more disappointing is they pushed it aside for the NASCAR event, which is not part of Chicago, where this game is known as Chicago’s Game.”
“I know this change would not have happened without the 16-inch softball community speaking out,” Stern said. “Thanks to HOF inductees Bob Sirott, Don DeBat, Al Maag and Paul Rowan for helping get the word out.”
“Regardless of the CPD/NASCAR deal, we’ve lost the ‘free’ use of Grant Park for the majority of the summer,” said Ron Roenigk, publisher of Inside Publications, and a player-manager who participated in the Media Softball League for decades.
“Grant Park is our front yard,” Roenigk said. “It is supposed to be ‘forever clear and open and free.’ Isn’t that our motto? This is not what Montgomery Ward had in mind when he saved Grant Park.”
Eager for the details of how the 2023 Grant Park softball season will shape up, this writer called the CPD headquarters for details. Unfortunately, I was put on hold, then switched to various extensions for 33 minutes while listening to cheerful Muzak.
Finally, I was connected to a pleasant woman named Jackie, who informed me that five leagues are scheduled to play on Grant Park’s 16 diamonds on Monday through Friday starting in late April through late July.
Pressed for more details, she said: “We are under a lot of scrutiny. The names of the leagues are confidential. Teams are under a legal contract with CPD. For more information you must file a Freedom of Information request.”
What? Suddenly, a chat with the CPD, a city department that is handsomely supported by our real estate tax dollars, seemed to have escalated into a conversation with the CIA. Had Rose Escareno, CPD’s general superintendent and CEO, put a staff “gag order” in place?
Next, I was referred to Jackie’s supervisor, Merrill Malone, the Area Manager of the CPD’s Central Region. Her direct phone line rang. No answer. “This mailbox is full and can’t accept messages at this time.” It was 3 p.m. on election day. What do you expect?
Searching for more information, I called the Chicago Sport & Social Club (CSSC), “the largest organizer of adult sports leagues, social events and tournaments nationwide,” Apparently the CSSC now is the unofficial softball diamond managers at Grant Park.
“We have a limited window for 16-inch softball games at Grant Park starting May 2nd,” said Brian Irving, who schedules leagues for CSSC. “Our season runs for five weeks, plus playoffs.” Each team will play a guaranteed six games on two to four diamonds starting at 6 p.m.
“CSSC offers both 16-inch Men’s Leagues and Coed Leagues on Monday through Thursday, and we charge a fee of $1,175 per team,” Irving explained. The fee includes a new Clincher softball, a certified umpire, bases, team jerseys, schedule and standings, and champ shirts.
The CPD collects their cut of the fees, and provides public park diamonds. The CSSC organizes, administers and pockets the profit from Men’s and Coed recreational and competitive softball leagues.
The CSSC also administers play seven days a week in more than a dozen city parks, including Lincoln Park South, Hamlin, Waveland, Union, Brands, Oz/Jonquil, Clarendon, and Wrightwood. For the 2023 season of seven games, each team pays an entry fee of $1,285.
However, Kevin Kwatt, co-commissioner of the Chicago Advertising Coed Softball League (CACSL) says his group did not receive the red-carpet treatment when requesting 2023 diamonds for the 13-team Tuesday league, which has played at Grant Park since 1980.
“Grant Park officials told us we could play a six-game season starting Tuesday June 6th through July 18th, but we were not allowed to play between June 27th and July 4th because NASCAR fencing will be installed,” said Kwatt.
“Their schedule has us playing three double headers in three consecutive weeks and we are required to fit the games into a 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. time slot,” Kwatt said. “We are being squeezed on both field availability and game time. It is impossible to play two 7-inning softball games in an hour and a half, even starting with a one-and-one ball-strike count,” said Kwatt, a veteran player for the “Bad Apples,” the current league champion.
Grant Park officials told the league it could book July 11th for rainouts and makeups, and July 18th for playoffs, but they had to shut down by July 19th and get out because the fields had to be prepared for the Lollapalooza event on August 3rd to August 5th.
Each team in the advertising league, including Leo Burnett, BBDO, Foot Cone, Fleishman Hillard and the Publicist Group pays the park a $120 reservation fee for diamonds and bases.
The league hires and pays its umpires $45 a game, and buys its own Clincher softballs in bulk at about $16 each. The $1,200 per team registration fee includes a season ending league party at a nearby saloon.
Impossible parking is another issue at Grant Park, especially with the NASCAR race and giant concert events. Imagine parking for $20 in a Wabash Street garage and lugging bats, balls, bases and coolers two blocks to the fields at Columbus Drive and Balbo Avenue.
Time for Mike Royko Field?
Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who was inducted into the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame in 2000, played hundreds of games at Grant Park between 1974 and 1983. Royko won many championships while promoting softball, managing and pitching for the HOF Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times teams in the Industrial League.
After Royko passed into softball heaven in 1998, in his honor the Chicago Park District created the Mike Royko Softball Tournament, which was played at Grant Park for more than a decade.
Now, 25 years after Royko’s death, Robert Egan, a HOF Sun-Times player and manager, whose elite team was a five-time Royko Tournament champion at the park in the in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007 and 2009, wonders—along with many of his teammates—why the historic diamonds are not renamed “Mike Royko Field”?
That suggested future honor for Mike Royko and his family—complete with a City Council proclamation and installation of appropriate park signage—should be fielded by Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), who has an aldermanic prerogative over Grant Park.