Chicago Softball Mourns The Loss Of Great Saloon Sponsor
One of the great truths of playing softball in Chicago is that all “real men” who play the sport go to the saloon to hoist a beer or two after the game.
One of the great challenges for die-hard Chicago-style 16-inch softball players is finding the strength to play a game the next day after trying to recover from a jumbo hang-over created by a saloon victory party the night before.
Some players say they hit better hung-over because they are so relaxed. However, no one fields or pitches better when they are hung-over. If a player says he does, he is lying.
Often, after a great win, or a memorable loss, the pitchers of beer are enhanced with lemon bullets, shots of Irish whiskey, snappers of brandy, and “Polish Depth Charges”—shots of whiskey dropped into beer steins.
This writer—a proud 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame inductee in 1999—played more than 2,000 games and probably consumed 20,000 libations over 47 years.
So, my teammates and I experienced a wave of great sadness upon learning of the recent passing of saloonkeeper Jerry Ranalli, 83, a legendary storyteller and one of Chicago’s great softball sponsors.
Mr. Ranalli is generally credited as the inventor of not only the sports-bar concept, but the outdoor garden café at Ranalli’s Restaurant and bar on Lincoln Avenue in Old Town.
In the late 1970s, Ranalli opened the Ultimate Sports Bar with partner Al Rompza on the corner of Armitage, Lincoln and Sheffield avenues. This totally original venue featured dining in a full-size boxing ring. For those who like their steak very rare, the saloon also showcased blood-stained walls from real boxing matches.
When the manager of the Solidarity softball team met Polish-American saloonkeeper Rompza while playing handball at the Irving Park YMCA in 1979 it was a marriage made in softball-sponsor heaven. Rompza, owner of the Burwood Tap at Burling and Wrightwood, asked: “Why is your team named Solidarity?”
The answer was the team identified with the anti-communist Solidarity political movement in Poland. The Trebes Park and Oz Park rosters were filled with proud Polish-American players with names like Glen Placek, Rob Placek, Mike Skowronski, Steve Wysocki, Tony Dudek, Joe Oleksy, Connie Jazcor and Bob Gorzynski.
Toss in Ukrainian-American stars Paul Sortal and Dave Sortal, and a manager whose grandparents immigrated from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1900. Let’s not forget the great long-ball hitter, Don (Garbo) Garbarino (Italian-American) and Dean Karouzos, the handsome Greek.
Solidarity was viewed as an Eastern European softball power house, especially around Kosciuszko Park in the predominantly Polish neighborhood.
Crazy things also happened when your softball sponsor was Jimmy Rittenberg, a great friend of Mr. Ranalli. Always an innovator, Rittenberg developed “Juke Box Saturday Night” rock ‘n roll/sports saloon on Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Park in the early 1980s.
Outside, the landmark saloon signage included a hot red 1957 Chevy front end sticking out the second floor of the bar building’s facade. With Solidarity playing at nearby Oz Park, it made sense to hold the post-game festivities, including Jitter Bug and Twist contests, while platters were spun by the disc jockey sitting inside a ’57 Chevy convertible at Juke Box Saturday Night.
The Solidarity softball team guzzled beer while dancing to the beat of “Louie, Louie,” the Beach Boys, Chubby Checker and “At The Hop” all night.
Of course, we all were wearing those really cool silver “Juke Box Saturday Night” jackets with the bar’s logo printed on the back and Solidarity on the front. Fashionable Rittenberg also ordered that the team wear buttoned Izod shirts with collars in his dance club. The dancing girls always wanted to take the jackets and us home.
Some nights, sweating, beer-spattered teammates—still in full uniform—continued pub crawling on Lincoln Avenue until 4 a.m. This is why so many players quit the game at 40 years of age, because the alternative was divorce.
In 1988, when Rompza purchased the old Grover’s Oyster Bar on Irving Park Road, 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, at Diversey and Pulaski, and now was expanding under a new name—Risk.
In 2017, the sports-bar restaurant was still sponsoring the Risk softball team, which was aging like fine wine under the name Vintage Risk. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, Vintage Risk won six championships at Trebes Park and Horner Park. Teammates held their victory parties washing down buckets of hot chicken wings with pitchers of beer in Chicago Joe’s outdoor garden.
All this proves a good softball sponsor can last even longer than a good marriage.