‘Greatest Game On Dirt’ Celebrates The History Of Softball
Ask any South Sider what makes Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood famous? And, he or she will tell you it’s Irish mayors and 16-inch softball players. But don’t be surprised if the ball players are mentioned ahead of the politicians.
So, it is with great enthusiasm that this writer—a proud 1999 HOF inductee—was happy to review the recently published the “Greatest Game On Dirt,” a 132-page text and picture book celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Chicago 16-inch Hall of Fame and the nearly 134-year history of the sport.
Softball historian, author and HOF founder Al Maag truly covers every aspect of the Windy City’s game from the infield to the outfield from 1887 to the present.
Chicago softball’s birth occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1887 when the first game was played indoors on the wooded floor of a gymnasium at the Farragut Boat Club at 31st Street and Lake Park Avenue on Chicago’s South Side while fans awaited the progress of the Harvard-Yale football game via ticker tape.
George W. Hancock drew a baseball diamond on the gym floor, tied up the laces around a boxing glove to form a sphere and the players swatted it with a broomstick. Hancock, a Chicago reporter, 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 dozens of other clubs.
“Indoor was played in dance halls, armories and gymnasia with a ball that measured 16 or 18 inches in circumference with a thin bat, and—important—without gloves,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist and historian Bill Gleason in 1981. “Because the playing areas were tiny, the ball had to be soft and squishy so it would not carry. Indoor was a scientific game, a pitcher-catcher-bunter-slash hitter game.”
“From watching a ticker tape for the results of a college football game on Thanksgiving Day in 1887 to streaming live coverage of games in the 21st Century, 16-inch softball established itself as Chicago’s iconic game and fabric of our culture,” Maag wrote.
By the 1920s, slow-pitch softball moved outdoors and developed into a popular urban sport—the perfect game for the blue-collar ethnic inner-city neighborhoods of the city. To play the game, all a kid needed was a bat and a softball, sometimes called the “mush ball,” especially when well worn. And no glove was needed.
And, that was—and still is—the beauty of Chicago’s game, which flourished on makeshift diamonds in the streets and cobble-stone alleys, vacant lots, school yards, parking lots, prairies and under the “el” tracks from Rogers Park to Mount Greenwood long before it ascended to the green grass of city and suburban public parks.
The “Greatest Game On Dirt” focuses on key players, teams, media, and organizers that shaped the game and made it what it is today. Chapters also target non-profits, gloves versus no gloves, Black legends, women in the game, corporate ball and umpires.
Maag’s deep and comprehensive research also provides the following essential facts every true Chicagoan should know:
Celebrities played softball. Mayor Richard J. Daley played second base during his school days at De La Salle Institute. Other celebs include actors Gary Sinese, Bill Murray, Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina and Joe Mantegna. Professional athletes, including George Halas, Bill “Moose” Skowron, Sweetwater Clifton, Phil Cavaretta, Lou Boudreau, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Gary Fencik, Jim McMahon, Bobby Douglas, Gale Sayers, Jim Grabowski, Jeff Hornacek, Michael Jordan and Bobby Hull played the game. Media players included Mike Royko, Tim Weigel, Bob Sirott, Mike Conklin, Dan Cahill and this writer.
1930s Golden Age. A 16-inch tournament sponsored by the Chicago American newspaper in 1930 drew hundreds of teams over a five-week period with the finals played at Wrigley Field. At the 1933-1934 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, the Grant Park National Invitational Tournament drew 55 top teams and 350,000 spectators.
Windy City League stories. Moose Skowron, who starred in 1949 for Jimmy DiVito’s mob-sponsored Nut House Café team, told Maag that his 1955 New York Yankees team couldn’t beat a good Chicago softball team.
Bobcats vs. Sobies. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the greatest rivalry in 16-inch softball sparked the “renaissance” of Chicago softball, or the second “Golden Age.” The Bobcats were led by pitcher-manager Eddie Zolna, and stars Willie (The Whistler) Simpson, home-run hitter Ron Olesiak and dump-hitting specialist Jake Jacobi. Starting in 1969, the Dr. Carlucci-sponsored Bobcats would win their first of five straight titles. Eventually they would win world softball 12 titles. The Sobies, a gritty ethnic team from Berwyn, featured stars such as curve-ball pitcher John Bereckis, a Chicago cop, his brother, clutch-hitting shortstop Bill Bereckis, speedy center fielder Eddie (Champ) Surma, lanky first-baseman John Hornacek, and tough as nails short center fielder Tony Reibel. The legendary Sobies were world champions from 1966 through 1968. The entire team is in the HOF.
Royko at Trebes. When it comes to strange softball stories surrounding bad umpire calls, nothing tops the near riot that occurred on summer evening in 1980 at Trebes Park, a tiny one-diamond field at Webster and Racine in the DePaul University neighborhood.
The game pitted the arch-rival neighborhood saloon team, The Chessmen, verses Royko’s Raiders, a team comprised of Mike Royko, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist, newspaper reporters, including this writer, and several fine Clarendon Park stars.
The saloon crowd gathered along the fences to cheer the hard-hitting, beer-drinking Chessmen, and generally boo Royko and his Raiders, featuring Windy City star Jerry Jess, home-run sluggers Don (Garbo) Garbarino and Dennis (Muscles) Pettke.
Recoiling from several bad calls by the weak-eyed, but well-meaning veteran umpire, Royko exploded with a shower of verbal abuse after his team lost a close game. A near riot occurred after Royko called the Chessmen “a bunch of riff raff.”
When the famed columnist criticized the umpire’s work, he sprinted to his nearby auto trunk and produced a pistol. Royko and his Raiders fled the park. The next day, Royko’s column described the game in detail, and the following season, Al DiPisa, the Chessman’s manager, renamed the team Riff Raff.
To purchase Greatest Game On Dirt go to: http://16inchsoftballhof.com/shop
For more housing and softball news, visit www.dondebat.biz. Don DeBat, a 1999 Chicago Softball Hall of Fame inductee, is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.