They call it mecca.
Or Wrigley Field in Forest Park; though, Wrigley West has a better ring to it. It’s three unassuming, well-kempt diamond-shaped ball fields tucked among suburban streets adjacent to the Forest Park Aquatic Center. Sharing a meager parking lot and resting on a small hill that overlooks the fields is the 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame. Inside are relics. Framed photographs of players and teams, worn-down bats and beat-up balls, televisions looping classic tournament games, newspaper clippings about those games and about the game itself—a tradition and institution as uniquely Chicago as Lake Shore Drive, the Great Fire, the Great Flood, and the disdain for ketchup on tubular meat.
It’s mid-July, halfway through the 2016 slow-pitch softball season. The Hall of Fame is hosting its annual Inductees Day Ceremony honoring the Class of 2015. About one hundred people gather around the patch of paver stones just outside of the small building where the plaques are displayed. It’s viciously hot, and some have set up lawn chairs in the spotty shade in an effort to avoid overheating during the presentation. The plaques showcase all three-hundred-plus members—players, coaches, umpires, teams, and even fields—that have been inducted since the hall’s founding in 1996; although the building itself, despite the history it holds inside, is still new, having opened in July 2014.
One of the teams being inducted this day is Legends of the Game. Originally called Enzo’s after its first sponsor, Enzo’s Pizza, the Brookfield-born team has been around since 1968, and a lot of the original members still play together. Ken Kveton is one of them. It’s been forty-eight years and being inducted into the Hall of Fame, he says, is the icing on the cake. “We’ve done everything together.”
The plan was to play a game after the ceremony. But the attendees aren’t as young as they used to be and they worry it’s too hot to play. Maybe they’ll find an air-conditioned bar instead. It’s just as appropriate.
Chicago Mastery Via East Coast Ivies
Slow-pitch softball owes its creation to football. On Thanksgiving Day 1887, a few Harvard and Yale alumni gathered in Chicago’s Farragut Boat Club to learn the result via telegraph of the football game in which the two Ivy League universities were competing. Yale won, and after the bets were settled, a Yale alumnus teasingly tossed a boxing glove at his Harvard pal. The Harvard man quickly grabbed a nearby broom, swatting the glove away with its handle. Chicago Board of Trade reporter George Hancock yelled out, “Play ball!” The young men tied the boxing glove into a ball shape, broke the broomstick to serve as the bat, and drew a diamond on the floor in chalk. The game was born.
The Farragut Club set the rules, and popularity spread. Using a sixteen-inch soft ball, it was originated as a way for baseball players to keep their skills sharp during the winter and was reasonably called “indoor baseball.” Two years later, it moved outside, and people called it “indoor-outdoor.” New versions of the game began popping up with smaller balls and names like kitten ball, lemon ball, or diamond ball. The name softball was coined in 1926, and by 1930, the name had come to encompass all versions of the sport.
But it’s the sixteen-inch softball game that remains truest to Hancock’s original idea. And it can be called slow-pitch softball, super-slow-pitch, or mushball, because the ball is much softer than the smaller balls used in faster-pitch games. But that’s not to say that the ball is soft. Ask just about any mushball vet: If you haven’t had your fingers mangled, broken, or jammed in a terrible way while fielding a hard-hit ground ball or pop fly, then you haven’t played.
Mushball is a generational thing. It’s a Chicago and family thing. It’s special.
Mushball is played predominantly in Chicago, but New Orleans is a city that appreciates its style. They call it cabbageball down there, and it is mostly played by kids during recess at school. Portland enjoys a good game of mushball, too. Other cities casually partake, as well. But above all, there’s no mistaking that this is Chicago’s game. Legendary Chicago newspaper columnist and 16-Inch Softball Hall of Famer Mike Royko said that mushball, played without gloves, always, was the “real” game.
Yet the Amateur Softball Association National Championship requires players to use a glove. Chicago teams rarely fare well in this contest. They play without gloves all season long, and when they get to this tourney, even the most incredible no-glove teams will get schooled sideways by gloved teams from Iowa and Arizona, where the distortion of the purity of the game is popular. For real mushballers, putting a glove on is a hindrance, a gross and unnatural abomination. It’s a totally different game with a glove. It’s not Royko’s “real” game. It’s not Chicago’s game.
But the glove or no-glove debate is inessential when determining what truly defines this sport. At the center of everything is the ball itself. Its design is a direct descendent from its boxing glove origin and also serves to keep the hard hits from sending it soaring out of the city’s compact parks and schoolyards. And just as it was safe to play indoors for offseason baseball players, the mushball is less likely to go crashing through any surrounding windows. The official ball is the deBeer Clincher with its reversed stitching to protect it from being shredded by the rough terrain where the game is often played.
Mushball is less dangerous than baseball—slower without losing the thrill—so it is perfect for a quick pick-up at the park, and since it doesn’t require a glove, the only things you need to play are a Clincher, a bat, and a little bit of space. It’s why the game became so popular during the Great Depression. People could afford it. In fact, players refer to the years between 1934 and 1950 as the golden age of the sport, when its popularity boomed. Its origin is casual, friendly competition, and for one hundred thirty years, it’s been just that which has sustained the game, the players, the teams, their families, and in a way, the city of Chicago all along.
For Love Of The Game
Inside the Hall of Fame, its president, Ron Kubicki, its co-founder, Al Maag, and Slow-Pitch Softball Association (S.S.A.) and Hall of Fame board member George “Geo” Vournazo—all veteran players—admire the artifacts like it’s the first time they’re seeing them. But they tell stories about each and every piece of nostalgia like they’ve done a million times before. All of these guys—and most of the players are guys; though there are plenty of women in the Hall of Fame and many who still play—can rattle off stats, player names, team rankings, and stories of stardom, bloopers, and post-game misbehavior as easily as they breathe. Because they lived and breathed mushball.
When a team forms, it can stay together for years, like Legends of the Game’s nearly half-century run. And because of this, some teams will dominate the diamonds for years at a time. Right now, the 45s, OBI, Hexx, Signature, and Flashback are those teams.
Every player on the team is as equal as the sum of the parts, because there’s an art to each position and to making each play. When batting, a good skill to have is connecting with the Clincher smack on its seams so it moves and swerves through the air, making it difficult to catch. This is called a knuckleball. And if you can send that knuckleball to a player who isn’t as quick on his or her feet or who has the sun in his or her eyes, you can bet on at least a base hit.
A big part of the strategy is to know the other players, understand their weaknesses, and exploit them. A good pitcher can place the ball in the batter’s weak spot, preventing a knuckleball hit. While a good batter will continue to put the ball right where the fielders don’t want it to go. “If you’re having a bad game defensively, and you’re playing a good team, they’ll find you. They’ll hit ’em to you until you want to cry,” Vournazo said, and then added, “Every game comes down to five plays.”
Sometimes your key players can’t make the game. Demands of the job and a growing family are some reasons that have an impact on mushball responsibilities and commitments. So, during the week, you never know who is going to show up at the field until they do. You could have guys playing out of position because your shortstop is stuck at home fielding third-grade history trivia instead of hard grounders. Your heavy hitter may have to burn the midnight oil instead of a drawn-in outfield, so your team’s offense is sluggish. So on Wednesday night, you get hammered in every inning. But come the weekend—tournament time, all-hands-on-deck time, no-room-in-the-dugout time—your team is doing the hammering. The weekday players might not get a chance to play on Saturday. And the weekday losers become tournament champs.
“Guys used to come to tournaments right from weddings. You would have guys playing in suit pants,” Vournazo says. But that doesn’t happen as much anymore. The game is played by older guys now, and the responsibilities are greater than those of the eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds who used to dominate the fields. When things get too busy for too many of the guys, a team can split up completely. But if it does, there’s a good chance that time will stitch it back together.
The friendly rivalries are long-standing; the friendships stand even longer.
Such was the case with No Joke. The team was formed by a bunch of pals from West Side neighborhoods. That’s how a lot of the teams were formed—buddies looking for something to do. But as the players got married and became dads, No Joke went on hiatus for a few years. Their kids are older now, and No Joke has returned to the diamond. Flashback is another longtime team that went on hiatus. Originally, it was called Flash. The reinstated name serves as a notice to the other teams: Flash is back. At a weeknight game at Wrigley West, Flashback proved it by beating No Joke 4–2.
After the game, as is the case with most games, the teams converge on a bar for beer and grub. This night, like most nights, the gathering-place is McGaffer’s Saloon just a few minutes’ drive from the park. McGaffer’s owner Pat Malone has sponsored many of the teams for years, so it’s only right that the recipients of Malone and McGaffer’s generosity frequent the place. McGaffer’s is so intertwined with sixteen-inch softball that its website has a section dedicated to it.
Dues for top-tier teams can hit fourteen thousand dollars, covering uniforms, equipment, registration feeds, and travel expenses for out-of-town tournaments. A bar sponsor can pitch in anywhere from five hundred to fifteen hundred dollars. And the way that Flashback is running up tabs at McGaffer’s this night, it is clear that sponsorship is a wise investment.
Flashback has set up camp at a group of tables within jeering distance of No Joke. The insults are fast and furious, and funny, but all in good fun. As the beer goes down, the ribbing picks up. And it often turns inward among players of the same team. The friendly rivalries are long-standing; the friendships stand even longer.
Where fast-pitch twelve-inch softball is the women’s equivalent to men’s baseball, mushball in Chicago has never had a gender dividing line. The first organized women’s team was West Division High School in 1895. And just like with the men’s leagues, the sport witnessed a surge in popularity with the sisters, mothers, wives, and girlfriends during the nineteen thirties, forties, and fifties. Many of these Chicago women were tapped to form and play in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II.
At the Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, the heroes of the game decide that, yeah, it’s hot, but not too hot that they can’t squeeze out a quick three-inning game. At the plate is inductee Renette McCurry. She began playing the game at fourteen years old in the early nineteen eighties in the Sears parking lot in Homan Square on Chicago’s West Side. She played third base on her high school’s fast-pitch team but moved to the mound at the behest of the coach—no one else on the team could pitch. And that’s the position where McCurry shined.
In 1993, she was named Elgin Park U.S.S.S.A. (United States Specialty Sports Association) Class C M.V.P. thanks in part to her behemoth batting percentage of .682. It’s twenty-three years later, and—with multiple M.V.P. awards, title wins, and other honors, and having played every inch of softball with a number of teams in a number of leagues, both women’s and co-ed—McCurry no longer plays. But today is her induction day, and she has made an exception. She won’t pitch, however. She’ll only hit. And she won’t run the bases. She can’t. The two knee replacements she’s endured won’t allow her to field or tag the bag after she crushes a knuckleball. At this point, she’s happy she can walk.
The walk is slow and careful. It looks like it hurts. But she’s determined to do more than sit in the dugout. She’s resigned to put the Clincher in enough of a hole that the designated runner can make it to first base safely, and maybe even make it all the way home. Even if she can’t, it’s okay. Her bad knees affect her once-powerful swing. They affect everything. She’s come to terms with that. She had a good run. And that good run has been forever preserved in the 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame.
Through all the pain, all the surgeries, all the rehabilitation, McCurry says, “To be rewarded like this makes it all worth it.”
The Big One
Part of the reason the Hall of Fame is in Forest Park instead of within Chicago city limits is because of how the suburb has embraced the sport. The Forest Park No-Glove Nationals has been the best-attended and most-sought-after title in mushball for nearly fifty years. And it takes place at Mecca.
The edge of the outfield is lined with lawn chairs. The fence along the third-base line is overgrown with leaning elbows and peering heads. The concession stand line snakes around the building, tangling up with the line to the bathrooms. Food stands and beer stands, a Tito’s Vodka tent, and tents and tables with tournament gear for sale are squeezed in among the fans, players, and kids. It’s an all-day affair. The taco stand has run out of carne asada.
Hexx just beat reigning champs OBI in the semifinals. The title game is Hexx versus Signature, two behemoths of the game.
Among the lawn chairs, the talk is of how great the games have been today, how great each player is, how exciting it was that time a few years ago when a ball was hit so hard that the center fielder dove into the lawn-chair crowd to catch it. This championship game is no different than the others. It’s exciting. It’s slow-pitch, but the game moves fast. And like Vournazo said, the game basically came down to five plays. Well, five plays and nine runs from Signature over Hexx’s three.
The lawn chairs fold up. The crowd disperses to their cars. The winners line up at home plate and have their photo snapped with the trophy. The wives stand halfway between the plate and the pitcher’s mound to take photos with their cellphones while the children run the bases, burning off youthful energy. But then they’re scooped up—one-by-one, two-by-two—by their dads, their champions. The men hold their kids, kiss their babies, pose for more cellphone photographs, and then run the bases with them in Chicago’s summer heat. Eventually, the wives take the kids back, and Signature heads off to Duffy’s Tavern on Madison Street in Forest Park. The game isn’t ever really over until the beer has been poured.
Soon enough, those kids, boys and girls, will be players themselves and they’ll get to be a part of the after-party, too. They might even play on the same team their dads once played. They might even end up in the Hall of Fame like McCurry. Mushball is a generational thing. It’s a Chicago and family thing. It’s special. “Softball is a way of life,” Vournazo says.
Back in the Hall of Fame, its president, Ron Kubicki, shows off a few of his favorite items. One is a photograph of a young player in his uniform lounging in the outfield with his toddler son. Judging by the film quality and the player’s hairstyle, the photo is at least forty years old.
“This is my favorite picture,” Kubicki said. “This is what softball is all about. Play a hundred seventy games a year, your family had to be with you.”