Though OPS plays 12-inch, we’re still proud to join the rich tradition of Chicago softball, a working class game with aristocratic origins. On Thanksgiving Day 1887, at the Farragut Boat Club, a group of Harvard and Yale graduates waiting on the results of their annual football game decided to wrap up an old boxing glove into a sphere and play a modified version of baseball inside the gymnasium. George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, made up the rules on the fly, and a broom served as their first bat. Gloves, of course, were not handy and thus not used. The sport was so addicting that the boys from Farragut started challenging other gyms to games, and in the spring, they took their “league” outside. Sixteen-inch softball was born.
Beginning during the Depression and stretching through the 1940s, softball was the Windy City's favorite pastime, with many neighborhoods fielding several competitive teams. It’s easy to see why a sport that can be played in tight urban spaces and doesn’t require expensive equipment flourished during tough times. Indeed, more than 20 Chicago-area 16-inch players, including Moose Skowron and Lou Bourdreau, eventually made it to major leagues. And Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, who later broke the NBA’s color barrier, was so skilled on the diamond that old-timers compare him to Negro League legend Josh Gibson. “We never played anything but softball,” remarked Augie March in the legendary 1953 novel that bears his name. Saul Bellow knew his city.
Thanks to white flight and the disruption of neighborhood relationships that followed, not to mention the advent of television and other entertainment options, softball participation has never hit the heights that it did 70 years ago. There was a strong revival in the late 1960s and 1970s, this time with teams made up of baby boomer coworkers hoping to relive their childhood triumphs. (Think of hipster kickball leagues, without as much irony and with a heavier dose of machismo.)** But by 1983, the Tribune noted that it was “generally thought that there are only two suburban leagues -- in Harvey and Mt. Prospect -- where devotees of 16-inch softball can be reasonably assured of seeing top-flight competition.” And having spent plenty of time in Harvey since 1984, I can report with some authority that such a league no longer exists.
Still, roughly 30,000 locals play recreationally every summer. And each January, old players gather at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero to honor a new class of inductees into the (virtual) 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame. It may not be Cooperstown, but it’s still a tradition worth celebrating.