Shutting down Grant Park softball may be Rahm’s political mistake
Loop North News

The Home Front

(Above) Softball fields in Lower Hutchinson Field at Grant Park. Image obtained from Chicago Park District.

16-inch Chicago-style softball leagues that have competed for decades in Grant Park have been banished for the 2017 season. Considering that tens of thousands of Chicagoans play softball, closing some of the city’s biggest leagues is a shocker.

3-Apr-17 – After the Lollapalooza concert and the Chicago Cubs World Series victory party left Grant Park a muddy mess, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Lower Hutchinson Field a disaster area.

As a result, the venerable 16-inch Chicago-style softball leagues that have competed for decades in Grant Park have been banished for the 2017 season. Some of Grant Park’s games are being squeezed into the four Upper Hutchinson diamonds at Columbus Drive & Balbo Avenue, and others will be scheduled as doubleheaders at other city parks scattered along the lakefront at Waveland and other fields which already have a full schedule of games.

This blaspheme of Chicago’s Game – 16-inch slow pitch softball – apparently happened because the Chicago Park District is broke and cannot in a timely manner fund the repair of the swamp-like Lower Hutchinson Field, fondly known as “The Valley.”

Softball players also are asking what happened to the $155 million that Lollapalooza organizers paid to the park district. The Cubs paid for some repairs at Grant Park but November was too late in the season for new grass to be planted.

For 16-inch softball lovers in Chicago, the shutdown of Grant Park softball could be compared with closing the Washington, D.C. Mall – that amazing open, pond-filled and forever green public space between the Washington Monument and the statue of Abe Lincoln in the nation’s capital – and transforming it into a drag-racing venue for one of President Donald Trump’s post-election rallies.

16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame When you consider that tens of thousands of Chicagoans play softball, closing Grant Park – and some of the city’s biggest leagues for classic 16-inch Chicago-style softball for the 2017 season – is a shocker.

The move comes on the heels of removing the historic Lake Shore Park Saloon Softball League at Chicago & Michigan Avenues in Streeterville. Political analysts say these decisions could be considered a classic faux pas that could lead to Mayor Emanuel losing his next election.

While the popularity of the game may have slipped a bit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the sport of 16-inch softball experienced resurgence in 1999, when Chicago Public Schools adopted the game as a high school sport.

Today, there are an estimated 200,000 people playing the game nearly every day on about 10,000 Chicago-area teams, ranging from Sunday pickup games and coed leagues to public high school and church league teams, to “B” saloon leagues and the A softball leagues at Hamlin Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side, to the nearly professional Mount Prospect and Forest Park AA leagues in the suburbs.

Install new drainage, redesign for modern use

With Grant Park’s fields left fallow in 2017, a politically correct alternative would be to take this opportunity to redesign Grant Park’s softball fields to measure up to some of the modern, well-planned facilities such as those now being utilized at Robert E. James Park in Evanston. Improvements could be paid for in part by Mayor Emanuel’s $26 million Save Chicago’s Treasures initiative, with money coming from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ grant funding and the Park District’s capital funds.

An informal poll of Chicago softball historians, experts, and players humbly makes the following design and construction suggestions…

Improve infrastructure. For decades, the Grant Park Valley has suffered from such poor rain water drainage that hundreds of games had to be moved from the mud-filled diamonds to the grass. Therefore, a new drainage system must be installed.

Redesign diamond. Instead of the archaic field layout at Grant Park, which lines eight diamonds around the perimeter of Lower Hutchinson Field, the Chicago Park District should draft plans for the popular “pinwheel” design, which creates clusters of four softball diamonds together. Infields would feature high tech drain tile and virtually waterproof sand-clay “kitty-litter” infield surface.

From an aerial view, the modern pinwheel design resembles a four-leaf clover with space for landscaped walkways in between. For Grant Park, there likely would be space for three of the pinwheel diamond clusters for a total of up to 12 softball fields at Grant Park.

(Right) A proposed softball training center of modern pinwheel design in Hartland Township, Michigan. Photo by Asselin McLane Architectural Group and Rhoads & Johnson. Photo by Asselin McLane Architectural Group and Rhoads & Johnson

Another benefit of the new design would be outfielder injury reduction because the left fielder from one diamond wouldn’t be playing back-to-back with the right fielder from another team on an adjoining field.

Build tournament facilities. For tournament softball, including the resurrection of the Mike Royko 16-inch Classic, fencing would be installed in the outfield and room for three beer vending stations at the center of each pinwheel. Thousands of spectators would bring folding chairs and view games from the grassy knolls around the edges of The Valley.

Make diamonds flexible. Each cluster of four diamonds would have removable, lightweight, and rust-proof aluminum backstops and players’ benches. The backstops and benches fit into pre-installed, in-ground collars and would be easily removable to provide open space for concerts and the next Cubs World Series celebration.

To save millions of dollars in annual landscape restoration fees and prevent future damage to The Valley celebration and event fields, the budget should include installation of AstroTurf instead of natural grass. During events, tarps should be provided and be anchored down to cover the infield surfaces.

Improve parking. Another design innovation should be the creation of vertical metered automobile parking for softball players and tournament spectators along both sides of Columbus Drive from Balbo Avenue to Roosevelt Road. Columbus is such a wide boulevard that if cars were parked front-end-first toward the curb, there would be space for hundreds of vehicles. At a meter fee of $5 an hour weeknights from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., plus day-long tournaments on weekends, cash would flow into city coffers.

Retrieve mothballed monument. A crowning touch to the redesign and restoration of Grant Park would be installation and rededication of the stone and brass Farragut Boathouse Monument that commemorates the birth of the game of softball in Chicago. Several years ago, the monument was placed “in fine art storage with the City of Chicago’s Public Art Program,” according to the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Photo by 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame (Left) Photo by 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame, taken about 20 years ago, of the stone and brass Farragut Boathouse Monument, which commemorates the birth of softball in Chicago in 1887. It was originally placed at 31st Street and Lake Park Avenue but currently is in storage with the city.

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Chicago’s game for 129 year

Historians say the Chicago game of softball was born as an indoor sport in 1887 at the Farragut Boat Club at 31st Street & Lake Park Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. About 20 club members were gathered in the gymnasium of the clubhouse on Thanksgiving Day to follow via telegram the progress of the annual Harvard-Yale football game.

(Right) The first softball team in action in Grant Park, circa 1897. Photo by X.O. Howe. (Click on image to view larger version.) Library of Congress

One of the young members picked up a stray boxing glove and tossed it to another member who batted the glove back. George Hancock, an inspired spectator, drew a baseball diamond on the gym floor, tied up the laces around the boxing glove to form a sphere, and the players swatted it with a broomstick.

He 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 other clubs.

Royko’s game in 1975

In the 1970s, the game of softball was reviving and Grant Park was dubbed “the hub of Midwest softball” with 31 Industrial Men’s Leagues fielding 352 teams and 38 Powder Puff teams in five industrial women’s leagues playing on 20 diamonds.

Famed newspaper columnist Mike Royko arrived at Grant Park after pitching and managing the Chicago Daily News team to Media League Championships in 1973 and 1974. The Daily News moved up to the tough Grant Park Industrial League to take on some AA-ringer-loaded squads from Commonwealth Edison, Continental Bank, Hilton Hotels, IBM, Illinois Bell, Peoples Gas, and the Chicago Police Department’s 1st District.

Photo by Tom Bonen By 1975, the Daily News’ second season in Grant Park, a sly Royko had learned how to build a winner. Since most of the great teams in Grant Park were loaded with ringers – players who did not work for the companies for which they played – to balance his squad, Mike decided to add a few “AA leg men” to the staff, complete with photo ID cards and paycheck stubs.

(Left) Softball legend and famed columnist Mike Royko donned the jersey of the 16-inch softball world champion Strikers when pitching for the team in the 1970s. Photo by Tom Bonen.

The Daily News team posted an 18-1 record in 1975 but lost 13-12 in the Tournament of Champions finals to Environmental Control, another great team loaded with city workers and several Italian ringers from Taylor Street.

In the spring of 1977, Royko learned that Grant Park softball director Buddy Haines was about to allow the use of gloves in league play. Royko, a saloon player and a traditionalist who grew up on the roster of his father’s Blue Sky Lounge team, saw gloves as a threat and a menace to traditional Chicago-style softball.

He filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court that argued it was against the traditions of the Windy City game to allow gloves. The judge, an elderly Jewish man who grew up on the West Side playing softball, ruled in Royko’s favor. “Gloves in a 16-inch softball game – that’s not Chicago-style,” the judge said.

South Sider Mory Ephraim, player-manager of Peoples Gas, one of Grant Park’s leading teams, said: “Mike Royko’s right. Only sissies wear gloves in 16-inch softball. Gloves ruin the game.”

A restored downtown Chicago softball mecca should be renamed Mike Royko Field.

• Contact Don DeBat at debatnet@aol.com

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