Following the NASCAR debacle, now is the time to repair the damaged legacy of Grant Park as Chicago’s 16-inch softball birthplace, in 1887, and sports mecca since 1933.
19-Apr-23 – If the revered Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Mike Royko were alive, he would be like General George S. Patton, fighting the Battle for Grant Park on behalf of the Windy City’s 100,000 softball players and their families.
So, why not begin work now on upgrading and transforming the park’s historic softball diamonds under a new name, “Mike Royko Fields,” in honor of Royko, a 16-inch softball advocate and promoter, and legendary Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times manager and pitcher.
Two years after his passing in 1998, Royko was inducted into the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame (HOF), and the Mike Royko Memorial Softball Tournament was launched and successfully run for a decade in Grant Park.
Royko announced the historic games along with TV sports anchor/HOF player Tim Weigel and Channel 11 broadcaster Marty Robinson. The 16-inch tournament attracted more than 25,000 fans to a championship diamond built at the north end of Soldier Field. Thousands more watched the games on TV.
In the mid-1970s, Royko defended the historic game of bare-handed softball when he filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Park District to prevent the blasphemy of allowing the use of fielders gloves in 16-inch games at Grant Park.
Crafty Royko won the lawsuit with the help of testimony from Bernie Neistein, an old West Side ward boss and former 16-inch player, who told the judge: “Gloves? The only time anybody on our team ever wore any kind of gloves was when they didn’t want to leave fingerprints.”
During a recent seance with his medium and alter-ego Slats Grobnik, Royko wholeheartedly approved this writer’s suggested plan for Mike Royko Field.
Here are details of the plan, supported by the HOF, veteran players, and the media, and presented last week in a letter to 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, who holds legislative prerogative over Grant Park:
• The proposed Grant Park diamond-naming designation, with appropriate park signage, should be accompanied by a Chicago City Council proclamation recognizing Mike Royko’s softball and journalistic contributions.
• Columbus Drive, between Balbo Drive and Roosevelt Road (above), should be commemorated as “Mike Royko Way” with appropriate street signage.
• An existing statue, commemorating the birth of softball in Chicago in 1887 at the Farragut Boat Club, at Lake Park Avenue & 31st Street, a couple of miles south of Grant Park, should be taken out of mothball storage at the Chicago Monuments Project warehouse and rededicated at the north end of Grant Park, overlooking the 12-diamond “Valley.”
• The metered parking that was removed after 9/11 should be reinstated along both sides of Columbus Drive (aka Mike Royko Way) between Balbo Drive and Roosevelt Road. Because of the great width of Columbus Drive, parking spaces should be created “nose-in” to double the number of possible spaces and increase revenue.
• All money collected from Columbus Drive parking should not go into the city’s controversial and notorious general parking meter fund. Instead, a special “Grant Park Taxing District” should be created so that the parking money that is generated will be earmarked and targeted to a special fund to support improvements and maintenance of Grant Park’s softball fields and the surrounding landscape.
• For the future, the city should install electric vehicle charging stations on Columbus Drive. Any revenue derived from the charging stations also should be earmarked for the Grant Park Taxing District.
Grant Park redesign should include popular ‘pinwheel’ diamonds
To enhance “Chicago’s Game” and create a world-class tourist and festival attraction, a later Grant Park diamond redesign plan should be launched, funded in part by accrued parking meter money and reallocated funds from NASCAR and the proposed DuSable Outer Drive rebuild.
This safety design avoids the problem of players colliding into each other while chasing the ball in the overlapping outfield, which often happens with Grant Park’s current outmoded 90-year-old layout.
The 12 Valley diamonds could be reconfigured with low-maintenance, waterproof AstroTurf infields into three pinwheel setups with a refreshment center and temporary toilet facilities at each hub.
AstroTurf infields, like the softball field at the University of Illinois at Chicago, may require special drainage, but there would be fewer rainouts, and softball leagues could start April 1 instead of May 1 in Grant Park, thus avoiding conflicts with festival events planned in late July and August.
The four diamonds at the Upper Hutchinson section of Mike Royko Field should receive the same pinwheel design hub, with a refreshment center and temporary toilet facilities.
The beauty of the pinwheel design is it still can also be utilized for events – such as the Taste of Chicago food venues and small concert stages – when the softball season ends. Following the events, workers could just vacuum the AstroTurf infields. There would be no need for repeated installation of new sod.
This landmark would replace the once-historic Soldier Field, which was removed from the National Register of Historic Places after the stadium was rehabbed and remuddled into its present flying saucer design.