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Photo obtained from 16” Softball Hall of Fame.

In Grant Park not far from where softball was invented, more than 350 teams have competed in leagues organized by the Chicago Park District – each paying annual fees of $1,000 or more. But the season has been canceled this year by the City of Chicago, which needs the space for the upcoming NASCAR race and other events. Of course, some clubs pay more, and they will get to stay.

27-Feb-23 – NASCAR, the redneck racing sport, apparently has driven Chicago’s beloved game – 16-inch softball – out of Grant Park, the biggest slow-pitch venue in the Windy City.

Reportedly, dozens of teams that have played in the corporate, industrial, and saloon leagues at Grant Park for decades were tersely notified that their season had been canceled because of the upcoming NASCAR race, festivals, and other events taking place June 22 through July 5.

Ron Roenigk

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Park District killed 16-inch softball in the Windy City,” said Ron Roenigk (left), publisher of Inside Publications, and a player-manager who participated in the Media Softball League for decades. His Inside Dirt team played at Grant Park, Lincoln Park, and Waveland Park on Tuesdays and Thursday nights.

“There are so many profit-making ‘close-off-the-park-to-non-payer’ events in Grant Park now that taxpaying Chicagoans have basically lost their recreational front yard for the better part of the summer. It really is a scandal,” said Roenigk, whose 70-year-old Media League has shrunk to six teams in 2022 from 36 teams in 2019 – an astounding 83 percent loss in the historic Chicago sport in just three years.

The softball teams being booted out of Grant Park were not playing for free. The annual league fee was $1,000 or more per team.

“The Park District sold out its longtime steady customers for a hot new girl who would pay more,” Roenigk said. “Most Chicagoans don’t have any concept of how much public-park real estate the Park District has leased out to private companies involved in profit-making ventures.”

Roenigk also said that the for-profit Chicago Sport & Social Club “locks up diamond permits early in the season, and that just reduces the days and times available for traditional [Chicago Park District] softball leagues which are rapidly disappearing. I guess, money talks and if you pay enough money, you get preferential treatment from the CPD.”

Paul Rowan (right), president of the 16-inch Chicago Softball Hall of Fame, said: “I think what makes it more disappointing is they’re pushing it aside for the NASCAR event, which is not part of Chicago, where this game is known as Chicago’s Game.”

Paul Rowan

“Grant Park’s historic softball fields should be nominated for landmark status,” noted softball umpire Larry Comstock, whose team, Smoke, was inducted in 2011 as a historic team in the Hall of Fame.

“After all, the very game of softball was invented here in Chicago in 1897, and the first indoor game was played at the Farragut Boat Club at Lake Park Avenue and 31st Street, only a couple of miles from Grant Park,” said Comstock, who also played on the historic Chicago Sun-Times Hall of Fame team, inducted in 2008.

Photo by X.O. Howe

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

This writer was inducted into the softball Hall of Fame in 1999, played hundreds of games at Grant Park and won more than 30 championships in the Industrial League for the Chicago Daily News and the Sun-Times from 1975 through 1995, and is thoroughly shocked that “Chicago’s Game” was driven out and our parks were sold for cash.

“With the Michigan Avenue high-rise cityscape to the west and Lake Michigan to the east, playing softball at Grant Park – Chicago’s beautiful “front yard” – always was an awesome experience,” said Robert Egan, a Chicago Sun-Times player and manager whose team was a five-time champion at the park in the elite Mike Royko Softball Tournament in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

“Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who brought NASCAR to Chicago, is not a native Chicagoan. She is from Ohio,” noted Egan, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008 along with 120 other Sun-Times and Daily News players as teammates on that historic team. “Lightfoot doesn’t understand the history of our game. She is rewriting history and spitting on the grave of famed columnist Mike Royko, a great promoter of the game.”

16-inch softball passing into Chicago history

Over the past decade, traditional men’s and women’s 16-inch softball leagues have been shut down in far too many city parks to mention.

Memorable Lake Shore Park on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, where elite competition was played in the shadows of high-rises, and teams partied on Rush Street after games, now is a faded memory.

The once-elite 16-inch softball league at Clarendon Park, where the legendary water-injected “juiced ball” was invented in the 1960s by park director George Morris to hold scores down, now caters to 12-inch glove leagues in a “social setting.”

Downtown softball at Grant Park, where more than 350 teams once competed in leagues organized by the Chicago Park District, took a turn for the worse after the tragedy of 9/11.

Metered parking along Columbus Drive near the fields was removed for security reasons. Players were forced to park five blocks away and walk to the fields, or take a cab. Chicago Fest and annual music festivals trashed the valley between Columbus Drive and the Outer Drive (also known as Lake Shore Drive). Now, NASCAR sponsors are revving their engines to burn out the downtown game forever.

Google Maps

Another enemy of the historic blue-collar game of 16-inch slow-pitch softball is Chicago Sport & Social Club. CSSC bills itself as “a leader in the social-sports industry.”

The organization’s website says CSSC is “the largest organizer of adult sports leagues, social events, and tournaments nationwide with more than 100,000 annual participants across 20 sports, including softball, flag football, kickball, beach volley ball, pickleball, and cornhole, to name a few.

The Chicago Park District collects their cut of the fees and provides diamonds. The CSSC organizes, administers, and profits heavily from men’s and co-ed recreational and competitive softball leagues.

The CSSC plays seven days a week in more than a dozen city parks, including Brands, Clarendon, Eckhart, Hamlin, Lincoln Park South, Oz/Jonquil, Revere, Seward, Sheridan, Stanton, Union, Waveland, Wrightwood, and the University of Illinois/Chicago Turf Recreation field.

For the 2023 season of seven games, each team pays an entry fee of $1,235. The fee includes team jerseys, an online schedule and standings, a certified umpire, and championship shirts for the winning team. Other perks and giveaways are handed out after the games in sponsor bars. Another bonus – a free Athletico Injury Assessment.

“Chicago’s game once was played in every park and gravel school yard across the city,” Egan recalled. “At the neighborhood level, serious and skilled blue-collar saloon teams flocked to corner taverns after the game for camaraderie – the life blood of softball.”

A tavern sponsor like Chicago Joe’s, a saloon at Irving Park Road & Western Avenue, typically paid a sponsorship fee of about $600 per league to bring in the players for shots and beer, according to Egan.

“Softball was good for neighborhood businesses, pumping tens of thousands of tax dollars into the city,” said Egan. “Now, virtually all of the very competitive neighborhood leagues are dead and the bars are closing. It’s a very sad turn of events.”

Perhaps most symbolic in all this, over two days beginning on February 21, Chicago Joe’s was demolished to make way for 39 rental apartments.

Today, the elite 16-inch softball teams play in the suburbs at Forest Park and Westchester. This writer wishes them well. Keep cutting and pounding that Clincher.

Photo provided by Don DeBat

(Left) Chicago Daily News softball team in 1974. Don DeBat in back, third from left, next to Mike Royko and his moustache. (Click on image to view larger version.)

For a good read on the history of softball in Chicago, buy a copy of The Greatest Game on Dirt by Al Maag. And, visit the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame website at 16inchsoftballhof.com.