'Chicago's game': 16-inch softball, created on Near South Side, celebrates 135th anniversary

ByJohn Owens Localish logo
Tuesday, November 8, 2022
'Chicago's game': 16-inch softball celebrates 135th anniversary
For generations, Chicagoans have played 16-inch softball, a game that is played bare-handed, without gloves. Now, this unique Chicago game is celebrating its 135th anniversary.16-inch softball was created on Chicago's Near South Side and has a hall of fame in Forest Park. It is now celebrating its 135th anniversary.

CHICAGO -- Its one of Chicago's most unique sports, with a history that goes back to the late 19th century.

The game is 16-inch softball and it has been a staple of Chicago's outdoor sports season for generations. Thousands of Chicagoans are familiar with this brawny cousin to baseball and 12-inch softball, played in parks and playgrounds throughout the Chicagoland area and celebrated as a Windy City tradition in movies like "About Last Night".

"The greatest thrill of my life was playing for my fathers (16-inch softball) team," recalled Mike Royko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune during a 1982 interview with filmmaker Scott Jacobs. "I tell ya, the Pulitzer Prize doesn't even compare."

Like baseball and 12-inch softball, 16-inch softball is played within a baseball diamond with outfielders, infielders, a pitcher and a catcher.

But, as most Chicagoans know, unlike baseball and 12-inch softball, 16-inch softball is played without gloves. The catcher, the pitcher and everyone else on defense fields plays bare-handed.

"Its great because anybody can play it," said Paul Rowan, the president of the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame. "All you need is a bat and a ball."

This month, Chicago's quintessential game is celebrating its 135th anniversary, ironically on a day which is associated with football. Back on Thanksgiving Day in 1887 Nov. 24 was that years date for the holiday a group of students from Harvard and Yale created the game at the Farragut Boat Club on the Near South Side in Chicago.

The students, who were visiting Chicago, were waiting at the South Side athletic club for ticker tape results of the annual Harvard-Yale football game.

"They were standing outside and heard Yale beat Harvard," Rowan said. "A Yale alumni got excited and threw a boxing glove at a nearby Harvard supporter. A reporter named George Hancock saw this and encouraged the students to tape the boxing glove in the shape of a ball, and then play ball with it. The game grew from there"

By the 1930s, the game had become an institution in Chicago, where it was played on sandlots, on brick-paved streets, on gravel playgrounds and in the city's parks.

"Back in the day, every neighborhood had a team, along with guys from different factories and manufacturing plants," Rowan recalled.

Various softball leagues were organized during the 1930s and '40s, and the game became a popular spectator sport for fans. The owner of the NFLs Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinal, Charlie Bidwell, actually built a self-named stadium on the South Side solely for organized softball tournaments. And a 1948 "World Series" of 16- inch softball actually drew 15,000 fans to Old Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox.

Bill "Cav" Cavanaugh, a 73-year-old Chicagoan who still pitches and manages for various 16-inch softball league teams in the area, started playing the game over 60 years ago when he was growing up in the West Englewood neighborhood, a community which was then predominantly German, Irish and Italian.

"I started playing with neighborhood kids in the alleys at 71st Street and Racine Avenue in Chicago and from there we progressed to the streets with sewer covers as our bases," Cavanaugh remembered. "And then we moved to the parks"

Cavanaugh would eventually play for a team sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, one of the dozens of 16-inch teams with ties to corporations.

There were also dozens of entertaining semi-profession teams representing neighborhoods and organizations. Old-timers still remember the legendary neighborhood softball teams, like the Bobcats, the perennial city 16-inch softball champs in the 1960s. And there were also famous African-American teams, like the Brown Bombers and the Dodgers.

Celebrities, sports stars and those in the media also played the game. Actors like Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna played it. So did politicians like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Mobster "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn sponsored a 16-inch team. And legendary Harlem Globetrotter Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, one of the NBA's first Black players, also played semi-pro softball for the equally legendary Brown Bombers.

And in the media, Mike Royko sponsored teams for all of his newspapers the Daily News, the Sun-Times and the Tribune.

"In time, it seems like everyone who's spent time in Chicago played the game," Rowan said. "(Chicago Bears founder) George Halas, (MLB great) Moose Skowron, even Michael Jordan played the game. Despite its looks, you have to be somewhat athletic to play the game."

While not as popular as it was during the 20th Century, it's still a staple in Chicago and its suburbs from April through November. "This year, we've seen 70 to 80 tournaments and the co-ed game has grown quite a bit," Rowan said. I think were back on the uptick."

Of course, playing without gloves can be hazardous.

"Guys who play the game, the first thing they'll do is, they'll show you their hands," Rowan said. "Everybody's got a one-up story: 'Hey, I broke this finger here, or I messed up my knee, here. I personally tore my ACL and MCL in a game in 1987."

"You're bound to jam a finger, break a finger, dislocate a finger," said Cavanaugh said. "It's just a part of the game."

Despite these almost inevitable injuries, the folks who play 16-inch softball wouldn't have the game any other way.

"Playing with gloves are OK, but bare-handed is the way to go, 'cause you have to be more athletic, and there's a lot more thinking involved with how to field without a mitt," Cavanaugh added.

In addition to the bare-handed nature of the game, 16-inch softball has other unique quirks. There are 10 players on the field, instead of the nine players that are featured in baseball and 12-inch softball. The tenth player is the short centerfielder.

And there's also an 11th player, a designated hitter.

"The 16-inch softball leagues in Chicago added the 11th man sometime in the early 1980s," Rowan said. "But if you bat 11, the rule is that you have to play the entire game with 11."

Unique ball-to-bat skills are necessary to succeed in 16-inch softball.

"In 12-inch you have to have a faster swing, but in 16-inch softball if you know how to place the ball, you can adjust your swing and hit it wherever you want," McElligott said.

Pitching, meanwhile, has its own unique qualities. Moves that would be most certainly be considered as balks in baseball are just savvy pitching techniques in the 16-inch game.

"We can do hesitation moves, step off the mound, pitch from either side of the plate," Cavanaugh said. "It's all about trying to throw the batter off and getting him to think too much out there."

Ultimately, playing 16-inch softball is all about hanging out and having a good time.

"You play in the parking lot with a keg on the side, and the team that wins buys the keg," Rowan said. "The friends you make in the game is what makes it special."

Despite its generation appeal in Chicago, 16-inch softball has had limited appeal elsewhere. Small groups of teams and players have cropped up in outposts like Yuma, Arizona, in Las Vegas and even Los Angeles. And 16-inch tournaments have been played in states like Oregon, Utah and Washington.

But the game is still an oddity to those outside Chicagoland.

"I've played on traveling 12-inch softball teams and we'd always bring a 16-inch ball with us," says Joanie McElligott, a longtime 16-inch softball player and manager. "People were fascinated by it. We'd show them how to play it, and they'd play with their mitts. We'd tell them take the mitts off! But people outside the area just don't get that."

Chicago does get the game, however. There have been so many star players and teams that the softball community had to create a Hall of Fame and museum.

This Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame was created in 1995, and its companion museum opened in near west suburban Forest Park in 2014.

The museum, open only Saturdays, has thousands of artifacts from the game throughout the year, from handbills promoting major tournaments in the past to wings celebrating the hundreds of different teams, players and celebrities who played 16-inch softball.

"We have special areas for the great women players, the African-American leagues, the industrial league and a special one for the village of Forest Park, which holds the 'No-Glove National 16-Inch Softball Tournament every July," Rowan said.

The Hall of Fame has inducted more than 700 players and teams since 1995. The 2022 class was just celebrated this past weekend with a dinner and ceremony Drury Lane Theatre in west suburban Oakbrook Terrace. Fifteen players and six teams were part of that new group of inductees.

Joanie McElligott is one of those inductees. She started playing the game over 40 years ago, when she was only 14. And while she also excelled in the 12-inch game, McElligott says that there's nothing like 16-inch softball.

"It's an incredible game. Boys and girls can play it. You're not winning any money, you're not winning any gold medals. This is all for the fun of the game and the sport and to be active."

"It's a really unique game to our area," she said.