Rescuing An Endangered Species The 16-inch game was dying until Chicago organized a high school league

October 17, 1999

It's a sunny fall afternoon at Winnemac Park in Chicago, and
Juan Vazquez, bat in hand, is looking to do some damage.
Fortunately for the owners of autos parked along nearby Argyle
Street, the 17-year-old Kelvyn Park High senior is confining his
swings to the softball diamond. "I know kids who are hanging out
right now, vandalizing cars," he says before stepping up to the
plate. "But I didn't want to roll with that crowd anymore."

Hoping to save a dying Windy City institution (and give more
kids like Vazquez an opportunity to participate in high school
sports), the school system has made boys' 16-inch slo-pitch
softball a fall varsity sport. Each Tuesday at Winnemac and
three other municipal parks, 24 high school teams play softball
Chicago-style--with a distinctive melon-sized ball and no
gloves. In late October the top four teams in each of the four
conferences will meet in a single-elimination playoff series,
and the finalists will square off in a title game at the
University of Illinois-Chicago for the first city championship.
"It's a super idea," says Lane Tech coach Tom Horn. "It keeps
kids off the street, it's inexpensive, and it might help save a
sport that's unique to Chicago."

The guy who pitched the idea of using kids to help save softball
was Chicago sports radio talk-show host and longtime softball
pitcher Mike North. Concerned that the once popular 16-inch
game--as unique to the city as deep-dish pizza--was losing too
many young players to the 12-inch version that is played
everywhere else in the U.S., North went to Paul Vallas, CEO of
Chicago Public Schools, and suggested that schools offer the
sport. "At first I was just looking for a way to get more young
people playing the game," North says. "But [Vallas] saw it as an
opportunity to get more kids involved in sports. Not every kid
is big enough to play football or basketball. But everybody can
play softball."

Take Vazquez, who stands about 5'8" and 160 pounds in his
black-and-gold Kelvyn Park uniform. He had never participated in
school sports before he signed up for softball. Just weeks after
learning some of the sport's nuances--how to catch the ball
barehanded without breaking his fingers, for example--he has
become one of his team's stars. In his fourth game Vazquez, a
catcher, drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single; then, in
a later inning, he saved a run from scoring against his team
when he noticed a runner tag up early from second base and
appealed to the ump. As he came off the field, teammates greeted
him with cheers and high fives.

Softball was invented in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, 1887, by a
group of Yale and Harvard alums who were sitting around the
Farragut Boat House waiting for ticker-tape reports of their
schools' annual football game. As the story is told, the alums
tied a boxing glove into a ball and started hitting it with a
broomstick. One of the men, George Hancock, a reporter for the
Chicago Board of Trade, wrote up a set of rules, and softball
was born.

At first the game was played primarily indoors, but it soon
moved outside, where, with a smaller ball, it caught on in
cities across the U.S. In Chicago, players continued to use the
16-inch ball, a better fit for the city's many small
neighborhood parks, since it didn't travel as far as the 12-inch
ball when hit. By the 1930s softball rivaled baseball and horse
racing in popularity in the Windy City. Crowds at games often
numbered in the thousands. "Some games would outdraw the Cubs
and the White Sox," says Al Maag, 50, a Chicago native who is an
expert on the history of the sport.

The advent of TV, more sports alternatives and a demographic
shift to the more spacious suburbs cut into 16-inch softball's
popularity. Today the game is played in only a handful of city
leagues. For that reason, many in the softball community cheered
when they heard the Chicago public school system was making
softball a varsity sport.

Dr. J.W. Smith, executive director of sports administration for
Chicago Public Schools, estimates that it cost the city less
than $20,000 for the uniforms, bats and balls needed to start
the program. "For the most part this is an untapped group of
kids who aren't doing anything else," Smith says.

Vazquez agrees wholeheartedly. "It's a lot of fun," he says,
grabbing a bat and tapping the dirt off his cleats. "I've picked
it up fast, and now I really like it."

For 16-inch softball lovers--not to mention car owners all over
Chicago--sweeter words have never been spoken.


By the 1930s the game was so popular in the Windy City, it
rivaled baseball and horse racing.