Thursday, April 9, 2009

PLAY BALL!

Ah, Spring! In Chicago, Spring only means one thing – it’s time again to PLAY BALL! My hometown teams – the Cubs and the White Sox – started regular season play this week. The Sox delayed their home opener 24 hours due to snow, but that didn’t faze their fans. Given the extra time to celebrate, they welcomed the return of the Southside Hitmen at every neighborhood bar within driving distance of Cellular Field for two days instead of one. Cubs fans have to wait until April 13 for their team to play at home. That day the Northside crowd will turn out in droves to party in Wrigleyville.

Much as Chicagoans love baseball, it isn’t the only game in which citizens of this fair city shoulder a bat in hopes of whacking a round leather object out of the park. Way back in 1887, George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, tied the laces of a boxing glove together, handed a broomstick to his friends at the Farragut Boat Club, and challenged them to "Hit it if you can, boys!" That boxing glove evolved into a 16 inch ball, and the sport Hancock invented became known by names as varied as "Indoor-Outdoor", "Diamond Ball" and "Kitten Ball". Finally in 1926, YMCA official Walter Hakanson suggested the name "Softball" for the game, and the title stuck.


Softball is what this blog is all about. Softball, and the over 25 million people in the United States who play it, including the men in my family.


The pictures shown here of are my son Matt, a softball fanatic who plays the game year round. Unlike the baseball team mentioned above that cancelled its game due to an inch of snow, Matt and his teammates braved the ice and cold of a Chicago winter to play in this year’s Tinley Park Snowball Tournament. (That's Matt down on one knee catching a ball during warmups before one of the games.) The other photo above on the right shows Matt taking his cuts with the bat during another chilly softball game. That's a 12" ball he's aiming to hit, and it's yellow so it can be seen even during night games.


Most softball games today are played with a 12" ball, a mitt, and an aluminum rather than wooden bat. Chicago, though, is known for its 16" slow pitch softball played without a glove. People here took to the game because the 16" ball didn’t fly as far as its smaller counterpart. That made it the perfect size for school playgrounds, small neighborhood parks, and the empty lots Chicagoans called "prairies". Even when hit hard, the 16 incher seldom left the area in which you were playing.


The second thing that insured the popularity of the game was the fact that gloves weren’t needed to catch the ball. Oh, sure. Snagging a line drive off a player’s bat could sometimes leave you cradling a broken finger. But during the dark days of the Depression, when the sport really caught on in Chicago, a broken finger was a small price to pay compared to the cost of a glove.


The picture on the right shows my son John, another softball fanatic, with some of his teammates after they won the 2006 Illinois State 16" Softball Championship. The championship trophy is seen on the right, and John is holding the tournament MVP award given to him for his work as the team's pitcher. Like Matt, John lives and breathes softball. My oldest son Joe can hit a mean ball, too. He plays in family games, but he's too busy coaching soccer to join a softball team.

Whether it’s played with a 12" or a 16" ball, softball is as popular in Chicago today as it was in days gone by. My sons grew up playing it at the park with their Dad. Fred was the catcher for a local hospital softball team, and yes, he broke a finger during one game.

But that story will have to wait for another day. :)




7 comments:

  1. I've learned something new! A 16" softball? I used to play every day as a kid. In fact, my character in "Cynthia's Attic" play! "The Missing Locket" began with Cynthia and Gus discussing that afternoon's game. Cynthia didn't want to play for fear of "breaking a nail."

    Whoo-hoo for your sons! Sounds like they are great players!!

    Mary
    http://www.marycunninghambooks.com
    http://www.cynthiasattic.blogspot.com
    http://www.booklandheights.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. I used to play softball with my brothers when I was a kid. I loved batting and did pretty good, but hated catching.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. I used to play a lot of softball. I preferred 12 inch, but 16 had a few cool things. You could take a lead when you're on base and actually steal bases. I used to be fast, so I liked that.

    The downside to 16 is for the first few innings the ball is anything but soft, and you're playing without a glove. So for the first two innings of so, I'd be out in left field hoping they'd hit the ball somewhere else til the ball softened up a bit.

    In Michigan, we played in the snow and ran the bases with snowmobiles ... true story.

    Norm

    http://fangplace.blogspot.com

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  4. You ran the bases with snowmobiles, Norm?? Wow! I'll have to tell my sons about that!

    Glad to introduce you to something new, Mary. 16" slow pitch softball is a lot different than 12" softball. Like Norm, I prefered waiting to catch the ball until it had softened up some. A new 16 incher was HARD!

    Morgan, how about we get a softball game going here sometime this summer? Imagine getting a bunch of authors together to play ball! It would be fun!

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  5. Mary, Your family is a lot like mine. They'll all be here for dinner on Easter and afterwards, we'll all move to the front lawn for a game of whiffle-ball. Ages range from 3-68yrs young. What fun. What memories we are building for the youngsters who laugh as Gram runs around the bases and Gramps plays catcher. We'll worry about the aches and pains another day.

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