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Chicago's Pastime: City's passion for 16-inch softball alive and well

By Shannon Shreibak
On April 14, 2012

While some are barbecuing and basking in the golden Chicago sunlight, others are diving after softballs in dusty gravel infields. But 16-inch softball is much more than a recreational sport-it's a Chicago staple steeped in tradition. With deep roots in the city and a growing popularity, 16-inch softball has developed its own cult following and is showing no signs of waning.

According to the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame, the sport began in Chicago on Thanksgiving 1887 when Yale and Harvard alumni fashioned mitts from boxing gloves and bats from broomsticks. A larger ball was used so it could be contained in the small schoolyards and public parks. From that ingenuity, 16-inch softball was born.

After perfecting the indoor logistics of the game, softball was moved outside, creating the format of 16-inch softball for which Chicago is now famous.

"Sixteen-inch was a huge past time that everyone in Chicago seemed to be playing. It brought everyone together in a place where we didn't have to discuss work or politics or what was worrying us at the time. We could just have fun playing the game," said Rick Curtis, a longtime Chicago resident.

Chicago 16-inch softball quickly rose to prominence and soon became a city staple. 16-inch softball, better known as "Chicago Softball," has some slight nuances. First, the size of the ball. At 16 inches, a true Chicago softball is too large for any mitts, so the sport is played barehanded.

Another difference is the strike zone-which consists of any pitch that crosses home plate between the batter's shoulders and knees. Also, the batter only gets two swings at bat; if they can't put it in play after that, they're out. If the pitcher throws three balls, it's a walk. Runners are not allowed to steal bases.

Many health clubs and sports clubs, including Chicago Sport and Social Club, host their own men's and coed 16-inch softball leagues. Many teams like the Dead Ringers keep the tradition alive and well. Gabriel Adler, who runs some of the most popular 16-inch softball websites in the nation, including 16inchsoftballchicago.com and ssasoftball.com, explains the development and current state of the sport today.

For Adler, 16-inch softball wasn't a lifelong passion, but something he fell into during college. Yet with what Adler lacked in experience, he compensated for with passion.

"I immediately fell in love with a few nuances of the game.  

I love the brotherhood or camaraderie, if you will. I loved that young or old could play the game. That was really appealing to me as I was younger and could already envision myself playing this game for years and years," Adler said.

After playing 12-inch softball for half a dozen years, Adler chose to dedicate his recreational athletic career to promoting the lesser-known sect of 16-inch softball.

"I think I swayed more towards 16-inch because I saw an opportunity to take a game I loved and grow it nationally. Twelve-inch has a lot of recognition throughout the U.S. where 16-inch is still pretty local to Chicago. I wanted to change that, and that is why I shifted my focus," said Adler.

Starting with word-of-mouth promotion, Adler eventually utilized the Internet to promote the sport. By using technology to market a sport he was so passionate about, Adler was able to reach a wider and younger audience, ushering in a new, passionate league of players. Some 16-inch softball leagues near DePaul can be found at Union Park, North Avenue Fields and Pulaski Park. No matter where you are, a tense battle of the bats won't be hard to find.

And what kind of future does Adler expect from his passion and hobby? Certainly a very bright one.

"With the creation of the SSA (Slow-Pitch Softball Association), I think 16-inch softball has its best chance in years to start to grow nationally. The SSA is made up of longtime players, coaches and enthusiasts that want to do what is right for softball as a whole. I think the future is very bright for 16-inch softball," said Adler.

So whether you're a lifelong athlete looking to get out of the gym or a novice searching for a new hobby, 16-inch softball is a great option. With rising popularity and a team-building atmosphere, you'll leave the field with more than a few scrapes and at-bats-maybe a lasting friendship, perhaps a newfound love for the game.


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