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 soft-ball 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.