HUMBOLDT PARK — The Park District’s 16-inch softball championship officially returned Saturday after a decade away with a screaming line drive that nearly knocked food out of the hand of Luis Salgado, who was waiting to bat.
The foul ball, crushed on the first pitch of the championship, banged off Salgado’s shoulder. But he didn’t miss a beat, taking another bite out of his alcapurria as the teams and the crowd watching at Humboldt Park let out a laugh.
One of Chicago’s most beloved traditions was back after all — with its food, drinks, bruises, laughs and one very large softball that confuses people outside the Midwest.
After 10 years away, the Park District revived its citywide tournament this year. It’s part of an effort to reinvigorate one of Chicago’s most traditional games.
Interest in 16-inch softball — once a mainstay of local parks — waned in recent years, leading to the city shutting down the co-ed league. District officials brought it back in June for a double-elimination bracket this month.
Tournaments once drew more than 30 teams to Grant Park. Five played this year, leading to a Northwest Side versus Southwest Side championship game: Phunky Buddhas, a veteran team from Hiawatha Park, captured a 7-3 victory over up-and-comers Yank Deez from the Midway area.
“I cannot think of anything in Chicago more historical than the Daley family and 16-inch softball,” said George Bliss, curator of the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame, broadcaster and consultant-at-large for the tournament. “It takes defense. It takes grit. If you get smashed in the face, you get smashed in the face. You take it.”
The atmosphere was lively, serious and not-so-serious — the top question throughout the day remained a friendly offer of, “Do you want a drink?” Above all, it was a reminder of a distinctly Chicago way to spend a summer afternoon.
Jamie Teichmann, lead event organizer and a lifelong 16-inch player, watched Yank Deez captain Joel Cordova get drenched in dirt in the semi-final, sliding into home plate for the run that sent his crew to the championship.
“Man, if everyone could just see what is in front of us right now,” Teichmann said. “The teams, the camaraderie, posting up for an entire day, the sliding, the hits, everything. It’s just an atmosphere. It’s just such a fun community to be a part of.”
‘No Gloves, Baby!’
The game was invented at the Farragut Boat Club near the 31st Street Beach in 1887 with a broomstick and the stuffing of a boxing glove, Bliss said. By the 1920s, the no-glove game took over Chicago parks. The first No Glove Nationals was in 1967, Bliss said.
Chicago still has a robust network of 16-inch tournaments. But Phunky Buddhas first baseman Patrick Alyward, who has played for more than 30 years, said it’s harder these days to preserve this local pastime.
“This game will disappear if we don’t keep the young people playing,” Alyward said. “Our generation lived in the parks. Now, the new generation doesn’t live in the parks. We learned how to play this game from our parents, our older brothers and sisters, too. We got to bring the game back.”
In citywide coed play, four women must take the field at all times and bat alternative spots in the lineup. Women are also allowed to wear a glove.
Becky Annunzio, Phunky Buddhas captain and a physical education teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, has played 16-inch around Chicago since she was a teenager. The game is a way to connect to her roots. The team name is inspired by her late friend Beth Wernick, a former teammate nicknamed “Buddha.”
“We keep her spirit alive with the team name,” Annunzio said. “She was a Chicago girl.”
Nicki Zapotoczny, a former high school softball standout, was introduced to 16-inch as an adult. Cordova “scouted” Zapotoczny for Yank Deez during a pickup game in Archer Park.
“I think there’s a different energy that comes with a coed team. The guys get very into it, the girls obviously get into it, as well,” Zapotoczny said. “All us South Siders, we take baseball and softball very seriously.”
Bliss called the action for the championship game with a portable microphone, plenty of gusto and the help of his cameraman, Will Dier.
Donning black suspenders inspired by a Clark Gable movie, Bliss carries the spirit of a foregone era and the tech-savviness of a millennial. For his day job, Bliss spent four decades in Silicon Valley, at the forefront of the internet and social media revolutions.
Through Facebook Live, Bliss hopes to capture a modern audience for an old-school game. One recent national event attracted more than 70,000 viewers.
“But we call this rec ball,” Bliss said. “People are not good, but they’re not bad. They don’t play it everyday like the crazy people. But these guys here are having fun, right?”
Alyward, a 47-year-old power-slugger, clobbered the ball and pushed the Phunky Buddhas to an early lead with a two-run triple in his first at-bat. Then a cool breeze knocked over Yank Deez’s tent, crushing a few alcapurrias. With the sideline in disarray, Alyward’s pinch runner scored to put Phunky Buddhas up 3-0.
Brandon “Lil B” Alvarado, a Yank Deez outfielder, smashed a two-run homer to close the gap, 3-2. Then catcher Zapotoczny hit a hard grounder to tie it 3-3.
By the middle of the game, the bats slowed down but the drinks and fun kept flowing. With two innings left, it was time to get serious.
Phunky Buddhas’ Nick Bojko, part of the veteran team’s “young blood,” caught a barehanded liner at third and fired a throw to Alyward for an inning-ending double play.
“No gloves, baby! Grab the ball, catch it, throw it, you’re out,” Bliss said. “That’s why we love it.”
With two runners on base, Alyward leaned into a moonshot — a towering home run — to put his team up 6-3.
“Highway to Hell” blasted on the loudspeaker as Phunky Buddhas tacked on an extra run and cruised to victory, making the Northwest Side team the first city champions in a decade.
Cordova and his Southwest Side teammates didn’t seem too bothered by it. They all autographed a 16-inch softball and made plans to grab drinks.
“This is what we all do now. Have a good time,” Cordova said. “Everyone knows the game, everyone knows the rules. It’s the best thing to do, especially when you’re not doing nothing.”
Photos from Saturday’s championship game:
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