Constable: Can 16-inch softball compete against cricket?
Naperville has more cricket squads than it does teams playing that old pastime of 16-inch softball.
With only three of the four teams returning from last year's 16-inch softball season, Brock Atwell, program manager for the Naperville Park District, says Saturday's signup deadline will be extended into April in the hope of finding at least one more team to keep alive the tradition of the game that started in Chicago.
"It's just a dying sport," Atwell says of the game played with no mitts and a ball nearly twice as big around as a baseball. "Twenty years ago, 16-inch was where it was at."
The game was invented on Thanksgiving 1887 in Chicago as a way for Ivy League alums to blow off some steam on the day of the Harvard-Yale football game, according to the Chicago 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame in Forest Park.
Players used a broom handle for the bat and a boxing glove for the ball. In the 20th century, the bat evolved into wooden whoppers and then aluminum.
The ball of choice was the deBeer Clincher. And da beer was the drink of choice for some players.
The game was cheap and didn't require as much space as baseball. The 16-inch ball wouldn't fly nearly as far as a baseball and softened up during the course of the game, making barehanded catches more tolerable.
Mark Bittner started playing 16-inch in Naperville after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1986 and never stopped.
"When we first formed our team there were three different leagues and about 30 teams," says Bittner, a 54-year-old real estate appraiser. Now, he's hoping the one league can get a fourth team.
The 12-inch softball leagues with mitts and sluggers who can hit a ball 400 feet dominate the men's softball world.
"To me, 16-inch is more of a thinking man's game," Bittner says. "It's an easy game to learn, but it's a hard game to master."
Sometimes a soft liner over the first baseman's head can be more productive that a ball crushed into the outfield, Bittner says. Base-running skills and smooth fielding are a must. Injuries are a risk.
"I have one finger that's never fully healed," Bittner says.
Former DuPage County Circuit Court Chief Judge Edward Kowal, who died in 2010, sometimes wore finger splints in the courtroom after playing 16-inch softball on a team with his sons. One of those sons, Connie Kowal, is director of the Libertyville Sports Complex & Recreation Department, which still has a vibrant 16-inch league of six to eight teams.
"It's a great sport," says Kowal, who grew up in Glen Ellyn and played baseball at Glenbard West High School and Western Illinois University. "I played 16-inch when I was in high school."
Kowal, who played in the Libertyville 16-inch leagues in the 1970s and '80s, says the game "is alive and well in Libertyville." For information on the Libertyville league, phone (847) 367-7054 or visit libertyvillesportscomplex.com. Naperville offers information at napervilleparks.org.
You can say 16-inch is just in a bit of a slump, but there is no question that the game isn't as popular as it was a generation ago, and that worries Bittner.
"If we don't keep playing, it might disappear forever," Bittner says. "Once it goes away, I doubt if it comes back."