16-inch softball takes a bow: Hall of Fame Museum opens

A uniquely Chicago game now has a venue to honor it.

The 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame Museum opened this weekend in a former gas station at 7501 W. Harrison St. in Forest Park. For the first time after 20 years of planning, visitors got to see the hats, jerseys, bats, balls, videos, programs, newspapers, trophies and other artifacts on display.

Organizers predict that people will walk away impressed.

“I think people are going to come in here and not expect a lot,” said former Chicagoan Al Maag, one of the creators of the museum. “They’ll think, ‘16-inch softball, big deal.’ When people leave, they’ll say, ‘I didn’t know the game of softball started in Chicago,’ and they’ll know about all the history and all the stories.”

Invented in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day 1887, 16-inch rose in popularity in the city in the 1930s and ’40s. The sport is simple, in terms of equipment. Because the ball is big with a soft cover, fielders don’t wear gloves. Practitioners of the sport said it’s a better game than its slow-pitch sibling, 12-inch softball.

“I don’t like the 12-inch game,” Ken Izral said. “I think it’s a home-run hitter’s game. And that’s all it is, whereas there was so much skill involved with placing the ball in terms of our 16-inch game. It was a lot of hitting and running.”

Izral, a 68-year-old Elgin resident, was honored on Saturday as one of 15 inductees in the 2013 Class. Izral played 16-inch from 1964 to 1976, and then for a few years in an over-40 league.

Another player enshrined was Skokie’s Israel Sanchez, a left-handed pitcher for the Kansas City Royals in 1988 and 1990. He then switched to 16-inch in 1995, playing in adult leagues in Chicago and in a pro league in Mount Prospect. He said it was an honor to make the Hall of Fame and he enjoyed the museum.

“For the guys that have played the game, they can relate to looking at the balls and the changes that the balls have had, even the bats, uniforms, teams,” Sanchez said. “It’s intriguing in the sense that you get to see what it used to be like and what it turned into and then what it’s come to.”

Others who were to be enshrined on Saturday included Rich (Chubbs) Polfus from Forest Park and Robert Bernstein from Highland Park.

Organizers hope that the museum helps to foster growth in the sport. They believe visitors can stop in, walk around the museum and get inspired.

“In the long run, we hope it also encourages people to go out and keep playing the … game,” Maag said. “We love it.”

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