16-inch strikeout? Uniquely Chicago form of softball seems to be on the decline

  • Victoria Ofenloch at Welles Park (2333 W Sunnyside Ave) on March 27, 2012. (Lenny Gilmore/ RedEye)
Victoria Ofenloch at Welles Park (2333 W Sunnyside Ave) on March 27, 2012.… (Lenny Gilmore )
May 02, 2012|By Ryan Smith, For RedEye

A massive white sphere closer to the size of a cannonball than a baseball, the 16-inch softball often elicits strange looks.

"I went to college at Purdue, and of course, I brought my softball with me. People would see it and ask 'What the hell is that thing?' " said Ted Kuhlmann, 33, of Albany Park. "Even though it's only two hours away, people outside of Chicago have never seen one of these balls before."

Once a cultural export nearly as popular as deep-dish pizza in the 1960s and '70s, 16-inch softball has all but gone extinct outside of its native land of Cook County, replaced by the now standard 12-inch version of the game. But a small core of 16-inch obsessives—mostly a mix of middle-aged stalwarts and young Chicagoland natives—revere and continue to play this old-school game of gloveless grabs, high-arching pitches, bloop singles and postgame trips to the local watering hole for an Old Style.

Kuhlmann, a real estate broker who has been playing organized 16-inch games for eight years, said his girlfriend barely sees him in the summer because he plays for several Chicago men's league teams during the week and in all-day tournaments on the weekend.

"She knows I'm passionate about it, but she definitely isn't the biggest fan, so I have to make it up to her and take her to some nice places to make up for it," Kuhlmann said.

Andy DeTolve, 25, of Sauganash, is so dedicated to the game that he plays on 10 different teams and has games almost every day of the week during the summer.

"There's just not many better ways to spend the summer than being out there with your friends playing 16-inch," DeTolve said. "It's about all I do."

But young Chicagoans playing 16-inch softball in 2012 seems to be the exception rather than the rule, said George Bliss, a member and spokesman for the Chicago 16-Inch Hall of Fame, who noted the sport was once played by everyone fromMayor Richard J. DaleySr. to Bill Murray to the entire Bears team during practices.

"Compared to the old days, it's a shadow of its former self, and not many kids are playing it," Bliss said. "It had about 3,000 teams in its heyday all the way from Indiana to South Dakota. Now there's about 200 teams total."

Longtime 16-inch player Victoria Ofenloch, 33, of Lincoln Square, said she thinks the game is dying out because of out-of-towners used to other forms of the game moving to Chicago.

"It's a different game and so, if you're not from here and didn't grow up with it, you're probably not going to end up playing it," said Ofenloch, who also plays in 12-inch softball leagues.

She also argued the game is less friendly to women, especially in co-ed games.

"I feel like it's more of a men's game," Ofenloch said. "It's hard for girls to hit a 16-inch ball over someone's head to get it into the outfield, and it's just not as much fun for them."

Sixteen-inch's underdog status might be why some of its proponents treat it like the rec sports equivalent of indie rock, passionately arguing that it is the purest form of softball on earth. Kuhlmann said he wouldn't be caught dead wearing a glove while playing, no matter how many times people suggest he switch over.

"I have no desire to play and have no real interest in it," said Kuhlman, who said he grew up watching his dad and family friends play 16-inch. "The 12-inch game is all about knocking the ball as far as you can and running as fast as you can. But (16-inch) is more strategy—it's a singles game of putting the ball in the gaps."

Adler said he also appreciates the fact the game rewards brains over brawn.

"You have interesting players, guys that are in their 40s and are super overweight and have beer bellies the size of Texas but can kick the butts of athletic college guys," he said. "It's pretty cool."

Beyond the on-the-field joys of playing the game, 16-inch fanatics also brag about the closeness of the game's community.

"Everyone knows each other," DeTolve said. "I mean, it's almost a little like Facebook for me. It's a social network where if you ever need something from someone, they'll help you out, and there's always something to do after the game."

There is some evidence new players are catching on to the sport and it could be in store for a small revival.

Adler, a board member of the Slow Pitch Softball Association, helped bring 16-inch softball back to Lincolnwood in 2003 for the first time since the 1970s. He said the league is up to about 20 teams and the sport is thriving in other Chicago suburbs as well.

"It's this Chicago sport, passed down generation by generation, and it's got this special camaraderie," Adler said. "I think it's on its way up again."

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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