Recalling Mike Royko's love affair with softball

Opinion: Columns

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

Iconic columnist Mike Royko has long been associated with 16-inch softball. He has even been credited with helping to save his beloved game. His former colleague and teammate, Don DeBat, recalled how he rekindled Royko's interest in the game, when the columnist was 38 years old. 

It was 1970 and DeBat was covering financial news for the Chicago Daily News. Royko was the newspaper's star columnist: a grumpy, remote star who had never exchanged a word with DeBat — until the young reporter got the idea of starting a newspaper softball team from his college roommate, Don Garbarino.

A half-hour after DeBat, who certainly had the right name for a softball organizer, posted a note on the bulletin board about starting the team, he found Royko standing next to him. Royko, who had played for his dad's Blue Sky Lounge team as a kid, thought starting a team was a great idea. 

Royko immediately proclaimed himself manager and made DeBat captain. He assigned DeBat all the grunt duties, like lugging the equipment, while Royko used his magnetism to recruit players. He also had a sharp eye for talent, recruiting "ringers," who didn't work for the newspaper.

The team competed in the newly-formed Media League against other newspapers and TV stations. Billy Goat Tavern was their sponsor. The team shirts had the Daily News masthead on the front and the tavern's goat head logo on the back. The tavern encouraged customers to "Butt in anytime," but they entered at their own risk if Royko was drinking after a loss. 

After a defeat, he was inconsolable and preferred to drink in solitude. This led to a few altercations with inquisitive strangers. The newspaper team, though, won consistently, reeling off 18 straight victories in 1975. Royko played first base, second base and catcher. 

DeBat played third base, until one of his throws tore a tendon in Royko's pinkie. The manager banished him to short-center, where he played for the next 20 years. By this time, the team had joined the more prestigious Industrial League, competing against top talent in Grant Park. 

In 1977, this league wanted to allow players to wear gloves. Royko was bitterly opposed. He filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court arguing it was against the traditions of 16-inch softball. The judge, who grew up playing softball, sided with Royko. "Gloves in a 16-inch softball game — that's not Chicago-style." 

By 1977, Royko was in full "ringer" mode. One team featured Royko pitching, DeBat playing short center and TV personality Tim Weigel in right field. The rest were great players who pretended to work for the newspaper. Royko later immortalized this practice in his classic piece, "The Ringers." 

Royko was a decent player himself. DeBat described him as "a good saloon player." He was a right-handed pull hitter, with power. He had a knack for getting big hits and his average hovered around .400. As a pitcher, Royko threw a "heavy" ball that came in low and fast. Royko was a good all-round athlete who excelled at handball. 

He also excelled at writing, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, but later said, "The Pulitzer Prize can't compare with hitting a home run." After his death in 1997, he was posthumously voted into the 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame in the media category. His family said his induction was just as meaningful as his Pulitzer. 

Royko never played in the No Gloves Tournament here in Forest Park, which takes place at the end of this month, but his newspaper team did play a game at The Park. After the game, Royko caroused with park director Dave Novak until 4 a.m. 

It must have been a win. 

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com

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Bill Dwyer  

Posted: July 17th, 2018 4:40 PM

Meant to add this: "Royko at the Goat." Talking softball at the Billy Goat Tavern. I believe Don DeBat's in it.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: July 17th, 2018 4:31 PM

Great article, John. I had the honor of writing Royko's bio for his induction into the 16-inch Hall of Fame. He epitomized the classic 16-inch softball player, his love of the game, his desire to win, his joy in the camaraderie on and off the field. He once wrote a column about a game in which he broke his ankle in the first inning yet played the entire game on it. He didn't even know he'd broken it until the next day. "Hit a double too," he bragged in vintage Royko form. But my favorite anecdote about Royko was the time he was doing color for a broadcast of the Chicago 16" World Series tournament that was televised on WTTW, in the 1970's. During the broadcast, Royko's partner in the broadcast booth introduced a player coming up to bat by saying, "In real life, he's a fireman." Royko hesitated a second, then replied scornfully, "Buddy, this IS real life." There are no two things that are more Chicago than Mike Royko and 16-inch softball.

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