After writing about Forest Park Invitational from one perspective or another and in one forum or another for 18 years, details of the tournament come together in a kaleidoscopic whole: a gestalt.
What may sound like something you’d sprinkle on a hot dog is the German word for a grouping that’s greater than the sum of its parts-something that wouldn’t be the same without each of those parts.
At the 40 year-mark, it’s most appropriate to speak simply of the event that is the Forest Park Invitational itself.
The game of 16-inch softball isn’t what it once was. There’s a vague feeling of leaves falling on a game facing the slow approach of winter. Though not this weekend. At this august juncture, 40 years after Jim Sarno pulled in 10 teams to play a Labor Day weekend tournament, there remains much to celebrate: much to savor in the present, much to recall of a storied past.
Every July, to the immense credit of the park board, park staff and many volunteers, Forest Park creates magic.
Now anyone can gather a few softball teams together, schedule some games and hand out trophies. And anyone can order a few kegs of beer and fire up a few grills, attract a crowd for an afternoon or a day and bring in extra police and extra public works personnel to deal with it all.
I’ve been closely involved in the creation and organization of two well-funded, well-attended tournaments. Good as they were, neither ever had what Forest Park has. No one anywhere else in the past 40 years has pulled together what Forest Park has created with the No Gloves Nationals.
Forest Park’s magic lies within its gestalt.
Year after year, there’s been a marvelous, unified whole created here every July. For four days-five this year-it’s simply the place to be. This is bonafide Americana, a small example of what makes this country great.
To a large degree, Forest Park itself is the star of the show. Look around at a thousand people and you see many different backgrounds, political views, ages and races enjoying any number of activities-the games, the pool, socializing, eating, drinking, maybe a cigar, a little wagering.
The Forest Park Invitational occurs in the midst of everything else, and that everything else makes the tournament itself all the more special. Forest Park is a genuine, readily accessible place, not some blandly functional space carved out of extra park land, distant from everything else.
The backdrop is often spectacular, with tall white clouds piling up over lush green treetops. Down below, under a blazing sun, teams kick up a storm between the chain-link fences, whiffs of dust flying up off the field and disappearing into the trees. People stand along the fences and on lawn chairs under the trees or on the porches across the street. Meanwhile, high above the panorama to the east, happily oblivious kids mount the park district’s water slide and race down gleefully with a splash.
The effect is of standing in a softball garden of Eden. Even the smoke drifting away from the grill tent holds an allure. The atmosphere is both placid and electric. There’s no edge except on the field, where it belongs. Unlike, say, Taste of Chicago or a Cub or Sox game, there’s an ease with the No Gloves Nationals. People tend to drift over to the tournament. At worst, it’s a relaxed drive for most people. At best, a brief walk. The biggest hassle is having to park your car two or three blocks away if you arrive late.
I don’t presume to know how long the game of 16-inch softball will be around, or how long this wonderful tournament will continue to be run. But things are looking up. Thanks to a few folks who truly love 16-inch softball, we’ll soon have an actual bricks and mortar location for a Chicago 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame and Museum-right here at the corner of Desplaines and Harrison. Right where it belongs. Where it will be most appreciated.
In the middle of it all, one more piece of a still wonderful whole.