With the eyes of the no-gloves softball universe trained on Forest Park’s annual tournament, members of the sport’s hall of fame are hoping to catch some of the spotlight.
For years the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame has been inducting players, managers and even umpires into its most exclusive club, but never has the game been able to put its heroes on display. Without a real home of their own, plaques, photos and memorabilia have all been stored away. But during an enthusiastic ceremony July 19, hall of fame organizers formally announced plans to build a museum on Harrison Street that will showcase this Chicago original.
In collaboration with the Park District, the hall of fame board is set to begin raising an anticipated $500,000 to renovate a small, unused building at the corner of the park’s sprawling facility near Desplaines Avenue. To help drum up support for the effort, organizers are hoping to cash in on the 40th Annual No Gloves Nationals, which begin this week in Forest Park.
Al Maag, a co-founder of the hall of fame, said Saturday that Forest Park is a most fitting host for the museum.
“This is the Wrigley Field of softball,” Maag said.
Founded in 1996, the hall of fame has some 300 members to go along with an extensive collection of artifacts documenting the game’s history. No gloves softball began in the Windy City in the mid-1880s and was first played with a tightly wrapped boxing glove as the ball. The gloveless fielders played that way not to be unique, according to the sport’s historians, but because they couldn’t afford any equipment.
Since the hall’s inception, George Bliss has served as the master of ceremonies for the annual induction ceremony held in January. Bliss was on-hand Saturday to help celebrate the anticipated arrival of the museum. He spoke fondly of the game’s working-class roots and is optimistic that its simplicity will help it endure in an age of expanding excess.
“It’s really the recognition of a Chicago love story,” Bliss said of the museum.
In 1997 Mary Kay Schaefer became only the second woman to be inducted into the hall of fame. Schaefer is a Chicago native who grew up playing with her three brothers before sliding into shortstop on women’s teams and in various co-ed tournaments. As she browsed a sampling of the hall’s artifacts during the kickoff ceremony, Schaefer said the game embodies so much more than the competition that takes place on the field.
“It taught me a lot of life skills,” Schaefer said. “It’s a great outlet. Really, beyond the game there’s so much to learn about relationships and life.”
Construction dates for the museum will likely be tied to the success of the fundraising efforts, however, Maag said he hopes to be back in Forest Park next year to cut the ribbon on the first phase of the project. For an anticipated $100,000, the hall of fame board is expected to erect an outdoor display featuring the plaques of all its members. Maag said the board intends to have the renovation of the existing structure complete within five years.