When the Broadview 16-inch softball league champions stepped on the Forest Park Park District’s only existing field at 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 30, 1969 to play the Norridge League champs, no one there could have known what was being born.
The 10 teams that competed in that unnamed three-day tournament helped create what has become the longest consecutively operated, best-run and most prestigious softball tournament in the Chicagoland area and even the country.
History records that the Maywood Agents defeated the Forest Park All Stars in the title game played that Labor Day evening.
The first tournament was referred to as an all-star tournament.
There have been so many great games at Forest Park. Many were played in earlier rounds, in the loser’s bracket. And like most of the games played that weekend in 1969, most are lost to time, like the dust clouds that drift momentarily across a softball infield before dissolving into the sky.
Though those games live on in the hearts of their participants and the family and friends who were there watching, the games most often recalled involve winner’s and loser’s bracket championships and title games.
Throughout the years, the Forest Park Invitational, later christened the No Glove Nationals, has been a primary battle ground for the dominant 16-inch softball teams of any period to throw down the gauntlet. The rivalries have been legendary, from the Bobcats and Sobies, Strikers and Josef’s, through the Whips and Bud North, on to Splinters and Lettuce.
Through it the years, great neighborhood teams like the J Birds, Baggers, Rockers, Taggers, Safari, Jynx, Rebels, California Gold, Aces, Takers, Crush, Turtles, Aces, Gamblers, Stickmen, Rabbits, Stooges and dozens of other quality teams-though supposedly second-tier-would make a regular thing of spoiling the marquee squad’s week end.
In its first decade, the Forest Park tournament was played on one diamond, starting on Saturday and finishing nine days later, on Sunday. At its peak, up to 15,000 people attended each tournament, with as many as 5,000 present for the championship-round games.
The second year, the event, no longer restricted to suburban teams, attracted several top Chicago teams, including the Ambro Dukes, the Bruins, Lyons 45s and A-1 Liquors. By 1971, word was out and such elite teams as the Chiefs, the Cabin and Josef’s were signing on.
In 1973, Mike Tallo’s Strikers beat Eddie Zolna’s Bobcats 9-1 in the title game. Tallo-who was already transforming the game with his drag step and quick drop-back move, to cover the middle of the infield like a sixth infielder-helped the powerful Bobcat offense to a single run, a previously unheard-of feat.
The Strikers hit the ‘Cats with a 2-run second and cruised behind Tallo’s masterful pitching in a game that stamped the Forest Park Invitational indelibly on the softball map. The next year, every major team of note found its way to Forest Park, including the Bobcats, Sobies, Maulers, Bruins, Lords, Stompers, Dwarfs, Lyons 45s and the Sportsman Lounge Chiefs.
The Bobcats capped a week that saw them score 85 runs in five games by winning a 23-17 shootout over the Bruins for the title.
Just as exciting for some was the extra inning game between Al Maag’s northwest side Bagger’s team and Bentel’s Spirits. Spirits won 8-7.
Maag recalls his young Bagger team playing another established team, the Scrappers. “The first year, we got beat. The second year, we beat them,” Maag recalls. He knew he and his teammates were involved in something special, even though it was an early round game.
“It was one of those games neither team deserved to lose,” Maag says. “It was the early rounds, but the atmosphere was like Sunday.”
“I think the most exciting part for a young neighborhood team was to be on center stage at the Wrigley Field of softball,” he said.
Tournament founder Jim Sarno captured the spirit and intent of the Forest Park event in a press release after the ’74 tournament when he wrote “…if enough opportunities are provided for the many, many fine teams to compete on a fair and equal basis, spectator interest will continue to grow.”
Throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s, it did just that. By 1986, however, the local 16-inch scene was flagging a bit. Tournament Director Dave Novak made the decision to drop the field down to 24 teams, but made it double elimination.
That year, an up-and-coming team called Bud North upset the Whips 7-6, then beat Coopers 9-7 for the championship.
The 1992 finals saw one of the great comebacks of all time. Lettuce beat Splinter Sports Club in the winner’s bracket, then sat back to rest. After Splinters won the loser’s bracket, they fell behind Lettuce by six or eight runs, but battled back hard, as pitcher Tom Czarnik managed to quiet the Lettuce bats.
Splinters powerhouse catcher John O’Connor capped the electric first title game comeback against Lettuce in the late innings with a dramatic three-run blast hammered deep into the lawn chairs past the field lights in left center.
The homer, one of two by O’Connor, was only his most memorable blast that weekend. He turned in one of the all-time great MVP performances, driving in 18 runs and scoring eight while batting .522.
Splinters went on to blast the demoralized Lettuce team for the title.
Novak returned the tournament to a 32-team single-elimination format in 1994 and 1995, but the change proved unpopular with both players and fans. The format reverted to the 24-team double elimination that’s still used today.
In 2000, Licorice Softball turned in the greatest inning in Forest Park Invitational history against the favored defending champs Bucks. After Bucks took a 10-2 lead with an eight-hit, seven-run second, Licorice was stunned and back on their heals. So when lead off hitter Nick Marchese’s smash liner glanced off Dave Bischoff’s hand for an infield single, no one suspected it was the start of something monumental.
The next three batters hit safely, making it 10-5. Mike Tuman then rocked a 240-foot shot off the corner of the scoreboard for a 2-run homer to make it 10-7, as stunned looks gave way to bellicose cheers.
There was still only one out after three of the next four batters reached safely. After Dave Ruehl sacrificed to make it 10-9, Larry Downes ripped a double into the gap to tie the game at 10.
Yet, with two outs, Licorice was just getting started. As sponsor Mike North pounded the dugout fence and high-fived people in the stands, Marchese came up for the second time in the inning, poked a shot into the right-field gap and wheeled around the bases like a drag racer to give Licorice a 12-10 lead. They scored six more runs before making the third out to take an 18-10 lead and knock Bischoff off the mound. Licorice went on to win 23-10.
Licorice manager Bobby Russ Sr. called the experience “one of the best innings in my 40 years of softball-and against a quality team.” Unlike 1992, though, both Bucks and Bischoff recovered, as Bischoff clamped down on the Licorice batters during an 11-4 title win on his way to tournament MVP honors.
“Hats off to Licorice,” said a clearly relieved manager Ron Kubicki after it was all over. “That was an incredible inning of softball.”
Let’s just consider this article a starting point for a few good beer-bet arguments over the weekend. There have been so many great games at Forest Park over the last 40 years. I didn’t see them all, and I’d love to hear about the ones I missed.
Starting today, they’ll do it all again for the 40th time. And for the 40th time, crowds of people who love good 16-inch softball will be on hand to cheer it all on, looking forward to seeing a legendary game or two that’s yet to be played.