At the 15th Annual Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame banquet, the spotlight shined brightly on Forest Park. The Hall designated the Robert F. Dowd Field at the Park a historic “Field of Dreams.” The Park was further recognized for being “an epicenter of 16-inch softball” and hosting the No-Gloves Nationals for 43 years. Al Maag, co-founder of the Hall, nicknamed it, “The Wrigley Field of Softball.”

Maag is still excited by memories of playing in the No Gloves. Early in tournament history, his team lost to the 76’s in extra innings, in what was described as the most exciting softball game ever played in Forest Park.

“To get invited to the tournament was a huge thing,” Maag recalled. “Playing in front of so many people, you had to perform at a high level, even though you were scared.” Fortunately, he and his teammates were “young and dumb” and they whipped the 76’s in their next No Gloves.

“There’s nothing bigger than the Forest Park tournament,” Maag said, “The crowds have been unbelievable, the food and beer have been great and the quality of play awesome.” Likening it to the NCAA basketball tournament’s mystique and electricity, Maag called it “July Madness.”

Maag said Forest Park’s softball stature grew even more, when the Park offered a building to house the Hall of Fame, as well as land for its Monument Park.

A thousand softball supporters probably came to the unveiling of Monument Park, Maag estimated. “They were ready to reach into their pockets to donate to the Hall of Fame building renovation,” Maag said, but former State Senator Ricky Hendon (D-5) – a big fan of 16-inch softball – guaranteed he would get $500,000 through a state grant to fund the project. That never happened, and there is no actual Hall of Fame.

The empty promise squelched the Hall’s fundraising efforts; but Maag is determined to see the renovation completed. “A Hall of Fame next to the greatest park in softball? I’ll take it.”

Forest Park reminds Maag of the old Chicago neighborhoods he played in, where “people walk out of their houses to watch softball.” His words came to life on the screen in the Drury Lane banquet hall, as scenes from the Park flashed by. Three tables of Park District staff and board members loudly applauded the images.

When the slideshow ended, emcee George Bliss made an announcement about the No Gloves tournament. “This year, the greatest tournament in the history of softball will be broadcast at www.16inchsoftballhof.com.”

Hall of Fame President Ron Kubicki also had a bulletin. “The World Series of Softball will be held at Forest Park on Aug. 22,” Kubicki said. “Anytime I call Forest Park, they come through for us. They’re great people.”

One of the “great people” he singled out was Park Director Larry Piekarz. But when the moment came for the presentation of the “Field of Dreams” plaque, Piekarz made sure Larry Buckley and his grounds crew walked up with him to accept it.

Buckley said he was lucky to have such a great staff to work with and thanked board members and volunteers for all they do to make the tournament a success.

“The grounds crew are the guys that make everything look great. Larry has been doing it for 22 years. They don’t just make everything work at the tournament, they get the fields ready for our softball leagues and Little League games,” said Piekarz, after accepting the award.

Piekarz is so “excited and thrilled” by the award, he’s hoping to get some free billboard space, to let locals know they don’t have to travel to Iowa to see a “Field of Dreams.”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.