In 1969, man first set foot on the Moon, some concert-goers thought they were on the Moon at Woodstock and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid dominated the box office. It was also the first year that Forest Park hosted an “All Star” 16-inch softball tournament. This competition later evolved into the acclaimed No Glove Nationals Tournament.
The tournament differed in many ways from the present version. It was a single-elimination affair, played on Labor Day weekend, on the Park District’s only lighted field. It was restricted to suburban teams and only ten competed. The heavily-favored Maywood Agents defeated the Cinderella Forest Park All Stars on September 1 to become the first champions.
The Review article about the tournament didn’t mention the final score of the title game but did say it attracted “one of the largest crowds to witness a softball game.” The piece was surrounded by ads promoting Sam Zussman’s Men’s Style Shop, The Pines Steak House and a young Sales Manager for Reich & Becker Realty named Carl A. Schwebl.
The softball bash was the brainchild of Park District Director James Sarno. He named P.E. teacher Fred O’Connor Tournament Director and Marty Popelka coached the Forest Park squad. There were some familiar local names on the roster, Ron Milchoefer, Ken Stange and Ed Phillips.
During its first decade, the tournament started on a Saturday and finished nine days later on a Sunday. Its peak attendance was 15,000 with 5,000 fans for the final championship-round games. Its popularity certainly increased when Chicago teams were invited starting the second year. It attracted all the legendary teams, the Bobcats, Sobies and Bruins.
It was also a Mecca for the game’s greatest stars. In 1973 Mike Tallo’s Strikers beat Eddie Zolna’s Bobcats 9-1 in the title game. Holding the Bobcats to one run was unprecedented. The following year, this same Bobcats team scored 85 runs in five games, before beating the Bruins 23-17 for the title.
One of the most thrilling games in tournament history was when Al Maag’s young Baggers lost to the powerhouse Spirits 8-7 in extra-innings. “I think the most exciting part for a young neighborhood team was to be on center stage at the Wrigley Field of softball,” Maag said afterward.
During its heyday, old-timers remember fans standing six-deep all the way around the field. By 1986, however, attendance had dropped. Park District Director Dave Novak reduced the field to 24 teams and made it double elimination, with the champion of the winner’s bracket facing the survivor of the loser’s bracket for the title. This format became popular with players and fans.
It also produced the most exciting No Gloves comeback of all time. In 1992, Lettuce beat the Splinters to top the winner’s bracket. After the Splinters won the loser’s bracket, they fell eight runs behind Lettuce in the semi-final game. Splinters pitcher Tom Czarnik, though, held Lettuce in check, while his catcher, John O’Connor, won the game with a three-run homer that sailed into the lawn chairs in left center. The Splinters then blew Lettuce away in the title game.
O’Connor’s homer, by the way, flew past the light tower that used to be in left field. In another dramatic game in 2000, Licorice Softball’s Mike Tuman hit a 240-foot shot that ricocheted off the scoreboard in center. One of the greatest improvements to the Park and the tournament was relocating the lights and scoreboard to the perimeter of the playing field. Licorice, by the way, scored 16 runs that inning and won 23-10. Their sponsor was radio personality Mike North, who had previously done telecasts of 16-inch softball from the Park.
Forest Park softball games are no longer on TV and many of the old-timers would say 16-inch softball has declined since 1969. They see the need to grow the game geographically and demographically. North helped get softball into Chicago high schools, while teams from Iowa are invited to the No Gloves. There’s also the possibility games will be podcast some day at Tim Maher’s www.chicagolandprepreport.com site.
Regardless of the changing fortunes of 16-inch softball, the No Gloves Tournament remains a tradition for players and an annual reunion for thousands of fans. Park District Commissioner John Doss summed it up, “Best competition, best fields, best food, best atmosphere.”