For the past six or seven years, Forest Park’s 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame has played an integral role in preserving local sports history as well as cultivating interest in the sport among millennials.
How? Through the dedication of President Ron Kubicki, member/spokesperson George Bliss, one creative DePaul professor, and a couple of real-life Hall of Famers themselves.
Together, they help organize, facilitate, educate, and even play live games with students from DePaul University’s Discover Chicago Program.
The idea began with Professor Phil Meyers.
“The Discover Chicago Program is unique to DePaul,” he said. “You have to take three disciplines; mine is historic, socio-economic, and political. So we take sports, and we try to integrate an understanding of how sports affects those three disciplines.”
Since he is also a licensed attorney, DePaul has given Meyers autonomy in deciding the best structure for the course.
“They have so much confidence in me,” he said, “they say, ‘Create your classes, we believe in you.'”
Meyers uses this opportunity to pay forward what he received when he was coming up.
“I was an undergrad at DePaul from 1993-1997 so I feel great being able to give back and teaching alongside some of the professors I actually had.”
That impetus led him to Forest Park.
“I started doing some research [and Ron Kubicki and I] hit it off right away. It’s great to deal with Ron; he was one of the first people out of any of the trips that I had a chance to reach out to. They’ve been so great about giving us anything we needed. We give back in the spring when they have their hall of fame inductions. A great number of students will come back and volunteer.”
Kubicki, in return, welcomes the opportunity to assist in one of the most satisfying and relationship-strengthening activities available to youths.
“Sure, Phil, anything” is Kubicki’s default response when Meyers calls.
“There are no barriers here,” Kubicki said. “It crosses all lines because all it takes is a bat, a ball, bases and people to play it. Anybody can play the game. The kids come back from playing, and they love it. They don’t want to quit.”
A ball and a bat cost less than 20 dollars and provides hours of fun, exercise, plus the development and refinement of numerous skills.
At the Softball Hall of Fame, students learn not just history, but the context in which to understand it, thanks to the passionate enthusiasts and players who devote their time to the young-bloods. Pizza is served while they listen to a few words from Hall of Famers Frank Lentine and Ron Ziemann. By this time the students are ready to play on the field themselves with professional guidance and an almost paternal care.
“I’ve been a huge baseball and softball fan,” said DePaul student Eric Wheeler. “Since I was 3 years old.”
Some inherit the legacy of their fathers, whereas some discover the sport firsthand through the program.
“My dad grew up playing 16-inch softball,” Wheeler said. “Every time I think of softball, I think of the sandlot because they would always come out and play, and then once dinner was done they’d go back out and play again. I wish our generation had that, too because I’m old-fashioned. I like being outside and things like that.”
“I’d be down to play when I’m by my house but not a lot of kids nowadays want to because they’re always on their phones. … It’d be nice for a change if people would do that, put their phones down and just go outside.”
Despite the frustrating impediments technology brings, expansion of the sport is already under way.
“Phil from DePaul was the first,” Kubicki said, “but now I’m getting calls from Northeastern University, U of I Chicago. There has been momentum.”
Thanks in no small part to 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame supporters.
“We’re willing to go out, spread the word, teach the game, let them know what it’s about — because we’re all part of it, we love the game,” said Kubicki
“Young people today, they’re on their computers, their phones, this is their whole life,” he added. “We’re trying to get them away from that stuff, get their bodies back in the game, get them physically active, doing a lot of things like that.
“It’s a way to socialize. You learn how to socialize with other people, how to interact. Today, you don’t see that so much because people are socializing on their computers or on their phones and don’t really talk face to face anymore. There’s no personal touch, people want that personal touch.”