Al Maag is co-founder of the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame and serves as the sport’s historian. In 1995, he produced a documentary titled “Chicago’s Game: 16-inch Softball” that was narrated by legendary sportscaster Jack Brickhouse. This year he published a book chronicling the game’s history titled “The Greatest Game on Dirt.”
Maag got the idea for the book during the COVID -19 pandemic lockdown. He was admittedly “bored to death” and started going through boxes of old publications like Windy City Softball.
He perused softball magazines from the 1970s and compiled a history going back to the game’s birth in 1887. Softball was invented by bored college students sitting around on a rainy day at the Farragut Boat Club. They stuffed a boxing glove with rags and started bashing it around.
The boxing glove evolved into today’s Clincher and the game exploded in popularity. Because of its size and weight, the ball did not travel as far as a baseball. So it was an ideal city game to be played in confined spaces, like neighborhood parks and playgrounds. Maag interviewed the game’s pioneers to get a picture of softball’s heyday.
Besides compiling history, Maag helped make history by co-founding the Hall of Fame in 1996. He met with 15-20 of the sport’s most influential players at Hawthorne Race Track in Cicero, saying to his colleagues, “If we don’t do this, no one else will.”
The players pulled together to launch the Hall of Fame, hosting their first banquet on Nov.1, 1996.
“We did the best we could with no money,” Maag said. “It wasn’t work. It was fun.”
He uncovered “fun facts” like a team organized by Machine Gun Jack McGurn, the architect of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, who put together a very competitive team. This was back when thousands flocked to the games and gambling was widespread.
Players supplied him with scrapbooks and memorabilia from the old days that they stored at Hawthorne. The race track also boasted a wall of fame that displayed plaques honoring the Hall of Fame inductees. When they were searching for a permanent home for the Hall of Fame, Forest Park was a natural fit. They approached the park district director of that time, Larry Piekarz, who had a suitable building for them.
It was a former gas station on the corner of Desplaines Avenue and Harrison Street that had been used for park activities. Maag and other members of the Hall of Fame board raised the funds to transform the building into the stately 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame Museum. It opened in 2013 and will be the site of the Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary celebration.
Reunion Day for inductees and fans is scheduled for July 18, from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be a tent for players and their families to gather along with entertainment, food and beverages. There will also be speeches from prominent members of the softball community. Afterwards, players and their families can participate in the Hall of Fame Legends Game.
Maag will be selling copies of his book at the Hall of Fame Museum and sales will continue during the 53rd Annual No Gloves Tournament. Maag can be proud of his role as a historian, as well as the many other hats he wears. He’s an organizer of tournaments and manager of teams. He not only raises funds for the Hall of Fame, he has raised money for his “Smiles for Kids” toy drive since 1991. This “Maag-nificent” organization has supplied kids with over 15,000 toys.