By John Rice
There was much to celebrate at the Chicago 16" Softball Hall of Fame awards dinner. Park Director Larry Piekarcz was inducted into the Hall as an "Organizer." Larry was recognized for his 35-year career as player, umpire, and "tournament director of the best softball tournament on the planet."
The 570 guests also cheered images of the newly-renovated Hall of Fame building. I was there, though, to cover the induction of the late Chris Rocco as a softball "Pioneer." His younger brother, Pete Rocco, Jr., was already enshrined. My wife's nephew, Dan Rocco, who once played alongside these legends, gave the acceptance speech.
The Roccos grew up in Chicago's rough-and-tumble neighborhood known as "The Island," smacking the ball around the playground of Key Clark School. One of the beauties of softball is that it can be played in confined spaces. It also made economic sense. Pete confessed that few Islanders had the money to buy baseball gloves.
Chris started playing organized softball, while attending Austin HS. In 1948, he joined the neighborhood team in the Cicero League. A decade later, the Roccos played for the legendary Moose Camillo. Chris was a mainstay at 2nd and 3rd base for several championship teams. "Whatever he got his hands on, he held onto," Pete said.
After a long layoff, Chris made his softball comeback in 1970. He teamed with Pete to win the Clyde Park Championship in 1975. Their roster featured the oldest players to ever win a championship, with some approaching 50. Chris ended his three-decade career in 1979. He left a legacy as a fiery competitor, who also enjoyed the social aspects of softball at sponsors like the Comfy Tap.
Chris' biography in the hall booklet was written by his devoted younger sister, Angela DeCarlo. Angela recalled being a little girl, "Basking in the sunshine of her brothers' athleticism." They were not only mythic figures on the field, Chris was her protector. After he passed away in 1997, she walked the familiar streets of the Island but felt different. Chris was no longer there to shield his little sister.
Chris and Pete played softball for the love of the game, with no thought of a hall of fame. "I'm glad someone recognized it was a sport requiring special skills," Pete said, "Not everyone could play it."
As for the Hall of Fame building, where the brothers will be enshrined, General Contractor Ray Tops reported that the exterior has been completed at a cost of $325,000. The donations came from players and fans, as well as $25,000 grants from Waste Management and MB Bank. Ray said another $300,000 is needed to complete the interior. So, far, they have raised $100,000. Those wishing to help can call (630) 696-4000, or go to www.16inchsoftballhof.com. You'll be making some former Islanders very happy.