By John Rice
Two decades of struggle will end in triumph, when the 16" Softball Hall of Fame Museum (HOF), 7501 Harrison Street, has its Grand Opening on July 19 at 12:30 p.m. Co-Founder Al Maag and his cohorts started this project with no money and no sponsors. They suffered plenty of setbacks along the way, including false promises of funding by politicians. Somehow, they overcame all obstacles to create a state-of-the-art interactive museum.
Festivities will begin with Arizona-based band, Whiskey's Quicker, playing classic covers. Mayor Calderone, Park Director Larry Piekarz.and Maag himself will speak. After the speeches, they will unveil the plaques of current HOF inductees. Then they will cut the ribbon and allow the public into the gleaming new shrine to softball.
Maag recalled the first time he approached Piekarz about finding space for the HOF at the Park. Piekarz told him there was no room in the Park building but led him to a "woeful little building" at the west edge of the Park. The HOF general contractor, Ray Topps, had a stronger a way to describe the former gas station. He called it an eyesore. Now, the building's exterior features fine stonework, large windows and beautiful ornamentation.
The most recent improvement to the façade is the placement of two eight foot tall bats on the west wall. They are modeled on a softball bat, complete with tape on the handle. Topps said they are made of solid limestone and weigh 900 pounds apiece. There are also enormous "wooden" bats in Monument Park east of the museum. They are made of solid concrete.
It was Topps' idea to place the HOF plaques outside the museum, centered around a giant Clincher. There simply wasn't space inside and this way visitors can view the plaques 24/7 365 days a week. As for museum hours, Maag anticipates it being open on weekends and during special events like the No Gloves Tournament.
Placing the museum in the Park that Maag calls "the epicenter of the sport" and "the Wrigley Field of softball" was a masterstroke. A student of softball history, Maag recalled that Forest Park made a very good showing in the first National Championship Tournament in 1933. The town has also hosted the sport's premier tournament for almost five decades.
Visitors can view an extensive array of photos and films. Maag's son, Zack, edited over 500 videos. They will show HOF induction speeches, amazing plays in the field and interviews with softball legends like columnist Mike Royko, who holds court at the Billy Goat Tavern describing his greatest day in softball.
Maag's advice to the younger generation is simple. "Put down the smart phone and go out and play." After all, the only equipment required is a ball and a bat.
Maag has interviewed hundreds of former players to learn the sport's history. He sees softball as a game that "has been through generations, old, young, female and co-ed." He dearly wants the tradition to continue. Many of the museum's organizers are in their 50's and 60's. Others sadly passed on before their dream was realized. He believes the next generation needs to step up and do even more to promote the sport.
Speaking of which, there will be an actual softball game at 3 p.m. pitting the North Side against the South Side, with a sprinkling of celebrities taking the field. During the game, spectators can enjoy those softball staples: beer and food. When Maag was asked how it felt to finally open the museum, he only had one word to say, "Priceless."