Downtown Oak Park FILE

Al Maag has had 16-inch softball in his blood ever since he first played it on the gravel playground of his Northwest Side grammar school. Maag went on to help found the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame (HOF) in Forest Park. Now he has published a book titled, The Greatest Game on Dirt, which chronicles the game from its inception in 1887 to its current state in 2021.

Maag learned the history of softball from the many pioneers of the game he’s interviewed. He wants to pass on their collective knowledge to the next generation. His book is 132 pages and contains hundreds of historic photos. It can be purchased for $35 from the HOF website. He will also be selling copies of the book at the HOF Museum, when he comes to town on July 18 to celebrate the HOF’s 25th Anniversary.

Forest Park is an epicenter in the world of softball, so Maag devoted an entire chapter to the No Gloves Tournament. Maag played in the tournament back when he was a scrappy second basemen, playing for the Baggers. “When we first saw The Park, we were like in heaven,” Maag recalled. “It was like a major league field.”

Maag isn’t the only player to feel this way. The Park has been dubbed “The Wrigley Field of Softball.” The softball diamonds are pristine and the competition is fierce. He first played in the 3rd No Gloves Tournament. The Baggers qualified four more times but the best they could do was to make it to the quarterfinals.

Hanging up his spikes in the early ’90s, he found he could contribute more as a manager than a player. He already had been filling out lineup cards since he was in Little League, and he manages teams to this day. He also organizes tournaments from his adopted hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona. His Yuma tournament draws 30 teams from all over the U.S., including Chicago, and he runs a popular tournament in Las Vegas.

The key difference between these tournaments and the Forest Park tournament is that the players are permitted to wear gloves. “If we want the sport to grow outside of Chicago, gloves are imperative,” Maag declared. He once fielded a team of Arizona All Stars who “couldn’t catch a cold” without gloves. Allowing gloves has made 16-inch softball increasingly popular in the western states.

The tournaments aren’t just for fun; the profits they generate help fund Maag’s nonprofit “Smiles for Kids,” which conducts annual toy drives. He also raises money from the two golf tournaments he hosts. Since 1991, “Smiles for Kids” has raised over a million dollars and distributed 15,000 toys to kids in need.

But he isn’t just a fundraiser and an HOF organizer; he has become the sport’s historian. In 1995, he released a documentary titled, “Chicago’s Game – 16-inch Softball.” It is narrated by legendary broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, who grew up playing the game. Maag also helps preserve the game’s history through the HOF Museum. 

Some HOF members are concerned about the future of the game. It once was played on summer nights at parks throughout Chicago but those days are long gone. Maag remains optimistic, though, because the game is enjoying a resurgence. The Chicago Park District is reviving softball in the parks. The CPS high schools have softball programs and over 20,000 players are playing co-ed softball in Chicago.

The Greatest Game on Dirt is a must-read for those who grew up in the glory days of 16” as well as newcomers to the game who want to learn how “Chicago’s Game” came to be.

John Rice grew up in Oak Park and now writes a column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.

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