What’s special about Chicago? Not deep-dish pizza, voter fraud or hot dogs; you get that stuff everywhere. It’s Chicago Mushball, also called Indoor-Outdoor and 16-Inch Softball. At 16 inches the ball is bigger than a regular softball and it’s softer, with a looser cover and a kapok core. The softer, slower impact means balls don’t fly out of city playgrounds and the game can be played indoors in winter. And soft is good because gloves aren’t used in Mushball. But catch that big ball two-handed, like a football, or you might take home jammed or broken fingers as a game souvenir.
There was a league here in DC at the Guy Mason Rec Center where we heard tales of games played on factory floors with balls made of shop rags, but the origin of the game is more patrician. Members of Chicago’s Farragut Boat Club, Harvard and Yale alumni gathered to follow a college football game on the club tickertape, started batting a boxing glove around with a broomstick, and a new sport was born.
That was 1887, 125 years ago, and Chicago has played Mushball ever since. There were professional and school leagues. Taverns, factories and shops sponsored teams. Moose Skowran played Mushball, and he’s in the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Mike Royko too, and he also managed teams sponsored by the Chicago Sun-Times. The NFL’s George Halas played on the Crane High School Team, and Richard J. Daley played second base for the Hamburg Athletic Club. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan played when she taught at the University of Chicago. It seemed like everyone in the Windy City played Mushball.
Until now. Brett McNeil of the Trib found that women’s leagues were dying as players moved to 12″ softball, a collegiate and international sport, and men’s leagues had few members under 30. The title of his article: “A pastime that’s past its prime.” He wrote that back in 2005.
But today there are still keepers of the Mushball flame. Chicago’s Gabriel Adler thinks the sport is still alive and well, and he maintains a website to promote it. There are leagues in many Illinois cities and some in Iowa and South Dakota. That DC team isn’t active now, but Chicago émigrés have made converts in Washington State, California, and elsewhere.
If you want to play the game yourself you won’t need gloves, but it takes real Mushballs. Get a deBeer Clincher Softball or the MacGregor “Official Chicago” model with a kapok core. Don’t use a harder ball or you’ll break your hand. Players seem to like the Worth DBCSB DeBeer Clincher slowpitch bat. And don’t forget the Hamm’s Beer.
Best article on Mushball ever:
“Gloves Off,” Adam Doster, The Classical
Short Link: http://wp.me/p6sb6-dMp
Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com
Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not boring or obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.