FOREST PARK, Ill. (CBS) – Chicago-style softball now has its Cooperstown.

The 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame opened its doors to the public Saturday in Forest Park, in a converted gas station that sits 100 yard from the fields used for the game’s summer classic, the No-Glove Nationals.

“This is our game,” said Hall of Fame President and member Ron Kubicki. “Sixteen-inch softball is our game from Chicago and now we have something to honor our game.”

Kubicki and other slaved away for as many as 16 hours a day in recent weeks to be ready in time for Saturday’s Opening Day ceremonies. He and contractor Ray Topps worked on the exhibits until late Friday night. Both were pleased with the results, although Kubicki said more exhibits will be added in the coming week, now that the Opening Day crowds have walked through.

“It’s a blue collar game,” he said. “It’s game that, you and I, when we grew up, you could get a bat and ball, go out on the fields, and we were there until you couldn’t see any more. You could even play in the dark if you could get away with it.”

Yet he extolled the 16-inch game as one that has been played by both factory teams and the famous.
“Michael Jordan played. Ron Santo has played. Both Mayor Daleys, old and young. A host of actors, John Belushi, all these guys have played 16-inch softball at one time or another,” he said.

There was a protracted debate a generation ago over the use of gloves. Today, you won’t see them used by Chicago-bred players.

“We don’t need those sissy gloves,” said Hall of Fame member George Bliss. “Nothing against 12-inchers, mind you, but we play raw. And we always challenge those 12-inch teams and we always beat the hell out of them, quite frankly.”

Fun facts on display at the Hall:

  • The first softball of any kind was actually a boxing glove tied with string, and the first bat a broomstick. The game was played in a lot near Soldier Field in 1887, and was played by Yale and Harvard alumni at the Farragut Boat Club on Chicago’s lakefront, using a boxing glove tied with string as the ball and a broomstick for the bat.

  • The first softballs were made in 1889, and the first definitive book of rules was written in 1925, one year before the name “softball” was adopted. Originally, games lasted for nine innings and used nine players. That was shortened to seven innings in 1959. The distance between bases has changed several times over the years.

  • When a debate raged over whether to allow the use of gloves in the 1970s, newspaper columnist Mike Royko sued the Chicago Park District to force players not to use them.

  • Mobster “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, of St. Valentine’s Day Massacre infamy, once sponsored a 16-inch team — for his tavern, during Prohibition.

  • Although 16-inch is generally considered a game peculiar to Chicago, there are currently leagues in eight states, also including Arizona, New York, California, Iowa, Oregon, Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Hall of Fame founder and member Al Maag said it was exported to many of those states by Chicagoans.

Sixteen-inch softball has made a comeback at some Chicago public high schools. Bliss even extols it as an antidote to the violence on Chicago’s streets.

“We hope that we can get kids to play this game on the playground,” Bliss said. “It only takes a ball and a bat. Let’s get them playing. Maybe (it will) get their minds in a different place.”

Maag said it was difficult to pry some of the exhibits out of the hands of players and their families when work began on the project in the 1990s with what he termed a “white canvas.” Now, he said, the memorabilia is flowing in.

Asked if the Hall articulates his vision and hopes for it, he said, “It’s better. I think we never expected to get this many artifacts and and photos, the support of the community — the softball community and the community of Forest Park — and the design for a motif. They did a great job.”

The Hall of Fame, at 7501 W. Harrison St., in Forest Park, will be open Thursday-Sunday this coming week for the Nationals, but its schedule beyond that is uncertain.

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