Jammed, broken, bent: Chicago’s own 16-inch softball comes with its own badge of honor

CHICAGO — On any given evening, in any given park, you’ll likely find a game of 16-inch softball and it comes with its own badge of honor.

It’s a game that got its start in the City of Chicago. Some have been playing 16-inch softball for more than 60 years. And many of them now share a distinct feature, one that proves their love for a sport that’s hands down a local favorite.

Jammed, broken, or bent — crooked fingers are part of the game. While the ladies in this league wear mitts, it’s a tradition for the guys to not wear gloves.

“You can jam your finger pretty bad. I have two dysfunctional fingers,” Brian Haluska said.

Luis Alarcon has been playing for 25 years and he has the hands to show for it.

“(I) was playing shortstop and went to grab the ball. It bounced and hit the top of my finger and dislocated to the left side,” Alarcon said. “I put it back in place and went back out.”

Ron Kubicki is the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame president.

“People don’t realize softball started here in Chicago at Farragut Boat Club, all softball. So, if you’re playing 12-inch, any kind of softball you play, started in Chicago,” he said. “This is a replica of a tied-up boxing glove, it was tied up and using a broomstick, not a bat, but a broomstick, and they played indoors.”

Long-time player and team manager Kubicki walked WGN News through the history, which is all on display at the 16-inch softball museum in Forest Park.

Austin ‘Spider’ Ware is a retired Chicago police officer. Known as a big hitter, he’s been playing 16-inch since 1962.

“We would play in the street back then. Back then there wasn’t a lot of cars, so we could almost play two or three innings before a car came,” he said. “I love it!”

And that love for the game far surpasses their love for their own fingers.

"It’s part of the game, part of the game,” he said of the injuries.

“You just play the game, and you love it. You don’t think about how hard the ball is, that’s the least of your worries," Kubicki said.

Bill Cavanaugh started playing at age seven, and now at nearly 70, he has a few classic battle scars of his own.

“It’s those balls that are hit up here or over here, and you’re kind of diving for balls,” he said. “That’s where I’ve had my injuries. … I play four nights a week, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and doubleheaders on Sundays.”

Cavanaugh isn’t in the hall of fame, but his wife of 45 years should be.

“It’s a negotiation every spring for how many nights I get to play,” he said.

“The mistake most of the kids do when they start to play this game is, when you put your hand out to catch it, you do not extend your hand. They leave their fingers forward,” Ray Topps said. “What will happen is when the ball comes into play the first thing it hits is the tips of the fingers.  And when it does that that’s when you’ll have a tendency to break a finger. So, what we try and tell the kids is, when a ball is coming into your hands, open your hand completely. The ball should first strike the palm of your hand.”

It’s a lesson Laura Buttitta and Nicole Muth could have used before their very first games last season.

“This guy with a rocket for an arm caught the ball and whipped it hyper speed at me, and I tried to catch it,” Buttitta said.

The force not only bent her finger backward, but it also broke a bone in her joint.

Midwest Orthpaedics at Rush’s orthopedic surgeon Dr Mark Cohen was once a rec league 16-inch player himself. Now he puts other players’ fingers back together. He sees about 20 to 30 softball injuries a season.

“That looks like a minor injury, but that’s actually a very bad injury. That means the finger actually dislocated and popped back,” he said.

Muth’s injury was even worse.

“It was a lob. It was not forceful or anything,” she said.

But the ball made direct contact with the tip of her ring finger, driving the bone into the joint with extreme force and destroying it.

“Sometimes the bone is so exploded or so traumatized that it can’t be put back together. It’s like an egg that explodes, an eggshell,” Cohen said. “We actually rebuild this joint by taking part of a wrist bone. It’s unlike any other game. What other game do we catch projectiles, hard projectiles, with our fingers?”

“I don’t know if I’ll go back out, but I would love to cheer people on who play and just tell them to be careful,” Buttitta said. “And if a ball is coming at you at hyper speed, you don’t have to catch it, it’s ok!”

“I was so excited to play, and I will never play again,” Muth said.

Muth may be retiring, but it’s safe to say the game will never die in the city where it was born.

“Until I can’t run anymore, I’ll keep on playing,” Alarcon said.

“They love the game so much they still want to go out there,” Ware said. “Your arm could be hanging off and if you’re playing third, you still want to try and play third.”

“Once you start playing the game gets in your blood. It’s our game, it’s Chicago-style softball,” Kubicki said.

Cohen said players who get a finger injury and can’t make a fist after a day or two will likely need an X-ray.

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