Remembering Royko, Chicago softball and a great newspaper era

Here we are, singing the team song I wrote, at a reunion. It was to the tune of On Wisconsin, of course. The lyrics were seriously off-color. Mike loved that, of course.
Here we are, singing the team song I wrote, at a reunion. It was to the tune of On Wisconsin, of course. The lyrics were seriously off-color. Mike loved that, of course.

Ten years ago this week, the Sun-Times softball team went into the Softball Hall of Fame. Since my TMG friend Chris Dufresne and others have mentioned the name `Mike Royko’ recently, I thought you might be interested in this column I wrote about our. . . enshrinement.

Playing softball with Mike was much more than softball. It was an introduction into the world of old-time newspaper journalism, a guide to Chicago’s most interesting drinking establishments and, best of all, the snappiest barroom banter around.

It was like being in a movie, actually. . . if you had grown up wanting to work in the raucous newspaper business.

The first time I met Mike was on a gravel schoolyard ``diamond’’ on a frigid April Saturday. I had been hired at the Chicago Daily News a few months earlier, and was ``trying out’’ at the first practice of the season.

Gould0089 headshot

Mike was pitching batting practice, and I was swinging a bat, waiting my turn. When the guy in the batter’s box was done, I stepped toward the plate.

Mike came in and, picking up a bat, said, ``Around here, Sonny, we pitch our way in.’’

That was the way it was done with Mike. When you wanted your turn to bat, you pitched some B.P. first.

Mike died 21 years ago, at 64. I knew that was young then. Now I realize how ridiculously young that was. A year or two before he passed, though, we played a reunion game. About 40 veterans participated. About 23 of them, including me and MIke and our dear friend, the late sportscaster Tim Weigel, pulled hamstrings, going down the first-base line.

We all hobbled off happily to the Billy Goat Tavern. At least there was no decline in our post-game performances.

Cheers!

Herb

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From the Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 20, 2008

We're going into the Hall of Fame. The Chicago Sun-Times softball team and its predecessor, the Chicago Daily News softball team, will be inducted into the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame on Saturday. During their 37-year history, the teams have won more than 500 games in leagues throughout the city.

At least 90 of the more than 120 players who had a part in that success are expected to attend a dinner at Hawthorne Park. By the end of the night, they're liable to boost that victory total to more than 5,000 games.

The team was the brainchild of former Daily News/Sun-Times real-estate editor Don DeBat and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko, who died in 1997. Thanks to primary sponsor Sam ''Billy Goat'' Sianis, the team never went thirsty, win or lose.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

St. Louis Cardinals executive Branch Rickey might have invented the farm system, but DeBat perfected it. In any given season, the teams were playing four or five days a week in leagues that ran the gamut of Chicago softball, from premier competition in Clarendon Park to office teams in Grant Park to a Sunday morning hangover league in Oz Park.

The office teams were heavily populated with writers, editors, photographers, printers, advertising managers and circulation drivers. But we also had our share of ringers, players who didn't work for the paper. We preferred to call them ''legmen.'' They weren't paid to play; they were just guys who could play softball well and who enjoyed being around as much as we enjoyed having them around. They even bought rounds when it was their turn.

It was Royko who gave Daily News/Sun-Times softball its identity. He was the greatest newspaperman who ever lived. Period. End of discussion. And he was a power-hitting pitcher with a giant, intimidating head who would lay into opponents, his own players and the ball with equal zeal.

''C'mon, you @#$! You're a bunch of blankety, blank %&*@$,'' he would say loudly, to inspire us.

With opponents, he was more direct.

The Daily News/Sun-Times softball team began quietly enough, though. One day in 1970, after DeBat put up a note on the bulletin board, Royko came over to him.

''Lad, I understand you're starting a softball team,'' Royko said. ''Here's how we'll do it.''

What that meant was Royko was the manager, making the lineup and the other fun decisions. And DeBat was the captain, lugging the bats and balls around and making all the phone calls to ensure that we had enough players. DeBat did get to choose the uniforms, though. And that was a labor of love.

Hawthorne Park might not have the same allure as Cooperstown, but it will be fun to see the old gang. The gang includes James Warren, a smooth second baseman who went on to become a managing editor at the Tribune. And Clark Bell, a financial reporter who was money in center field. And the Sortal brothers, Paul and Dave, a hard-throwing third baseman-shortstop combination who tenderized my first baseman's hands during the warmup. There's nothing soft about a softball when it comes out of a Clincher box.

There are so many names and so many stories. Forgive me, guys, for mentioning so few.

Every spring, it seemed, Royko would bring out a 6-10 fellow to play first base. By May, I would have the job. And by June, little Sammy Gendusa would be back where he belonged, catching everything at first and dumping the ball to all fields with his soft hands.

It will also be good to see Don ''Garbo'' Garbarino, a power hitter who couldn't see the ball very well. Or so he said.

''How far did it go, Herby?'' he'd ask. ''Did it go clear over the left fielder's head? By six feet? Eight feet? Ten feet?''

Or if we were at Thillens Stadium, which actually had a fence: ''Was it rising when it left the park?''

Because there were so many teams, I remember being captain of a ''celebrity'' team we had put together -- the celebrities being some DePaul basketball players and Tim Weigel, an original Daily News softball player who was a team favorite.

But Royko's tactics worked. Our teams generally won their leagues. And twice, the office team advanced to the finals of the Tournament of Champions, a competition among the dozens of teams that had won their leagues in Grant Park. After Royko and I had left the scene, two Sun-Times teams won the Tournament of Champions, a tribute to what Royko and DeBat had started.

The '79 final was the most disappointing. After winning four consecutive playoff games -- and celebrating each victory heartily -- Royko was stopped for driving under the influence. He didn't come to the office that day. Mayor Byrne had pulled up in a limo to watch the game. But shortly before game time, he still wasn't there, leaving us without our pitcher, as well as our leader.

Royko finally arrived, but we lost to the CTA. It was our only loss after an 18-0 start. Very disappointing. If only their buses and trains moved as fast as their softball players, we grumbled.

The barnstorming games also were a load of fun. There was a charity game at Thillens Stadium against aldermen and other politicians. Their pitcher threw a heavy ball -- not enough arc -- and Royko was in rare form when the umpire, who was in cahoots, had to be goaded into doing the right thing. After the game, the pols became our pals at a Greek joint with a belly dancer.

And when Royko wasn't belligerent -- which was quite often, really -- there was no better bar-hopping leader.

We always started at the Billy Goat, owned by Sianis. Where we ended up was anybody's guess. Rush Street. Comedy clubs. Piano bars. Discos. Four o'clock bars. With Royko, we could get in anywhere, even in polyester softball uniforms. Sometimes we never even left the Goat -- until the breakfast crowd started coming in.

A young newspaperman could learn a lot about the business hanging around Royko, too. For example, he knew how to milk good columns out of his softball passion. He once sued the Chicago Park District to block it from allowing gloves in 16-inch leagues. He got several columns out of that. When women sportswriters were demanding access to locker rooms, he wrote a hilarious parody in which he polled his team, asking their views about the subject.

Royko left the team in the early '80s, when he joined the Tribune. I left the team a year or two later, after getting clobbered at the plate by some lunatic while catching. A runner put a knee into me, breaking my nose and jamming a couple of fingers. After seven years, that was enough.

Congratulations to David Southwell, Dan Cahill and all the players who have followed in our footsteps, carrying on a fine tradition of playing softball and carrying on. The games were great, the friendships even better.

And remember to get your cash in to DeBat for your Hall of Fame T-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.[/membership]

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