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A kinder, gentler softball

The sport, born on Chicago playlots and tested out in St. Petersburg, could expand beyond city workers into leagues.

By SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE
Published July 27, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - In our continuing love of childish games for adults (see dodgeball/drunken and kickball/adult versions of), some city employees in St. Petersburg are wrapping their mitts around mushball, a game of softball played with a big soft smooshy ball.

You don't need to wear a glove, though most of the players do right now out of habit. Although it's essentially the same rules as regular softball, using a much larger 16-inch ball changes the game dramatically.

"It really levels the playing field," said Russ Stanley, the city's supervisor of adult sports who came up with the tournament at the Woodlawn field as a way to introduce the game, and maybe test the waters for a league.

The good players can't hit the ball too far, and even the most mediocre player can't miss that cantaloupe coming over the plate, so just about everybody gets a hit.

"We were looking for something for city workers, some kind of tournament, and I polled the directors," Stanley said. "Most of them mentioned softball, but not all people have the skills to play that. So I remembered mushball. This is softball on a gentler level."

That gentle level sucks the ego out of some of the buff players, such as Herman Panton, 19, who works for the city's teen program, TASCO.

"The hitting is really, really hard," Panton said. "I maybe hit it 50 yards. It's hard."

The game's origins rise from the playlots of Chicago, where poor families couldn't afford a glove. So in the 1930s, Chicago-style softball was all the rage, using a big fat ball and no gloves. It became a point of pride to play this bare-handed baseball and to many old-school Chicagoans, it's just not softball if you are using a glove.

Legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko was an avid player and a champion of the bare-handed style. He even sued the city in 1977 when the parks department allowed gloves in a summer league.

Royko claimed that allowing people to wear gloves "unfairly penalizes those with talent and calloused hands and gives an unfair advantage to those with tender and well-manicured hands." The judge, also a traditionalist, agreed.

A few years after his death in 1997, Royko was inducted into the Chicago 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame, an honor his family said would have meant as much to Royko as his Pulitzer.

The St. Petersburg tournament for city workers makes gloves optional, but recreation worker Richie Elsner, 21, used his glove because "it just feels safer with a glove, plus you add a couple of inches to your grip."

Melissa Scoggin, 34, a recreation assistant, said she has caught a few with her bare hands and was surprised it didn't hurt.

"It's not the catching or throwing" that's a challenge, Scoggin said, "it's getting used to the batting."

"I've caught it in my hands and it wasn't hard. It's . . . it's . . . squishy."

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at wynne@sptimes.com and 727 893-8717.

INTERESTED IN MUSHBALL?

- City workers are in the midst of a tournament on Mondays and Wednesday nights at Woodlawn field, 1450 16th St. N, if you want to see the game in action. There are five games tonight, and the finals will be Monday.

- If you are interested in playing, the city wants to hear about it. Call the athletics office at 892-5166. It would take four teams to get a league started.

[Last modified July 27, 2005, 01:04:17]


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