Chicago Sports, Peirce Playground, and Norman “Coach” Anderson.

Chicago Softball

A “Chicago” 16 inch softball next to a regular baseball

Even though I tell people I grew up in New York City, the facts are a bit more complicated. I lived in Manhattan in various apartments near the East River between 23rd and 97th streets until I was nine years old. Then I went to live on the North side of Chicago for about four years. Then we moved back to New York City in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

I played a lot of sports when I was a kid. I played baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. But that only started when we moved to Chicago. In Manhattan everybody improvised. In the streets of New York in the late 1950s we played stickball with a small red rubber ball (a Spaldeen) and a broom handle for a bat. Kids roller skated with clamp-on skates with metal wheels. Dads made scooters out of 2 by 4s and orange crates, with skates nailed to the bottom.

Chicago was another world. Whatever you want to say about climate change, the truth is it was cold and windy all winter long in Chicago in the early 1960s. I was very embarrassed that I didn’t know how to ice-skate. I found an indoor rink away from my neighborhood where I could rent skates and teach myself how to skate.

We lived in an apartment on North Clark Street in the Edgewater section of Chicago. My first year I went to Peirce Public School. The playground at Peirce School is famous in the history of Chicago, and in all of North American speed skating. Almost all the Olympic speed skaters in the U.S. came out of skating clubs that have their origins traced to the Peirce Playground Skating Club. Starting in the late 1930s with the backing of the mayor, and city recreation money, a field-house was built and dedicated to after-school recreation activities.

I started skating at Peirce Playground in 1962. Most of the activity was centered on speed-skating. The man in charge by then was Norman “Coach” Anderson. Coach Anderson ran the skating program and all the field house activities. He was on the city payroll as a teacher during the school year. All summer long he was organizing the softball leagues, and handing out the equipment. And keeping the kids in line. During the summer he didn’t get paid. Coach Anderson was at Peirce Playground for 40 years. He died in 2013. He washed kids mouths out with soap if they swore. He taught me to play table tennis. I beat him once and he bought me an orange soda. He was a good man.

In 1938 Fred Gohl was put in charge of Peirce Playground. He flooded the whole field with water to make a gigantic frozen lake. Coach Anderson took over the freezing of Peirce Playground in 1960. I wasn’t any good at speed skating, and I went off to a section of the Playground where some of us could play hockey. I learned to skate well, but the speed skates were a problem. I was trying to stop someone from scoring a goal. I fell backward and punctured my butt with the long ends of the speed skates. Coach Anderson helped me get some hockey skates.

5557 NClark

My “Peirce” neighborhood: 1. Orange square = Our apartment at 5557 N. Clark St; 2. Yellow rectangle = Winter skating in Peirce Playground; 3. Red X = Peirce Field House; 4. Blue arrow = shortcut from apartment to back of Peirce Playground. (Note: The long school building on W. Bryn Mawr Ave. was erected in 1999)

In the summer we played 16 inch softball. This is almost entirely a Chicago thing. No gloves. In 1977 the newspaper columnist Mike Royko sued the Grant Park Softball League. He sued them for allowing players to use gloves. Royko wrote about it in a column: “Fortunately, the case was heard by a judge who had the gnarled fingers of an old Chicago softball player, and I won.”

Chicago was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Parents couldn’t afford baseball gloves, and 16 inch softball became very popular. The ball is pitched very slowly and with a considerable arc. It is a very high scoring game with lots of action in the field. A new ball is quite hard at the beginning of a game, but does soften up later. There are some advantages to 16 inch softball. You only need a bat and a ball. The playing field is smaller because you can’t hit the ball so far. The biggest problem is you have to know how to catch. I mean really. Nobody has done an actual study but there are reports from doctors that Chicago emergency rooms in the summer have lots of broken fingers and dislocated thumbs. It’s a Chicago thing.

I learned to catch at Peirce Playground. I learned to play ice hockey at Peirce. I learned to play table tennis at Peirce. And with the help of Coach Anderson I learned to stick up for myself at Peirce Playground.

 

  1. (Brief History of Peirce Playground) http://www.edgewaterhistory.org/ehs/content/v26-1-peirce-school-playground-brief-history-peirce-skating-club.
  2. One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko By Mike Royko (‘Ode to the Softies,’ p. 122)
  3. (Article about 16 inch softball hazards) http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-16-inch-softball-josh-noel-talk-20140824-story.html

 

 

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