Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Park Forest Girls' Softball

In 1973, when I was nine, the youngest you could be and still play, girls' softball came to Park Forest, Illinois. We'd had boys' baseball, well, forever, and my father was an umpire. When I was five or six, my father was an umpire at the state championship, and my mother woke us up at 6 a.m. (my sister was four) and sat us in front of the little black-and-white television and said, "Your father's on t.v.!" I didn't see my father. I did see a baseball game. "That's him, the umpire, in the mask and chest protector." It didn't look anything like my father. And when he called out the balls and strikes and dramatically, "You're OUT!" he really didn't sound or look anything like my father.

When girls' softball arrived, it arrived as an entire league, with three tiers and at least 24 teams. My father took me downtown and signed us up: I would play and he would be the manager. His friend from work who also lived in Park Forest and had a daughter named Suzy, Jack Sizemore, would coach. So we were Suzy Sizemore and Suzy Sink (I had not been Suzy before, but softball meant extraordinary efforts for me to fit in) and our dads were in charge of our team, the Kittens. (At age 11 we would become Cougars, and then at 14, Lions). Our color was navy. We played teams like the Ponies (Yellow), Papooses (Green) and Cubbies (light blue). We were issued hats and jerseys and randomly assigned to teams. We showed up for the opening day parade dressed in our uniforms, some girls with jerseys down below their knees, more than 300 girls in colorful ranks.

The Kittens' first practice was rained out. But my father still held a team meeting in our basement, and an intimidating group of girls showed up. He set up a blackboard and instructed us in the basics: names of positions, rules of the game, etc. I was more interested in the social aspects of the situation. I remember Cindy Cissell chewing a wad of gum and blowing very large bubbles. Maggie Egofske paid attention. Suzy Sizemore played with her hair. Neither of them looked interested in being my friend.

Eventually, the team meeting ended. Girls had to wait for their parents to pick them up, and the sky had cleared. They all seemed to have gloves already. Someone had a softball, and Cindy and Maggie started playing catch. Others joined in. My father stepped back and said, "Wow." He was already assigning positions. Cindy Cissell had an amazing arm-- 3rd base. Maggie knew how to pitch already, and Jill could field-- 1st base. One by one, parents came, and players left.

The promise of that first day was more than fulfilled in the first season. We soundly won every game, by as much as 33-3. After batting around, the inning was over, so there were checks on our rallies. It turned out there were other girls in Park Forest who didn't know how to play as well as the girls that landed on our team.

I played center and right field. I was told right field was important for backing up the first baseman, but at that level, nothing ever really left the infield. Girls couldn't hit that far, nor could they "overthrow" that far. I sat in the field with my glove on my head and watched butterflies. One miserable day I poured lemonade over my head between innings, thinking it was water.

I continued to play until I was 13, when I moved on to summer theater at Governor's State College, a much better fit for me. But I did like many things about girls' softball in Park Forest. I liked practices, especially those breezy evenings in midsummer and evenings when rain blew through. I liked the girls on our team, and the hats. I liked especially the scoreboard my father made out of wood, with painted number blocks my brother would hang from pegs to track the innings, outs and score. I liked the annual parade. I liked playing on different fields all over town, driving into neighborhoods I hadn't known before, where there were named fields with dugouts and backstops and bleachers.

The entry on Norman Rockwell has brought some other Kittens out to the blog. More and more people I grew up with are finding these happy memories, and asking that I write more about that special place and the privilege we had of growing up there.


Sarah Reynolds said...

Ah yes, the Kittens. I was a late comer, in the summer of 1974 and have great memories of the team, your dad and the other Sinks around the field.

I still remember the day when we went to the basement of Westwood Jr. High to get fitted for our very cool dark blue shirts with gold/white around the arm.

Your dad was the best coach I ever had, hands down.

I have great memories of growing up in PF and especially summers filled with softball.

Thanks for writing.

Anne Lloyd said...

I was on the Ponies and we lost by slaughter rule pretty much every game. I felt bad for the one or two really good players on the team.

I played ninth and batted right for all five years I played. Except when I batted tenth because we had that extra made-up position called "short center." So I was the worst player on the worst team.

In those days (before I lived in New Orleans), I couldn't stand heat and humidity. Also, I wore glasses which tended to fog up and get driven into the bridge of my nose when those grounders hit a bounce and I wasn't fast enough with my glove (which was always).

Still, PF Girls Softball was such a pageant. I loved being part of it (sort of).

Mindy Wolfe said...

What a great blog. Thank you Susan for writing it.
The Ponies, Broncos, and Cowboys may have lost a lot but we had a ton of fun. There were a few of us that stuck with yellow our entire softball careers. Go Ponies!