All the World’s a Batter’s Box
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
All the World’s a Batter’s Box
by John Lisbon Wood
After five decades it’s “once more into the breach” for the Chicago Theatre Softball League.
Clarington Park Chicago, 5:30 Monday. --- And there they go -- the Starving Comedians-- onto the dusty field in this late noon of softening eve. Later, when nigh hath the day gently swallowed, these bold, jesters of hilarity may well be camped in front of a microphone at Zanies or romping through some inspired silliness at Second City, but at the moment it’s time for a different biz-- the biz of old fashioned Chicago 16 inch bare knuckle ( and they are bare) Softball.
All thoughts of Jeff Awards, second call backs on Oreo commercials and the impending agony of 2 a.m. tech rehearsals have taken a brief respite as this assemblage of energetic, passionate, risk taking Chicago Performing troupes (called by Hamlet: “The Abstract and Brief Chroniclers of Our Times”) are with spirits ablaze, called to this goodly sport.
“To arms, to arms, the enemy is afield,” is the clarion call of the Improv Olympics. They are allied with stalwarts of any and all abilities --able legions of dutiful foot soldiers; those who man the light boards; place the props proper; illuminate the stages; position the players on the boards;, even those who wear the glistening crown of producer -- are ably reinforced by musicians, singers, guardians of Actor’s Equity, who with sweated sinew and hearts steeled strive on to hopeful triumph.
For five decades these playing fields have witnessed the airborne apogees and ricochets of the tightly interlaced DeBeers’ “hand masher,” which has inflicted on its veteran participants many a crooked finger.
“Fast Eddie,” the Javier Baez of the league, resplendent in eye black and a countenance that would scare the Tewksbury Mustard out of Lady McBeth, assumes the posture of a creature bent on dark eyed savagery.
Meanwhile, “Mother Courage” Barbra steadfastly positions herself behind the worn disc of a Homeplate that has born a thousand cleat gouges, while daughter “You Go Girl Shannon” secures second base. Yes, this the selfsame Shannon who in decades past was first stationed in a playpen along the first baseline, then but a tender babe. On yonder field “Mag Mile” Margaret plays for a team that her father first fielded. The roots run deep in this league.
The essence of drama is conflict, so says Aristotle. (Didn’t he once play for the Ancient Greeks or was it the Misfits?) “Batter up!” trumpets the ump, a firm constable unvarnished by personal sway. Cuda, who was once in a local production of Hedda Gabler and lived to tell about it, strides purposely forward shouldering his Easton aluminum war baton. The battle is joined.
Mike, “The Artful Dodger,” issues forth with his patented “ring-maker”, arcing high, spinning backwards, delivered after a perfectly choreographed 1-2-3 shuffle designed with the treacherous motive of “getting inside the batter’s head.” Yes, there is method in his madness. The hands of this steadfast legionnaire of both improv and Chicago softball bear the bridle of crushed knuckles born of long years of unprotected impact with the legendary 16-inch Chicago “digit deforming” Clincher, unique to the city of broad shoulders.
Note: This is not New York or LA LA Land with its 12-inch orbs and mitted hands. No, this sphere has the girth of a cannonball launched from Henry V’s medieval siege mortar. And it can feel like one when bravely snared with this too, too, solid flesh. Thus, is necessitated the oft-used technique of the belly and/or chest basket catch whereupon this leaded circular projectile is captured by cloaking it with both arms against the body, ably demonstrated by The Factory’s stalwart Ron the Pink Socked Flash, as he tumbles to earth cradling this oft troublesome sphere for an out.
“Three lovelies” as Nelson Algren called his hearty, adored Chicago women, take the field in every contest. The mantra of these fair damsels: we give no quarter and expect none. As Tara “T-Rex” who in Zombie Broads, gained legendary fame by having a wicked dagger affixed to her ponytail whereupon she spun her head around creating a scythe of dismemberment, proffers that one of the joys of playing in the league is “we’re all accepted as equals.” Yes, they may well play a coy dainty ingenue on stage at Court Theatre, but on the Park District’s lumpy soil all such theatrical affections cease. No thoughts given to sweat, occasional scrapes, or the grimy residue of muddy pits engulfing second base, the unwelcome aftermath of a late afternoon Lake Michigan squall. These Courtly Maidens came to play and play they do. Witness mezzo soprano Mary the Bear who issues forth with elegant arias in Hyde Park but come game time she punches the “Puccini” out of the ball.
The curtain on the League first arose in 1978 when Ricardo “The Rock,” current manager of Writer’s Theatre team who also serves as artistic co-manager of the company, teamed up with the original ”Noble Elder” Ron B. now the ever present seated stoic sentry known for his stirring saxophone rendition of the National Anthem for the All Star game. What started as a scrub game with local show biz types has evolved into twice weekly (Monday and Wednesday) double headers in the new century,
Ned “The Natural” still a grey-haired softball slinger for Straw Dogs, is a font of Remembrances of Things Past. He points to a leafy grove, now a blessed canopy of shade for an assemblage of supporting partisans, composed of relatives, partners, toddling offspring and an eclectic assortment of dogs of unconditional devotion. They were just newly-planted seedlings when long ago he played alongside Bill William Peterson, John Cusack and Bill Murray who had as many hits as he has Academy Award and Golden Globe Nominations
On the fields it’s about playing like A Streetcar Named Desire, but it’s really all about fun and community says Ron (Joey Ballgame) who wanted to play with the league so badly but having no show biz credentials volunteered to be a stage manager for Straw dogs. Now, eleven shows later, stage managed, directed and written, he dutifully migrates between teams as a player of both skill and determination, an accepted custom in the League. But “Joey Ballgame” is more, much more: he is the much beloved “Comish” --the acknowledged heart and soul of the League, where his devotion to his fellow mates is evidenced by his constant patrolling of the fields for minute-to-minute updates on playing conditions as the capricious rains of a Chicago summer threaten to turn the fields into squishy quagmires. This steady stalwart of the league, knowing always that the game’s the thing, has dedicated salvaging whatever games he can, which often finds him laboriously shoveling wheelbarrows of sand onto the sodden fields, proving the Stanislavsky maxim “you must suffer for your art.”
Linked together in this fellowship of kindred spirits evidenced by the abundant photo and video clips of eccentric batting stances, semi-suicidal headfirst slides, one alertly positioned rapper “Rough and Ready” Serengeti, placard waving granddaughters and hot dog indulgences after the contests, it’s all chronicled on The Chicago Theater League Facebook Page. There you will find “Joey Ballgame’s” constant concern for his bonded brother and sister teammates evidenced by his pleas to wear sweatshirts in the chill of early June, drink more water in the furnace of August and to always be careful of bone and body in Bang-Bang dramas. Still more posts are dedicated to softball soldiers of fortune offering their services to willing teams, lost and found notices for various and sundry tools of the trade: gloves, jackets, hats, glasses and water bottles.
But then there are those special posts that truly embody the ethos of the Chicago Theatre league:
“Dbango Django”: shout out to Cheryl “Icechest” of the Ribbies who despite an injury helped get my cat to a veterinarian for a free procedure. We miss you dearly, you’re one of the finest, nicest, persons I have met in my nine years in this league. Prayers for your health going up.
“Hit it at me and it’ll be caught” Scott: One of our fellow actors and a damn fine ballplayer for Teatro Vista needs our help in raising funds to offset the expenses for his late father’s funeral. Click link below.
“Big Bopper Brian” “Hey, hey Chicago Theatre League Softball Family asking for support for daughter Miranda that many of you have shaped into the wonderful young woman she has become.
Note: Operative word: Family.
Occasionally, Comish Joey Ballgame learns that heavy is the head that wears the crown as an aggrieved Knave of Annoyance Theater loudly proclaims a personal winter of discontent visited on him by the scurrilous speech of a scoundrel from the tribe of Steppenwolf. But always a practitioner of artful diplomacy, the squabble is quickly reduced to Much Ado about Nothing, hands are shaken and apologies abound, proving yet again All’s Well That Ends Well.
The aforementioned Facebook page is also resplendent with abundant off-field invitations to romps of gaiety and fellowship that include gatherings for the Bike Ride, audition announcements, ticket offers, and invites to Cubs games.
After the spirited games many players who don’t have to run off to rehearsals congregate at various local pubs for convivial analyses, and that delightful after game chit-chat over tacos and beer that so enhances the vital human connective tissue of these “Impassioned Artists of the Royal Clincher Society.”
A special reminiscence held dear that has lived on and no one forgets is that of Judy “Hoover,” a much-regarded acting teacher and notorious softball warrior whose diminished height was compensated by her almost supernatural talent of corralling any errant ball at first base. Felled by the hellish curse of foul cancer and the loss of her breasts, she nevertheless courageously arrived at the fields with her surgically wounded body and a simple plea: I want to play. And so, she did. Then, at a crucial moment in the fiery Hurly Burly of an intense playoff game, she stood on second base carrying the winning run. The ball was stroked and she launched for home amidst the cheers of “Run Judy, run.” So, summoning up all of her dwindling energy to lift her feet, onward she trudged arriving at the plate where the catcher awaited to apply the tag, but this day Judy “Hoover” was not to be denied. On the verge of collapse, engendering a swirl of dust, Judy “The Hoover” executed a bonsai slide, dislodging the ball and so victory was had.
In time she passed into the light, but all her softball kin are sure God smiled and said: “Way to go, Judy Hoover.”
And, way to go Chicago Theatre League.
John Lisbon Wood is a writer, actor, director, and playwright, based in Chicago, Illinois.
An edited version of this story appeared in the Chicago Reader.