by Jim Bottorff
When author Josh Pahigian set about writing "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out", he decided to create a book that featured locales other than major league ballparks. Some of the sites were givens. Baseball museums, the Field of Dreams movie set, Babe Ruth’s grave, and several Chicago destinations: #29 Wrigleyville, #48 Billy Goat Tavern, and #55, the Black Sox Courthouse.
But one of the book’s more offbeat venues sits on page 66, at #27, Skokie’s very own World Wiffle® Ball Championship.
So how did this somewhat obscure perforated plastic tournament find its way onto Pahigian’s radar?
“I was drawn to the story of how the tournament was born — almost accidentally — as a collaboration between childhood friends,” said Pahigian. “I was also fascinated by how it has matured and grown through the years, exemplifying baseball's hold over us as a culture and its ability to adapt and endure, even with the changing times.”
“Most of us fall in love with baseball as kids, but as we age the chances for us to play the game become fewer and fewer," he said. “As we grow up, most of us lack the time, the space, or the sheer number of people required to play an actual game of hardball. But wiffleball is one adaption of the game that allows us to still feel the thrill of bat meeting ball, of making a leaping play in the field, of blowing the ball by a hitter. This wiffleball tournament — the finest one of them all — is a treasure of the American baseball road, and one I hope every fan gets to experience.”
The tournament is also the game’s oldest. Conceived in the summer of 1980, its Mishawaka, Indiana teenage founders continued to stage the championship at a park a few miles from Notre Dame every summer for more than three decades, while their complicated adult lives marched on. Along the way they also hosted regional tournaments in their new home towns —in Baltimore; in Oregon; in Los Angeles; in Barcelona, Spain; and in Skokie.
In 2013, after 33 years in Mishawaka, the plastic bat-and-ball institution moved 100 miles west to the Skokie Park District’s Channelside Park. Nevertheless, the hardcore wifflers continued to come. Representing nearly 20 states — from California to Florida to Massachusetts — men, women, and kids make their annual pilgrimage to Skokie in July for a weekend of nothing but wiffleball near the shores of Lake Michigan.
And Pahigian understands the national significance of the funny little ball — and the game. In the book he writes:
“Since its invention in Shelton, Connecticut in 1953, the Wiffle® Ball has made dreamers of us all. The game was the perfect antidote for a rapidly urbanizing America that no longer provided every neighborhood with five acres of open space suitable for hardball, or with eighteen like-minded individuals to facilitate a game even if such a field existed. Through the decades, we have made the Wiffle® Ball a regular part of recreational lives, bringing it along on camping expeditions, trips to the beach, company picnics, and other excursions.”
And the tournament itself? According to the book:
“Watching twelve games unfold all at once on the first day of the tournament is truly a sight to behold. It’s sort of like the first days of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament in March, when the action is fast and furious and you don’t even know where you should be directing your attention.
…there are plenty of home runs to see, plenty of diving catches, plenty of baffling trick pitches and plenty of late-inning heroics as players dig into the batter’s boxes with their games and seasons on the line. It’s every Wiffle Ballers fantasy, and it plays out over and over again on this one special weekend each summer in Skokie, Illinois.”
Note: The World Wiffle® Ball Championship is now played in Midlothian, Illinois. Josh Pahigian is also the co-author of ”The Ultimate Baseball Roadtrip.” The book mentioned in the story above is the recently released second edition. The 2008 first edition, listed the former Indiana wiffleball tournament site at #20. Buy the new book here.