In this city where the history of softball begins, there is growing concern that Chicago's brand of the game -- played with 16-inch balls and without mitts -- may be following the steel mills into the history books.

Leagues have dwindled, the players that carried the sport for decades are growing old, and players who might otherwise have filled the void are being siphoned off by everything from soccer to video games.

Now, though, enthusiasts are trying to bring back the sport. And they are hoping to do it with teenagers -- a group typically about as interested in playing a game from the good old days as they are in hearing their parents talk about the good old days.

Six years ago, 16-inch softball was introduced as a varsity sport in the Chicago Public Schools. Played in the fall, so as not to compete with baseball, it allows players to learn a game they can keep playing for years to come. The number of teams has doubled, from 25 to 50. At least five more schools plan to join next year.

"The growth is slow, but it's coming around," said Mike North, a Chicago radio sports personality who helped launch the league in the hope players will fall in love with the game the way their parents and grandparents did and will want to keep playing after they graduate.

Whether he is right remains to be seen. Those who track the adult leagues say they are starting to see a few new faces. But it will take years before it becomes clear if high-schoolers will want to keep playing softball as adults.

If they do, they will be keeping alive a sport that, in its way, was as much a part of Chicago as the corner tavern and deep-dish pizza.

The way the story goes, softball was born in November 1887 inside Chicago's Farragut Boat Club. A Yale alumnus -- excited that his school had beaten Harvard in a football game -- threw an old boxing glove at a Harvard alum, who tried to hit it with a stick.

The exchange caused George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, to envision a version of indoor baseball. He spent years promoting the game, eventually adapting it for outdoors play.

Over the years, there were variations of the game in different parts of the country. Some played with a smaller ball, and some used gloves. In Chicago, the game was played with a 16-inch ball and without gloves.

"The 16-inch game came out of Chicago, and they stayed with it," said Bill Plummer III, manager of the National Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

The game became an integral part of life in Chicago. Talk to Chicagoans in their fifties, sixties and seventies, and you will hear stories about games on every block, "money games" between powerful neighborhood and league teams, playing in gym class in grade school and after school in parks until dark.

"When you used to go to picnics, everybody had a 16-inch ball and a bat in the car," said Dave Novak, director of the park district in nearby Forest Park and organizer of a No Gloves Nationals tournament in the Chicago suburb for the last 32 years.

"Every park had a league," said Ed Zolna, a retired Chicago detective who is the only softball player in both Chicago's 16-inch Hall of Fame and the national Hall of Fame. "Sometimes we'd have at least 1,000 people watching us."

Jim Hallgren, 58, said it was not uncommon to play for three teams in one night. "You had to race between parks," he said.

Players loved the game because the size of the ball made it a lot tougher to hit out of the park than a 12-inch softball. That meant thinking about where to hit the ball rather than just muscling up and hitting it as far as possible, and thinking about where to play hitters -- because without mitts there would be no one-handed diving catches. Their game was chess, the other one checkers.

They loved that it took guts to put bare hands in front of screaming line drives and that broken fingers were common. The late newspaper columnist Mike Royko, an avid player, once wrote that any player who wore a glove "ought to also wear a bra."

So deep was their affection for the game that to this day, when they die, their loved ones often include a mention of the game in their obituaries.

In recent years, just as the number of people playing softball has dropped around the country, Chicago's own version of the game has lost its grip on the city.

Although 16-inch softball remains a popular recreational sport -- one Chicago sports group estimates 4,000 people play in its leagues -- it is getting tougher to find highly competitive leagues or kids who know anything about it.

Valerie Gemskie, 31, coach of Walter Payton College Prep, last year's city champs, compares her childhood when every kid "on my block . . . got 16-inch softballs for their birthday" with her high-school players. Many had never played the game before joining the team.

"Do you have a stronger word than 'decline'?" asked Nick Santo of Santo Sports Store, a major supplier of equipment in the Chicago area. "It's a pretty bad situation."

Enthusiasts say a number of factors have contributed to the drop, starting with the growing popularity of other sports, particularly soccer, and activities such as roller-blading and electronic games.

Then there are girls' leagues, which have all but disappeared.

"They started giving [fast-pitch softball] scholarships for college, so all the girls moved to 12-inch," Novak said. "The popularity of women's 16-inch is almost nonexistent."

Santo said in the past 10 years or so his company's sales of boxes of 16-inch softballs -- each box contains a dozen balls -- have dropped from 4,000 a year to about 400 annually in the Chicago area.

But talk to high school players, and that may change.

"If I'm back in Chicago [as an adult], I'll play," said Aiden O'Dowd-Ryan, a captain of the team at Walter Payton. "I want to keep playing."

Teammate Sam Sherman agreed. "It will be pretty cool to play when you're older," he said.

Sean Gschwind of Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago swings at a pitch in a 16-inch softball game against Richards Career Academy. Since the city made the game a varsity sport six years ago, the number of schools with teams has doubled to 50. Gloveless Dylan Gschwind of Walter Payton pitches the 16-inch ball.Sales of the bigger softballs have dwindled with the unusual game itself.