World’s Largest Softball Tailgate draws array of attendees

By Charlotte Carroll

Unsure of what to expect, the Hearn family left their house in Lawrenceville, Ill., around 7 a.m. on Saturday in order to grab a spot at the World’s Largest Softball Tailgate. They ended up being the first ones there, if the crew setting up the event doesn’t count.  

They had no family playing in the Illinois softball team’s doubleheader against Nebraska or children who attend the University. Rather, they found the event on Illinois’s website and decided it was the perfect fit for a family that loves softball and was looking to celebrate father Tom Hearn’s 50th birthday.

The Hearn group was similar to a lot of the attendees at the tailgate who were there to enjoy Illini softball and a fun atmosphere filled with friends and family. Illinois’s 11th annual World’s Largest Softball Tailgate was named the best single-game promotion for an Olympic sport by the Big Ten Conference in 2007.

Tom and Jenifer Hearn brought their daughter, son and their daughter’s boyfriend to experience the college game atmosphere, while soaking up the differences between collegiate and high school matchups.

“I want to see Big Ten college softball,” Tom said before the games. “I want to see what it looks like on the field. You can watch it on TV, but until you’re here to actually see it, you know I want to see it in person. I imagine it will be a lot faster.”

Though the Hearns arrived early, most tailgaters began pulling into the area outside Eichelberger field around 10 a.m. and continued to fill the parking lot until the Game One’s 1 p.m. first pitch.

At 11 a.m., live music from country artist and Watseka, Ill., native Nick Lynch filled the air. He had performed on American Idol, ABC’s Countdown Chicago 2014 and ABC’s Windy City Live.

But for Lynch, coming back close to home had its draws. Lynch attended Parkland and played golf for the school before leaving for American Idol. He remembers the days where he would go into old-town Urbana to check out bands or visit friends at Illinois’s Farmhouse International Fraternity. He even attended some softball games when he dated one of the players.

“I love Champaign,” Lynch said. “I loved living here. I love everything about, kind of the ‘Midwestern’ feel down here. There was always something for everybody in Champaign. You could find any way to do anything. You always had a great time.” 

It was such an atmosphere on Saturday that brought back the family that made home softball games at Illinois a reality. The Eichelberger reunion section of the tailgate, a staple since the event began, was filled with family and friends of Lila Jeanne “Shorty” and the late Paul Eichelberger.

The field, a major deferred gift in combination with ongoing annual gifts, was Eichelberger’s honor to her husband. She wanted to see the advancement of women’s athletics, while he had a passion for softball that derived from his youth.  

One of 10 children, including seven boys, Paul played fast-pitch softball on a team with his brothers that traveled all over Illinois. Five of those 10 were on hand for Saturday’s reunion. 

“I enjoy all the people that I get to meet that I don’t see all year,” said Marion “Shady” Eichelberger, Paul’s brother and the ninth of the 10 children. “Relatives from out of town come. We have a good time.”

Admitting no one knows him by Marion, Shady got his nickname at the age of five in a tale that nonetheless relates to his family’s softball past, a name that has stuck for more than 70 years.

“Well, the neighbors used to come down and play ball,” Eichelberger said. “They’d meet on Sundays. And I’d always thought I’d been big enough to play softball with them, but they wouldn’t let me play. So I’d haul off and hit them with a bat or something and then they’d hit me and I’d cry and go on and sit underneath the shade tree and that’s how I got the name.”

Drawing families, like the Hearns, from hours away or musicians like Lynch who’d indeed been to the field before, the World’s Largest Softball Tailgate brought together a mix of people with a passion for Illinois and softball. More importantly, it provided an opportunity to make connections with family and friends and to witness the growth of the program.

And though Eichelberger’s face was shaded by the Illinois cap he wore, the emotion was evident, as he described how much his brother would have liked what Illinois softball has become.   

“Paul would have enjoyed it,” Shady said. “It’s rough, yeah, but we all got to go. Live and carry on.”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected]