History of softball
Softball was born as a result of an improvised baseball game held on Thanksgiving Day 1887 between the attendants of the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago, Illinois, gathered to hear the score of the Harvard – Yale football match.
After the outcome was announced, a Yale alumnus jokingly throws a boxing glove towards one of the other side’s supporters, who responds by hitting the glove out of the way with a broom handle. It is said that George Hancock was the one to then call out “Play ball!”, with the boxing glove tightened with string into a ball, broom handles serving as bats, and a small baseball diamond drawn with chalk on the floor of the club serving as playing field. This first softball game ended 41-40 after one hour and 40 minutes of play.
In the following days, George Hancock will develop an undersized bat specifically for playing the game, while the rules for this new indoors version of baseball are established at the Farragut Club, on the floor of which a small baseball diamond will be drawn permanently.
Initially called indoor baseball, it gains in popularity as a way for players to maintain their skills when bad weather wouldn’t otherwise allow them to practice, and a seasonal Winter League is quick to form in Chicago in 1889. Another thing that makes it stand out over traditional baseball is the fact that it doesn’t require a glove to play since the 16-inch (circumference) ball settled upon at the Farragut Club can safely be caught barehanded.
A similar version of the game, this time intended to be played outdoors, will appear just six years later, in 1895. It is still a matter of debate if Lewis Rober was familiar with the rules published in 1889 by George Hancock when he organizes his games of “kittenball” as a way to stave off boredom for firefighters in between calls.
Kittenball (also known as lemon ball and diamond ball) was played on a smaller pitch and with a faster ball. The number of innings was reduced to 7 in order to make for an overall faster paced, more aggressive but shorter match. The birthplace of this new game is considered to be Fire Station no. 19, in Minneapolis where Rober was stationed from 1896 to 1906.
The 12 inches ball used in Rober’s game became prevalent in the modern sport, but the size of the pitch is reminiscent of the one drawn by Hancock at the Farragut Club, so it wouldn’t be accurate to attribute the paternity of softball to any one of the two men.
The game will quickly spread throughout the Great Lakes area and Canada, where a softball league is organized in 1897 in Toronto. Regardless of the version played, it came to be known by a whole slew of colloquial names, such as cabbage ball, pumpkin ball or mulch ball. The modern name was first proposed in 1926 by Walter Hakanson of the YMCA during a meeting of the National Recreation Congress and officiated in 1936 by the Joint Rules Committee on Softball.
During the same conference, the rules for softball are standardized throughout the US, since it was felt that the game grew enough in popularity for national leagues to be formed. This was in no small part due to the publicity softball enjoyed throughout the early 1930s:
In 1931, a team of seniors, ironically calling themselves the Kids and Kubs were traveling all over the country and playing exhibition matches dressed in formal suits.
More importantly, a softball tournament was organized as part of the hugely popular 1933 Chicago World Fair by journalist Leo Fischer and salesman Michael Pauley. A total of 55 teams competed in 3 divisions of slow pitch (Hancock), fast pitch (Rober) and women’s, drawing a total of 350.000 spectators.
By 1940, it was estimated that around seven million people were practicing the sport throughout the US and Canada, organized in various local and national leagues, with standardized rules for men, women and children’s teams. The fastpitch became notably more popular by this date, but Hancock’s versions still maintain a strong presence, especially in its birthplace of Chicago, where it was played extensively through to the present day.
The sport is to be introduced to Britain and the Netherlands following WWII, and the first English Softball Women’s League will be formed in 1953. An international regulatory body is introduced in 1951, and the first world fastpitch championships are held in 1965 in Melbourne, Australia with the US women’s team dominating the competition. A championship for men would be held one year later in Mexico City, and in 1970 it’s established that softball international championships will take place every four years.
Despite its increasing popularity, softball remains a purely amateur game until 1977, when the American Professional Slow Pitch league becomes the first out of three to be formed during the game’s short stint among the “professionals”, which was to end in 1982.
In 1991, women’s fastpitch hits its highest peak to date, when it’s introduced as an Olympic event for the 1996 Atlanta games. The competition is expectedly dominated by the US team, where softball remains one of the favorite amateur sports, with an estimated 25 million people practicing regularly.
Sadly, starting with the 2012 Olympic Games in Beijing, baseball and softball had been dropped from the list of gold medal sports.