History of Softball

Although many people assume that softball was derived from baseball, the sport’s first game actually came about because of a football game. The history of softball dates back to Thanksgiving Day of 1887, when several alumni sat in the Chicago, Illinois Farragut Boat Club, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Yale versus Harvard football game. When Yale was announced as winner, a Yale alumnus playfully threw a boxing glove at a Harvard supporter. The Harvard fan swung at the balled-up glove with a stick, and the rest of the group looked on with interest. George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, jokingly called out, “Play ball!” and the first softball game commenced with the football fans using the boxing glove as a ball and a broom handle in place of a bat.

Due to the initial excitement surrounding the game, the Farragut Boat Club decided to officially devise their own set of rules, and the game quickly leaked to outsiders in Chicago and, eventually, throughout the rest of the Midwestern U.S. As the history of softball shaped itself over the next decade, the game went under the guise of “indoor baseball,” “kitten baseball,” “diamond ball,” “mush ball,” and “pumpkin ball.” In 1926, Walter Hakanson coined the term “softball” while representing the YMCA at a National Recreation Congress meeting, and by 1930, the term stuck as the sport’s official name.

In 1934, the Joint Rules Committee on Softball collaborated to create a set of standardized rules. Up until this point, the game was being played with varied rules, player positions, and ball sizes. The original softball used by the Farragut Boat Club was 16 inches in circumference. However, Lewis Rober Sr., the man responsible for organizing softball games for firefighters in Minneapolis, used a 12-inch ball. Rober’s ball won out as the preferred softball size, and professional softball games today are played using a 10–12-inch ball. However, many Chicagoans still hold fast to the belief that real softball is played using a 16-inch ball. Games using these 16-inch balls are often referred to as “cabbage ball,” “super slow pitch,” and “mush ball,” and unlike competitive softball, players are not allowed to wear fielding gloves.

While the sport was originally advertised as an indoor game for baseball players looking to maintain their dexterity during the off season, it gained so much popularity and recognition that it quickly became its own official sport. In 1991, women’s fast pitch softball was added to the roster of the 1996 Summer Olympics—a landmark many people recognize as the ultimate success of a sport. Although softball was later dropped from the 2012 Summer Olympics lineup, the game is still one of the most popular participant sports in the United States and 113 countries have officially joined the International Softball Federation since the organization’s formation in 1952.

According to the official rules developed early in the history of softball, and eventually defined by the International Softball Federation, there are nine players on the field at a time. The players take the positions of pitcher, catcher, first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, and outfielder. Usually, there are three outfielders holding the positions of right fielder, left fielder, and center fielder. However, slow pitch softball allows for a fourth person in the outfield. Similar to baseball, the team with the most runs at the end of the seventh inning is named the winner. However, if the teams are tied at the end of the seventh inning, the game can go into extra innings, until the tie is broken.

Today, softball is one of the most popular sports in the country, and an estimated 40 million Americans engage in at least one softball game each year. Because it can be played on either a field or an indoor arena, softball games are played year round and involve teams with players as young as 8 years old and some players over 60 years in age. Softball is sometimes played by corecreational leagues, where both women and men play on the same teams, but the rules are generally modified to reduce physical inequalities between the sexes. Often, companies and organizations form amateur coed teams to play for benefits and charity fund-raiser events.

The history of softball is still unfolding, and the game has undergone numerous modifications since its creation in 1887, but it is still one of the most preferred sports games in the country and has developed a following in several countries throughout the world, especially in Australia, China, and Japan. Loved by amateurs and professionals of all ages and athletic backgrounds, the world can only anticipate what is in store for the future of America’s other favorite pastime.

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