Softball has its origins in the game of baseball, the bat-and-ball sport which was first played in America with a codified set of rules in Hoboken, New Jersey on 19 June 1846. The game of softball appeared in the U.S. just over thirty years later in 1887. While the two sports are similar in many ways, they also contrast in a number of ways -- as does their history. This paper will examine the history of softball and show how and why it developed out of the game of baseball.
With the first known game of softball being played on Thanksgiving Day in Chicago between Yale and Harvard football fans. The game began quite by accident and quite spontaneously when, after the results of the football game between the two rivals were announced and winning parties were awarded their money, a graduate from Yale hurled a boxing mitt at a fan of the school of Harvard. The man at whom the boxing mitt was hurled did not hesitate but reacted as any sporting fan with a stick in his hands would have: he swung at it with a stick.
Just then a man named George Hancock cried out, "Play ball!" And a good-natured game of a make-shift baseball was immediately begun. The boxing mitt was wrapped up and knotted and used as a make-shift ball. A broom stick served as a bat. And Yale and Harvard supporters served as the players. Hancock used to chalk to outline the baseball field diamond (inside the boat club where the men proposed to play, no less), and the men fielded the "ball" with their bare hands. An hour later, when the game was over and the score stood 41-40, Hancock was determined to make softball a real sport. That very same week he set about making it one.
Taking his cue from the sport of baseball (but also from the fact that the game he had played had taken place indoors as opposed to outdoors), Hancock decided that players would use an undersized bat and keep the use of the "soft" ball. The boat club (named Farragut Boat Club) helped create the rules for what would eventually be known as softball but what for now would simply be known as "Indoor Baseball," since it continued to be played indoors and was so similar to the game of baseball. Soon, however, players of the game would want to play it outdoors as well, and the game took up a new title: "Indoor-Outdoor."
In 1889 the first set of official rules were set out and within the decade variations of Hancock's spur-of-the-moment game of softball were being played all over the country. In 1895 in Minneapolis, for example, a man named Lewis Rober went so far as to organize games of "kittenball," as it was called (so-named after one of the teams that played it) for local firemen. The game was also called "lemonball" and "diamond ball." Rather than the 16-inch "soft" ball developed by Hancock and the Farragut Club in Chicago, Rober called for a smaller version of the "soft" ball -- one that measured only 12 inches in circumference (a diminutive version of the Chicago ball, which was a little less than one half of the size of a modern day basketball).
Rober popularized the game, perhaps as inadvertently as Hancock invented the game, by using it to keep his firemen busy or to give them something to do in between calls. Beside the fire station, Rober plotted out the dimensions of the diamond (making it small, of course). Just as the first game played by the fans of Harvard and Yale lasted one hour, Rober's game for his firemen was limited to seven innings, which allowed the game to last roughly an hour -- like the first game played in the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago.
Rober's games of softball, in which the Minneapolis fire department took such pleasure, began to attract the attention of nearly all the locals. The games were quick, tight, offensively and defensively exciting, and increasingly competitive. Crowds began to form to watch the games and sometimes those in attendance numbered as many as 3,000.
Rober's 12-inch in circumference "softball" would become the standard size of the ball used for the sporting event. On the other hand, the Chicago-style diamond would stay as the standard size of the field used during play. However, it would be more than a decade before the Minneapolis Park Board officially recognized the recreational sport and invited people to play it in parks around the city.
In 1897, softball was made into a league sport in Toronto, Canada -- but still the game was not known as "softball." That name did not become official for more than another thirty years. In the meantime, the game was known by any number of names (such as the ones already mentioned as well as "mush ball" and "pumpkin ball." It was Walter Hakanson of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) who termed the game "softball" in 1926. While this name certainly caught on and was used to describe the game all over the United States as early as 1930, the fact remains that the game was still known by its other titles and played according a variety of rules and in a variety of ways.
One of the more endearing teams to play the game (which had so many different names) was a team of 75-year-old men who, ironically, called themselves Kids and Kubs. These old men traveled the country in 1931 and played the sport in their suits for the amusement of spectators. Truly, the sport appealed to young and old, men and women alike.
In 1933, the Chicago World's Fair held a softball tournament, hosted by Leo Fischer (a news reporter) and Michael Pauley (a salesman). The event drew 55 teams. There were three categories: a fast-pitch category for men, a slow-pitch category for men, and a category for women. (It might be said in a side note that the slow-pitch version of the game, played without gloves, is the version most faithful to Hancock's original rules). The event was witnessed by more than a quarter of a million people (after all, it was the World's Fair) and more than anything else helped popularize the sport all across the globe. Before long, the sport was being played in the Netherlands, in Australia and in England.
That tournament at the World's Fair inspired the Amateur Softball Association to form the same year. The Association formalized the rules of the game and in 1934 an organization known as the Joint Rules Committee on Softball officially weighed in with what essentially was a standardization of the popular game already being played across America. The Joint Rules Committee on Softball allowed the new pastime to develop a serious and official following -- with Rober's 12-inch "softball," of course.
As the sport was played by boys, men, and women of all ages, some leeway was given to the acceptable size of fields. For smaller ages, the field dimensions were obviously smaller, and for fast-pitch softball the dimensions were different from those adopted for slow-pitch softball. That said, the softball pitcher will ultimately stand within the range of 35-50 feet from the batter, while the bases will be spaced anywhere from 55-65 feet apart. Just as baseball became a more complex and competitive sport, so too did softball. Fast-pitch softball pitchers practiced hurling the ball to the batter just as quickly as any professional baseball pitcher would hurl a baseball.
From the 1950s onward, an organization known as the International Softball Federation began to oversee softball competition across the entire world. In Australia in 1965, women competed for the first time in an international championship match that…