Origin of Softball

As George Hancock saw someone hit a boxing glove with a broom handle inside the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago, he yelled “let’s play ball”. He had just had a vision - this was indoor baseball. The main adjustment had to come with pitching. In 1884, Baseball had just turned to overhand pitching, but indoors, it had to be done underhand.

Hancock was a reporter for The Chicago Board of Trade. On Thanksgiving Day 1887 he was waiting for the result of the annual football game between Yale and Harvard Universities. The man who threw the boxing glove was a Yale alumnus and intended to celebrate a 17-8 victory. The hitter was a Harvard alumnus and intended to return the glove. But he hit it hard enough to send it well above the head of his friend from Yale.

Hancock was quick to grab a piece of chalk and mark a home plate, the bases and a pitcher’s box. He tied the boxing glove with its own strings to get something close to a sphere and confirmed the broom handle as a bat.

The teams were formed in a matter of minutes and ended up playing all day. Over 80 runs were scored.

First Rules

Hancock went on to publish an Indoor Baseball Guide and in the following summer took the game outdoors. Indoor/Outdoor was played on fields not big enough for baseball. By 1889 Hancock had created a set of rules.

According to author Erica Westly, the rules were “vague” enough to leave room for interpretation, mainly on the size of the ball and the distance between the bases. Indoor Baseball became nonetheless very popular in the Chicago Area. By 1892 Amateur Leagues featured over 100 teams and had been introduced into the Cook County High School League, that involved all the public High Schools in Chicago and its suburbs. Indoor Baseball was played with a 17-inch ball (over 43 centimetres) and a narrow bat. As the game moved outdoors, the size of the ball was reduced to 16 inches (almost 41 centimetres).

The first girl’s team was formed in 1895 by the West Division High School (then McKinley; it closed in 1954) and it took four years to find some competition. By 1889, Medill High School, that had opened in 1898, had an Indoor Baseball team for girls.

Women’s sport wasn’t too popular in the late nineteenth century. The Victorian notion that “strenuous physical activity” could put women at risk of “infertility and premature death” was far from being challenged.

Kitten Ball

In 1895 Lieutenant Lewis Robert Senior thought the Firefighters of the Minneapolis station needed some exercise while waiting for an alarm. He created an Indoor/Outdoor field in a vacant lot outside the station. The Firefighters played using a ball of yarn wrapped in leather. The game became known as kitten ball in the Minneapolis area. Competition between Firefighters attracted up to 3,000 spectators.

The game was also known under the names of mush ball, big ball, town ball, recreation ball or playground ball. By 1897 it had expanded to Canada.

Albert Spalding

In 1907 Albert Spalding published his guide to what he kept calling Indoor Baseball. A rule book published in 1908 stated that the first batter in each inning determined in which direction to run after hitting the ball.

The new game had different versions with two constants: the ball was bigger then a baseball and the pitching was underhand.

Softball

In 1922 the Minneapolis Park Board, that had adopted the game in 1913 in parks and playgrounds of the city, changed the name to Diamond Ball. Apparently, it was accepted as a common name for all the different versions. It was only in 1926 that the name softball was introduced.

Since the early 1920s the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) had started considering the new sport an alternative to baseball. They didn’t like their instructors to teach baseball, because they associated it with heavy drinking (Prohibition became effective as of January 1920 and wasn’t repealed until 1933) and gambling.

In the late nineteenth century YMCA had successfully introduced young Americans to the games of basketball (1891) and volleyball (1895; initially the sport was known as mintonette). It was 1926 when Physical Education Director Walter Hakanson, then in his late twenties (he would become a Commissioner and then the President of the Amateur Softball Association), proposed to unify the game under the name of softball.

In a set of rules approved by the American Physical Education, the ball size was narrowed to two options: 12 inches (30,48 centimetres) and 14 inches (35.56 centimetres). Chicago resisted a gloveless version played with 16 inches (40,64 centimetres) balls.

Many in the US refer to the 1920s as The Roaring Twenties because of unprecedented economic prosperity. In the book Whither Mankind, a Panorama of Modern Civilization (edited by Charles A. Beard and published in 1928) economist Stuart Chase (1888-1985) refers to “the machine age” and to jobs that “demand a righting of an outraged biological balance through some form of play”.

Softball seemed to many factories the right way to keep workers active and in good spirits. The game grew popular also because it didn’t require a lot of space.

World Fair

In 1933 the city of Chicago decided to host the World’s Fair, to celebrate “one century of progress” (Chicago was founded in August 1833). After the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the unemployment rate had grown to around 40%.

In conjunction with the Fair, Major League Baseball (MLB) organized the first-ever All Star Game. The World Fair decided to add a softball tournament to the programme and issued an invitation to Leo Fischer and M.J. Pauley, who were at the time running a successful softball tournament in the Chicago area.

The two were given a 500-dollar budget. Fischer, an assistant sports editor with the Chicago American, gave publicity to the tournament. After touring the US by car, Fischer and Pauley attracted 55 teams (two thirds were men's) from 16 States. William Randolph Hearst, the Chicago American published, provided extra funding to buy the trophies.

The tournament was played in early September and the most difficult thing for Fischer and Pauley was to have teams agree on rules. As Fischer puts it in his book Winning Softball: “We wrote an arbitrary set of rules”. This included the use of a 14-inch ball (35.56 centimetres).

First Governing Body

The success of the tournament, that attracted over 70,000 spectators, convinced Fischer and Pauley that softball needed a national governing body. They set up an office at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago and founded the Amateur Softball Association (ASA). Fischer became the President, while Pauley was hired full time (with a $ 2,600 salary, according to Bill Plummer’s book The Game America Plays) as the Executive Secretary.

In 1934, 25 States (plus Canada) were represented in ASA membership. The number grew to 35 in 1945 and 41 in 1936.

Fastpitch

Fastpitch (or fastball in Canada), using a 12-inch (30.48 centimetres) ball, became the more competitive version of the game. Slowpitch, with its lobbing pitching style, became a game for senior citizens and children.

A variety of pitching styles were still possible in fastpitch and until 1939 (undertaker rule) the pitcher was required to wear black or a darker uniform. In 1939, the pitching distance was set to 43 feet (13,11 metres) for men and to 35 feet (10,7 metres) for women. In the same year the ASA Michigan started the publication of the Softball (later Softball News) magazine. The inspiration had come from the bulletin Balls and Strikes that Leo Fischer himself had started in 1937.

Trending in America

In the 1930s softball was becoming a popular men’s game. In 1937 a retired Babe Ruth accepted to face 25 year old pitcher John CannonBall Baker at a Charity Event and ended up swinging and missing 15 consecutive pitches.

Leo Fischer didn’t believe that women’s softball was going to have a bright future but still believed that the ladies “could have their chances, if they wanted to”.

Women’s softball kept growing, especially in California. ASA sanctioned women’s softball exhibitions at The Madison Square Garden in New York, featuring the New York Roverettes. But ASA suffered a setback during the World War II years.

In 1943 Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, started the Pro Women’s Softball League.

The All American Girls Baseball League and the rivals National Girls Softball League had a negative effect on the ASA National Championship. Attendance to women’s games declined during the war years.

On the contrary, during World War II men’s softball thrived, especially in US Military bases.

Global Game

In the meantime, softball had been introduced in Australia in 1939 by Gordon Young, the Director of Physical Education in New South Wales and by 1947 and Interstate Women’s Championship was played.

In the mid 1930s H.H. Wilson, who had known softball as he worked for Ford Motors in the US, had introduced the game in New Zealand and by January 1938 the Softball Council was founded in Wellington.

South Africa had started playing women’s softball in 1946 and men’s in 1947. The South African Softball Association had been established in 1949.

Before the Commercial Treaty between USA and Japan was terminated in 1939, baseball and softball had experienced Goodwill Tours to Japan. In 1949 the Japan Softball Association (JSA) had separated from the Japan Rubber Baseball Association and had organized a Women’s National Softball Championship.

When ASA fourth President Nick Barack attended the 1950 ASA Commissioner’s Council annual Meeting, over 250,000 softball teams were active in the USA and over 65,000 were registered with ASA. This took players membership to over 970,000.

Barack wrote to ASA Commissioners: "…approval was received so that we may now organize National Federations in various countries which now play softball. From these National Federations will come an International Softball Federation which will be the representative body of nations in the Olympic and Pan American competition. There is not much doubt that this plan will become a reality at an early date…".