The History of Softball

A softball game
JTerkelsen/Public Domain

Softball is a variant of baseball and a popular participant sport, particularly in the U.S. About 40 million Americans play a game of softball in any given year. However, the game owes its development to another sport entirely: football. 

The First Softball Game

George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, is credited with inventing softball in 1887. That year, Hancock gathered with some friends at the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago on Thanksgiving day to watch the Yale vs. Harvard game. The friends were a mix of Yale and Harvard alumni and one of the Yale supporters threw a boxing glove at a Harvard alumnus in triumph. The Harvard supporter swung at the glove with a stick he happened to be holding at the time. The game was soon on, with participants using the glove for a ball and a broom handle for the bat.

Softball Goes National

The game quickly spread from the comfy confines of the Farragut Boat Club to other indoor arenas. With the advent of spring, it headed outdoors. People began playing softball throughout Chicago, then all over the Midwest. But the game still didn’t have a name. Some called it “indoor baseball” or “diamond ball.” True baseball fanatics didn’t think much of the game and their names for it, such as “kitten baseball,” “pumpkin ball” and “mush ball” reflected their disdain.

The game was first called softball at the National Recreation Congress meeting in 1926. Credit for the name goes to Walter Hakanson who represented the YMCA at the meeting. It stuck.

An Evolution of Rules

The Farragut Boat Club invented the first softball rules pretty much on the fly. There was little continuity from game to game during the early years. The number of players on each team could vary from one game to the next. The balls themselves were of different shapes and sizes. Finally, more official rules were set in place in 1934 by the newly-formed Joint Rules Committee on Softball.

The first softballs were reported to be some 16 inches in circumference. They eventually shrunk to 12 inches when Lewis Rober Sr. introduced softball to a group of Minneapolis firefighters. Today, softballs are even smaller, ranging from about 10 to 12 inches.

According to the International Softball Federation, which was formed in 1952, teams must now be comprised of nine players manning seven positions on the field. This includes the first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, pitcher, catcher, and outfielder. There are actually three outfielders positioned in the center, right and left field. Slow-pitch softball, a variation on the game, provides for a fourth outfielder.

Most softball rules are similar to those for baseball, but there are typically only seven rather than nine innings. If the score is tied, the game will go on until one team wins. Four balls are a walk and three strikes mean you’re out. But in some leagues, players go to bat with a strike and a ball already against them. Bunting and stealing bases typically aren’t allowed.

Softball Today

Women’s fast-pitch softball became an official sport of the Summer Olympics in 1996 but was dropped in 2012. Still, that hasn’t deterred millions of enthusiasts in the U.S. and more than a hundred other countries from pursuing the sport.