History Of Softball

All You Ever Wanted to Know About the History of Softball

Chicago Roots

The history of softball goes back to the late 19th century. George Hancock is usually credited with starting up the very first game in a Chicago boat club. The story goes that a crowd had gathered in the gymnasium of the club to hear the results of a football game between rival universities Harvard and Yale. After hearing that Yale had won, some good-natured roughhousing ensued. It was during this friendly melee that Hancock is said to have thrown a boxing glove to another man, who swatted it away with a pole. George promptly picked up the glove and bound it with string so that it more closely resembled a ball and mapped out a small-scale baseball diamond in the gym with chalk.

It was Thanksgiving Day 1887 and George Hancock had just orchestrated the first known game of what would later be called softball. Deciding he was on to something with his impromptu new sport, he created an oversized ball and a small-ish bat with a rubber tip. He decided to keep the small diamond – even painting permanent lines and bases in the gym of the boat club – and to call his game indoor baseball.

Indoor baseball was instantly popular as a way for baseball players to practice in the off-season and as a more accessible version of America’s favorite pastime. Hancock moved his sport outdoors (while keeping the minimized version of the diamond) and called it indoor-outdoor. He published official rules in 1889.

The Minnesota Connection

In 1895, Minneapolis firefighter Lewis Rober Sr. and his colleagues played their own improvised version of baseball in a small lot near their firehouse. It was a great way for the men to occupy their time between calls, and soon different firehouses in Minnesota were forming their own teams and competing with one another. This makeshift league drew a rather impressive audience. Hundreds - and sometimes thousands - of people would gather to watch the games. Rober transferred to another station at some point. The men there were known as The Kittens, and so Rober dubbed the game Kitten Ball. Kitten Ball was eventually made an official sport by the Minneapolis Parks Board and became a favorite pastime of the area.

Rober was not aware, by all accounts, of George Hancock’s similar take on baseball.

During this same era, women’s teams had formed and by 1899 there was a professional women’s indoor-outdoor league. The women’s league is an important part of the history of softball, and several books and movies have been made recreating this exciting time. The film “A League of Their Own” is perhaps the most well known.

Coming Together

By 1930, Kitten Ball and Indoor-Outdoor had conglomerated under one name: Softball. The moniker supposedly came from a Denver YMCA. The sport was standardized in 1934, when the Joint Rules Committee on Softball was formed.

 In 1933, a tournament was held at the Worlds Fair. Men’s and Women’s teams competed in a series that drew crowds totaling well over a quarter of a million people. After this, leagues sprouted up not just in American cities but also all over the world. That year, the Amateur Softball Association was formed, establishing much needed regulatory principles.

In 1951, the International Softball Federation came into existence to oversee softball at the international level. Tournaments between international teams continue to be played today.

1996 was an exciting year in the history of softball, as women’s softball became an Olympic event. However, at present, the International Olympic Committee has decided to drop the sport from the 2012 roster.

It is estimated that over 20 million people in the United States alone play softball today.