Softball shares a lot in common with its close cousin baseball, certainly borrowing more than a few things from that older sport – but also shaking things up a little bit, establishing new rules, and taking a different approach to how the game fundamentally works.
While a lot of people are under the impression that softball was created as a direct answer to baseball, that isn’t exactly the way things shook out historically.
Below we dig a little bit deeper into the ins and outs of why softball was invented, how the game was created and how it was refined, the major differences between the sports of softball and baseball, and how the game has evolved over time to its more modern iteration.
Shall we get right to it?
Quick History of Softball
The first-ever game of softball wasn’t played on a baseball diamond, believe it or not, but was instead played on the football field.
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The story goes that on Thanksgiving Day in 1887, a group of young men that were members of a boating club in Chicago were sitting around a radio listening to the annual Yale and Harvard football game.
At the end of the game, after Yale had been announced as the winner, a Yale alumnus through a boxing glove at a Harvard graduate (both of the members of the club, good friends, and in good humor) and the Harvard kid hit the glove with a broomstick that he was holding.
A reporter in the crowd named George Hancock yelled “play ball!” – obviously in reference to baseball – and a quick game broke out.
Based off of the popularity of the game the Farragut Boat Club decided to come up with a set of rules that they could share with other clubs, and before you know it the game wasn’t just popular in Chicago but started to spread all over the Midwest and then the country.
Especially popular in the northern parts of the country where snow shuts down baseball diamonds for close to half the year, the game was envisioned as an indoor alternative that would be a lot safer, lot easier to play, and a little bit slower without losing a lot of the magic that the national pastime of baseball had.
Sometimes called indoor baseball, sometimes called kitten baseball, and sometimes called pumpkin ball or mush ball, it wasn’t until 1926 when a man named Walter Hakanson called the sport “softball” when meeting with national heads of the YMCA at the National Recreation Congress.
The name stuck and by 1930 anyone playing the game was calling it softball.
What Are The Major Differences Between Softball and Baseball?
There are a handful of major differences between softball and baseball, even if the majority of their DNA is pretty close to identical.
For starters, the bats used in softball are usually a little bit shorter, little bit thinner, and a little bit lighter than what you’ll find on a baseball diamond. Softball players can use metal, aluminum, and composite bats at every level whereas only wooden bats are allowed for use as soon as you reach the minor or major leagues of baseball.
The ball itself is also quite a bit different, with baseballs being significantly smaller, white, and featuring red stitching. Baseballs have a circumference of 9 inches and are quite a bit lighter, too. Softballs, on the other hand, are significantly larger (with a circumference of 12 inches), are almost always bright yellow, a lot heavier, and quite a bit softer than a baseball is.
Pitching is another area where the sports deviate significantly. Baseball pitchers throw from a mound that is elevated and measures 60’6” away from the plate whereas softball players pitch from a flat “pitching circle” that is 43 feet away on the plate.
Softball pitchers throw underhand exclusively whereas baseball pitchers can throw overhand, sidearm, or even underhand if they so chose to. The rules of softball mandate that pitchers have to throw underhand but there are no rules whatsoever governing the motion that a baseball pitcher uses to get the ball from the mound to home plate.
The fields that softball players play on are usually a little bit smaller, with bases set 60 feet apart from one another as opposed to the 90 feet between baseball bases. Outfield fences are usually no further back than 250 feet from home plate whereas baseball fields almost always have fences that are 300+ feet away from home plate.
Early Days of the Sport
After the popularity of the game really started to spread out across the country an organization called the Amateur Softball Association was established in 1933.
This organization first codified the name softball and its initial rules, and then the ASA began to look for funding to start hosting tournaments. The ASA started to invite teams from all over the country to the World Fair in Chicago, with a number of Chicago newspapers claiming that on the opening day of the 1933 tournament more than 70,000 people showed up to see or play in the games.
By 1935 a Playground Association Softball Guide was published and produced, spreading the game even more so, with hundreds of leagues and thousands of players jumping on board the game – men and women alike – with a lot of professional ballplayers choosing to play softball in the wintertime to keep their skills sharp.
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While baseball saw a significant shutdown during World War II (with many top athletes choosing to go serve their country rather than stay home and play a game) softball exploded in popularity – spurred in large part by the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
The league started off playing softball exclusively throughout the 1940s, but in the 1950s the game started to transition back to a more traditional baseball style game while trying to compete with Major League Baseball. The league continued with that kind of hybrid style of game until it closed in 1954.
Fast Pitch Softball Becomes Dominant
Between the 1950s and the 1970s a new version of softball really started to take off in popularity, a version called “fast pitch” where the idea wasn’t to lob a pitch into the batter at the plate – generating a lot of offense and causing a lot of activity in the field – but instead to throw as hard and as creatively underhand as you could to home plate, trying to get them out the way you would in baseball.
Fast pitch leagues popped up over the country, with a lot of schools, colleges, and universities choosing to play fast pitch college with their women’s softball teams.
Fast pitch became so popular that in 1991 the sport was selected to be played at the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Olympics that year would be hosted by the United States in Atlanta, Georgia, and the women’s national team – the first-ever US women’s national team – would go on in dominating form to bring home the gold medal.
Softball has been a part of the Olympics ever since that 1996 games, with an exception occurring in 2012 when both softball and baseball were dropped from the Olympics slate of games for those competitions.
It’s already been announced that both baseball and softball will return for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo that have been postponed to 2021 because of the global coronavirus pandemic.