The first version of softball was invented in Chicago, Illinois on September 16, 1887 by George Hancock, as a winter version of baseball. It was intended to be a way for baseball players to keep in practice during the winter. At the time, the sport was called “Indoor Baseball”.
Yale and Harvard alumni had gathered at the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago to hear the score of the annual football game. When the score was announced and bets were paid, a Yale alum threw a boxing glove at a Harvard supporter. The other person grabbed a stick and swung at it. Hancock called “Play ball!” and the game began. Hancock took a boxing glove and tied it into a 17″ ball. A broom handle was used as a bat. The first softball game ended with a score of 44-40. The ball, being soft, was fielded barehanded rather than with gloves like those which had been introduced to baseball in 1882. Hancock developed a ball and an undersized bat in the next week. The Farragut Club soon set rules for the game, which spread quickly to outsiders. The game, under the name of “Indoor-Outdoor”, was moved outside next year, and the first rules were published in 1889.
In 1895 Lewis Rober, Sr. of Minneapolis organized outdoor games as exercise for firefighters; this game was known as kitten ball (after the first team to play it), pumpkin ball, or diamond ball. Rober’s version of the game used a ball 12 inches (305 mm) in circumference, rather than the 16-inch (406 mm) ball used by the Farragut club, and eventually the Minneapolis ball prevailed, although the dimensions of the Minneapolis diamond were passed over in favour of the dimensions of the Chicago one. Rober may not have been familiar with the Farragut Club rules. The first softball league outside the United States was organized in Toronto in 1897.
The name softball dates from 1926. It was called indoor/outdoor, baseball, kitten ball, diamond ball, mush ball and pumpkin ball, but it was decided to call it “softball” in 1926 after a Denver YMCA official suggested the name. The newly christened sport made a giant leap in 1933 when a Chicago reporter and sporting goods salesman organized a softball tournament in conjunction with the World’s Fair. Leo Fischer (the reporter) and Michael Pauley (the salesman) invited 55 teams to compete in three tournament divisions: men’s fastpitch, men’s slowpitch and women’s. More than 350,000 spectators watched tournament games at the ball field inside the World’s Fair grounds
The success of the tournament spurred the founding of the Amateur Softball Association in the fall of 1933. The Association brought much-needed standardized rules to the game. The ASA has always believed that softball is a game for all ages of participants, so it has set rules for different age groups. A 12-inch ball is now the standard with many youth leagues using an easier to handle 11-inch size. Some leagues play a variation of softball using a 16-inch ball.
Softball was very popular in Chicago especially indoor action in armories. The reason that the ball was 16″ in size was based on one main reason. The parks and schoolyards were so small 14″ balls flew out into the street. The 16” ball worked perfectly and also because of the depression, no one could afford gloves. The sport was accepted and enjoyed by all. The game was very popular way ethnic groups competed. One team of Italians (the Nut House Café) was sponsored by the architect of the St. Valentines Massacre, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurne. He was known to bet $10,000 on his team (value of $100,000 today)!
One unique part of the game was 10th player was the short center covering the area around second base. (There was no need to play in the outfield) The bases were moved from 45′ to 60′ and ball pitched with a higher and slower arch. Most Chicago citizens in park districts played the no glove game after World War II and the Korean conflict, but not with flair of the Windy City League.
Sixteen-inch softball, also sometimes referred to as “mush ball” or “super-slow pitch”, is a direct descendant of Hancock’s original game. Defensive players are not allowed to wear fielding gloves; however, a 16-inch softball is actually soft, and can be fielded safely with bare hands. Sixteen-inch softball is played extensively in Chicago.
No glove softball is still played by Chicagoans and the best of the best have played at Forest Park’s No Glove Nationals in front of thousands of fans for over 30 years, without a doubt the premier event each year. The few of the best leagues have been played at Clarendon Park, Portage Park, James Park in Evanston in the North and Normandy Park, Washington Park and Kelly Park on the Southside to name a few. The best ball today is played in Mt Prospect is also the site of many National Tournaments.
Many Nationals have been played out of Illinois. In 2004 both the Major and A Nationals were played in Arizona and attracted the most states to compete in 20 years. The sport has traveled to different cities due to Chicagoans moving, but the reality is when men and women play the sport they realize it takes more skill, is safer, less time to play, and more fun than 12″.
The legendary Whitt Hanley Yankees, Kool Vent, Brown Bombers, Bobcats, Sobies (American Rivet), Lettuce (Touch), Whips and now the 45’s as the greatest teams of all time.
Chicago Tribune columnist, Mike Royko, was a fervent devotee of 16-inch softball as a player and team sponsor. After his death, he was inducted into the Chicago 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame, an honor Royko’s family insists he would have considered as meaningful as his Pulitzer—in the closing seconds of “Royko at the Goat,” the documentary by Scott Jacobs, Royko is heard saying, “The Pulitzer Prize can’t compare to hitting a home run.”