When we consider the history of softball, it’s easy to see how the game developed as the younger sibling of baseball. What might not be quite so obvious is how three other sports helped shape softball.
Boating, Boxing and Football, Oh My
Believe it or not, boating, boxing and football each played a role in the history of softball. A boating club, a boxing glove and a football game were key ingredients in the very first game of softball.
Young George Hancock was among a group of Harvard and Yale alumni who gathered at the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day 1887. It was the Harvard-Yale football game that drew them to the boating club. They waited anxiously for telegrams from the Polo Grounds in New York, bringing updates on the game. Yale won the football game17-8. What happened next is, so to speak, history.
As legend has it, a Yale man playfully threw a boxing glove at the Harvard grads. A quick thinking Harvard fan deflected the glove with a stick—supposedly a broom handle. What ensued was not the sports riot you might expect, but a raucous game of indoor baseball. Hancock fashioned a large, soft ball by binding the boxing glove with its laces. He chalked out a small baseball diamond inside the boat club and the game was underway. The hour-long, action-packed game ended with a score of 41-40. Hancock decided the game was a keeper. He wrote down rules and created a soft, over-sized ball and rubber-tipped bat that could be used indoors. He also painted permanent foul lines on the floor of the Farragut Boat Club.
Rober’s game was called kitten ball in honor of his team’s name and contests between different firehouses began to draw as many as 3,000 spectators. By 1913, the game had been officially adopted by the Minneapolis Park Board and was played in parks and on playgrounds throughout the city. The Park Board did change the name from kitten ball to diamond ball.
A Game by Any Other Name
From its beginnings in Chicago and Milwaukee, the popular ball game spread through the upper Midwest and Canada. Depending on where you were, you might play cabbage ball, mush ball or pumpkin ball. The size of the bat and ball and the exact rules varied as much as the name. Men and women of all ages were active in the sport. In 1931, a team of men who called themselves the Kids and Kubs traveled around the country playing softball. What made them unique? They were all at least 75 years old and they played the game in suits.