Once considered merely an indoor version of baseball, softball has developed into America's largest participatory sport, with 40 million amateur players and an additional 20 million players outside the United States (Kneer and McCord, p. 1; USOC, pp. 10–11). In softball, two teams compete to score the highest number of runs around the bases. Games take place in gymnasiums, parks, backyards, and on grassy and hard-surface diamonds; men, women, children, and mixed groups play softball games at both recreational and amateur levels. Softball contests are designated as either fast pitch, slow pitch, or modified pitch.
Early Softball Games
The first softball game developed in 1887 from an unlikely encounter between a boxing glove, a broomstick, and a gathering of football fans. Nearly fifty years after the innovation of modern baseball in America, Harvard and Yale graduates assembled at Chicago's Farragut Boat Club to await the results of the annual football match. At the announcement of Harvard's defeat, an overexcited Yalie hurled a scrunched-up boxing glove at a Harvard alumnus, who whacked the glove with a broomstick. By the next weekend, Chicago Board of Trade reporter George Hancock had drawn up the rules of the new game. Originally termed "indoor baseball," ten players (as opposed to baseball's nine) would play the game on a field small enough to fit into a gymnasium; it would feature underhand pitching delivery, a short and slender bat, and a large ball.
From this inauspicious beginning, softball came to flourish in the early twentieth-century Midwest, with game rules as diverse as the names under which it was played: Indoor-Outdoor, Kitten Ball, Diamond Ball, Bush Ball, Army Ball, Mush Ball, and Playground Ball were all common variants. The original Chicago game migrated outdoors in spring of 1888 and was known thereafter as Indoor-Outdoor, since it spent half a year in each domain. In 1895, the sport thrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when fire department lieutenant Lewis Rober organized outdoor Kitten League Ball in an effort to keep his firefighters in shape during their downtime. Many turn-of-the-twentieth-century women defied cultural taboos against female sports participation to compete in early softball leagues. Because the sport initially was perceived as a less-violent, slower version of baseball, females were accepted on both single-sex and coed teams. During the first national softball tournament, held at Chicago's 1933 World's Columbian Exposition, it became clear to tournament organizers Leo Fischer and M. J. Pauley that the sport could benefit from a uniform set of playing rules and equipment guidelines. In response, they created the Amateur Softball Association (ASA), deemed "softball" the official name of the game, and codified the rules of play. The ASA, which in the early 2000s remained softball's national governing body, then classified teams as slow pitch, fastball, or women's teams, and ruled the ball regulation size to be fourteen inches.
A Grassroots Sport Is Born: Impacts of Early Softball
The lean years of the 1930s marked a turning point in softball's national appeal and impact: players of all levels and backgrounds flooded the ballparks, and the sport created a culture of grassroots leisure in America. As part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal plan, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) designated $1 billion from 1935 through 1940 to build more than 3,000 new athletic fields, most of which featured softball diamonds (Dickson, p. 72). Lacking jobs to fill their afternoon hours, many adults frequented softball fields instead, where low-key community competition provided a cheap and enjoyable way to pass the time.
Moreover, softball proved inclusive to people of varied backgrounds. Although early leagues developed primarily among elite social and athletic clubs, during the Depression years the sport expanded to include working-class players. Softball athletes did not have to be moneyed or talented: equipment was cheap and available, and competitions took place between amateurs who modified the game to meet the level of play. Women, too, were accepted as softball players—a status confirmed by the inclusion of a women's softball division in the 1933 national championships. By the mid-1930s, the Bloomer Girl baseball leagues of the early twentieth century had yielded to women's softball leagues, which were supported by the ASA, YWCA, Catholic Youth Organization, National Recreation Association, and National Softball Association (NSA). The combined result of broad societal participation and accessibility culminated at the end of the decade, when the ASA announced an unprecedented 6 million Americans on the softball diamonds. A new national pastime had arrived.
War, Women, and International Participation
Although the onset of World War II initially checked soft-ball's expansion, eventually it extended the sport across boundaries of geography and gender. American soldiers played softball overseas, spreading the game to players and spectators in almost 100 countries. Meanwhile, on the home continent, Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley watched major league baseball (MLB) competition decrease as its players left to serve at war. Recognizing spectators' continuing demand for the game, he founded a professional women's softball league in 1943. The style of play soon evolved to modified baseball: the size of the ball decreased, the distance between bases increased, and pitches were delivered overhand. The league became known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). League players were expected to attend "Charm School" and maintain a ladylike appearance, lest they recall in spectators' minds the rougher style of play and dress used by earlier Bloomer Girls baseball leagues. Games were geared toward working-class fans, with patriotic themes and late start times that allowed spectators to work evenings, yet still attend games. The AAGPBL lasted for more than ten years, until decreased interest in softball and baseball after the war led to the league's termination in 1954.
Technological Advances in Equipment
From just a stick and a ball, softball equipment has evolved to a $300-million-a-year industry. Bat sales account for more than 40 percent of sales, with new technologies pushing batter performance—and expenditures—to unprecedented levels. In the early 1970s, aluminum bats largely replaced wooden bats; they are favored for their light weight and increased bat speed, large "sweet spots" (hitting zones), and resistance to cracking or breaking. Bat companies differentiate their product through diverse manufacturing processes, including varying the aluminum composition, (to increase durability and strength), employing cryogenics (to reduce residual heat stress), and adding graphite and titanium linings (to reduce vibration and make lighter models). One of the most effective and controversial developments in bat technology was the 1997 creation of a double-walled bat, which distributed the ball's impact to create a much larger sweet spot. The ASA has banned numerous high performance bats, ruling the speed of the ball after contact to be at dangerous levels.
The early softball core of cork and latex has given way to more durable polyurethane. Some sixteen-inch softballs, however, continue to be made from long-fiber kapok, which becomes soft with use, making it more suitable for the slower sixteen-inch game. Manufacturers have developed technologies to harden softballs while enabling them to retain their spring from the bat, prompting the ASA to regulate such processes, again in the interest of fielder safety. Improvements in ball technology allow diverse segments of the population to participate. Some companies produce youth balls with a softer core to reduce the risk of injury in children. Invented in 1964, the beep ball allows blind athletes to play softball by emitting a series of beeps by which the players judge the ball's whereabouts. Softball gloves, meanwhile, have advanced primarily in material quality and diversified design options. Players can choose gloves specific to their fielding position, with features such as water-resistant leather, Coolmax finger lining, or gel insets and palm pads to absorb shock. Some brands even allow customers to design their own gloves.
Softball has become safer not only through regulations on bats and balls, but also through the introduction of new safety equipment. A brightly colored protective guard tops ballpark fences, increasing fence visibility and shielding players from rough metal edges. Breakaway bases release when struck, reducing the risk of ankle and leg injuries that result from sliding into stationary bases. Protective gear, including helmets, sliding pads, batting gloves, and catchers' garb, has become both more advanced and more prevalent over the years.
Amateur, International, and Collegiate Softball Organizations
The ASA is the national governing body of United States softball, with more than 250,000 teams and 4 million members (ASA, "About Us"). In addition to organizing national tournaments on the amateur level, the ASA selects coaches and players for the Pan American Games, Olympic Games, and ISF World Championships. The International Softball Federation (ISF) governs softball on a global level, hosting world championship tournaments and regulating international softball rules. From 1968 to 1997, the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association (USSSA) existed as an amateur slow-pitch organization separate from the ASA, hosting world championships and publishing rules slightly different from ASA rules; in 1997, the USSSA expanded to include several other national sports and changed its name to the United States Specialty Sports Association. The International Softball Congress (ISC), in turn, organizes men's and boys' fast-pitch softball tournaments on a national and international level. At the collegiate level, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) oversaw 850 women's fast-pitch softball teams as of November 2002. Softball leagues and tournaments are also organized on a recreational level within communities, schools, and companies.
Participation Trends and Demographics Among Fast-, Modified-, and Slow-Pitch Players
Softball is generally divided into three categories: fast-, modified-, and slow-pitch. The three games are played by men's, women's, junior, and coed teams and have different rules and field distances depending on the game variation, skill level, and gender. Fast-pitch softball features windmill and slingshot pitching delivery and is characterized by low scoring games; relative skills of pitchers have great influence over game outcomes. In slow-pitch softball, pitchers deliver arced, slow throws called "rainbows" after the shape of their delivery; games often are high scoring, since the ball is easy to hit. Steals and bunts are not allowed in slow-pitch, as they are in fast-pitch, and teams consist of ten players, rather than nine in fast-pitch. Modified-pitch softball is played at an intermediate speed. All three games currently use an eleven- to twelve-inch ball; a variation of sixteen-inch slow-pitch also exists.
Participation trends in fast- and slow-pitch softball illustrate the changing demographics of the game. Early Chicago softball games resembled the sixteen-inch slow pitch of the early 2000s; the ball's large size prevented it from traveling too far in gyms and small neighborhood parks. As the game expanded to other cities and moved outdoors in the early twentieth century, the ball size decreased, and sixteen-inch softball is now played only in a few city leagues. From 1940 to 1960, men's fast-pitch teams became the dominant breed of softball, boasting 25,000 ASA-registered teams in the early 1960s (Kneer, p. 12). By 1996, however, this number had decreased to 10,000 (Farber and Deutsch). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, 90 percent of softball players instead chose to participate in twelve-inch slow-pitch softball, a game more easily mastered by players of all skill levels. The increased popularity of slow pitch reveals preferences of baby boomers for a more family oriented and social setting than fast pitch provides. Increased coed slow-pitch participation also parallels the rise of corporate recreational culture, with many company players heralding the diamond a fertile ground for developing coworker relationships.
Ironically, the sex thought better suited to play a slower ball game years ago now dominates the fast-pitch scene. In 2002, more than 343,000 girls competed in high school softball, while 17,000 played at the collegiate level (Gola, p. 2). Each year, the ASA registers 1.2 million girls on its fast-pitch teams (Gola, p. 2). Lesbian culture thrives on many women's softball teams, allowing increased recognition of and respect for homosexual athletes, but unfortunately encouraging sexual stereotypes about softball players. Although women's softball participation declined in the years following the 1954 dissolution of the AAGPBL, it rebounded with the 1972 implementation of Title IX, which resulted in increased support and money for women's sports. Perhaps the greatest boon for women's softball participation, viewing, and funding, however, has been its 1996 and 2000 inclusion in the Olympics. In the 2000 Games, television ratings proved softball the fourth most popular women's event, while amateur, college, and international softball organizations have reported overall participation increases since the sport's inclusion in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) 2002 announcement that the 2008 Games might exclude the sport, however, has led to worries and protests among softball supporters. The IOC, which defends the possible exclusion by citing low popularity of the game outside of Asia and the Americas, postponed their final decision until after the 2004 Games.
Softball's rich history and bedrock of amateur players have enabled it to remain one of America's most-played and best-loved games. The shift to slow-pitch softball in recent years reveals the ever more inclusive nature of the sport: everyone can play—from kids and parents, to women and minorities, to professionals, grandparents, and wheelchair athletes. Advances in bat, ball, and safety technologies have served only to make the game more adaptable to varying levels of play. From backyards to Olympic stadiums, players and spectators worldwide enjoy the energy and ease of playing softball.
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Abby L. Schlatter
Softball, a variant of baseball, was invented as an indoor recreation in Chicago in 1887 by newspaper reporter George Hancock. In the period prior to 1900, the game began to be played outdoors, using a larger ball than employed in baseball, and on a smaller playing field. Variously known throughout the American Midwest and Canada as "kitten ball" and "pumpkin ball," the name softball was formally adopted in 1926. Women had participated in organized softball since the early 1900s.
The United States has been the dominant force in softball since the game's invention. The National Softball Association became the governing body in the United States for the sport, an organization that led to the standardization of the rules of the sport (which had varied significantly from region to region) in 1933. Softball began to slowly develop an international constituency following the end of World War II, which spurred the formation of the world governing body for softball, the International Softball Federation. The first world championships were convened for both men and women in 1966.
While men's softball continued to be played in various countries around the world, softball became more closely associated with female competition. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sponsored its first-ever American intercollegiate women's national softball championship in 1982; over 600 institutions now participate in one of three competitive divisions. Softball has the distinction, along with the sport of field hockey, of being one of only two sports exclusively reserved for female competition in the NCAA.
The culmination of the progress of women's softball as a world sport occurred with the designation of softball for inclusion as a full medal sport at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta; softball was also contested in the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics. However, in 2006, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to discontinue both softball and men's baseball as Olympic competitions after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The IOC decision was a curious one, given the stated goal of the IOC to ensure that in time, the Olympics would have an equal number of men's and women's competitions.
Softball, as regulated by the National Softball Association, developed two distinct variants: fast-pitch softball and slow-pitch softball, a game sometimes described as simply slow-pitch or lob-ball. The chief distinction between the two games is with respect to the speed with which the pitcher is permitted to deliver the ball to the batter, and the corresponding response of the defensive team to the batted ball. Slow-pitch is an extremely popular game in North America, played by men, women, and in coed formats, in both recreational and competitive leagues.
The rules of fast-pitch softball create a game that is similar to baseball in terms of the number of players, the shape of the field, equipment, and the general strategies to be employed both offensively and defensively. The game is played with nine players in the field, including four infielders, three outfielders, a pitcher, and a catcher. Each team is permitted to bat until they make three outs. When each team has been to bat for three outs each, an inning is concluded. There are seven innings in a softball game.
Softball is played on a field popularly known as a diamond, given its shape; the field may not be any longer than 225 ft (68 m) from home plate to the outfield fences. The field is divided into an infield, which is defined by the positioning of four bases, and the outfield, the area between the infield and the outfield fences. The infield is comprised of four bases, commencing at home plate. The bases are 60 ft apart (18 m).
The pitcher delivers the ball toward home plate from a pitcher's plate (often referred to as "the pitching rubber"), which is 43 ft (13 m) from home plate. The pitch must be delivered in an underhanded motion, known as a "windmill" motion. The pitcher's rear foot must remain in contact with the pitcher's plate throughout the delivery. Women's softball does not permit a hop or jump in the pitching motion, while men's softball permits a hop movement, which permits the pitcher to deliver the ball with greater velocity.
All players wear cleated shoes and uniforms; all defensive players use a fielding glove designed for the particular position played. The catcher wears equipment for safety, including shin guards, a chest protector, helmet and face mask, and heavily padded glove. Players may be substituted, but once a player is replaced in the course of the game they are not permitted to return to play.
The ball, at 12 in (30 cm) circumference, must have a coefficient of restitution (COR) of a maximum 0.47. This characteristic comes into clearer focus when contrasted with the legal COR for a baseball, which by rule must be between 0.514 and 0.578. The lower the COR of any material, the less energy is returned to any object coming into contact with it. The lower COR of a softball is an important distinguishing factor in the distances traveled by it when compared to a baseball when struck with a bat.
The bat has regulated dimensions of length, weight, and circumference; the most important aspect of a softball bat is its construction, which typically is aluminum or a composite metal material.
Unlike baseball, where a base runner is permitted to lead off from the base in preparation for either attempting to steal the next base or to secure a advantage if the ball is put into play, the softball base runner may not leave the base until the ball is struck by the batter.
The general offensive and defensive strategies employed in softball are similar to those used in baseball. Offensively, the team attempts to advance its players around the bases to score runs by hitting, running the bases, and advancing their base runners through devices such as when a batter "sacrifices" an out to permit a teammate to gain an extra base. Another strategy is drawing a walk, the one-on-one battle with a pitcher where the pitcher throws four balls before he or she is able to either throw three strikes over the plate or otherwise induce the batter to hit the ball until he or she is out. It is the differing role of the pitcher in each sport that defines the strategic differences.
In both baseball and softball, a talented pitcher is the key to team success. In softball, that importance is magnified by a number of factors. The pitching mechanism permitted in softball places a lesser amount of stress on the pitcher's shoulder and elbow than does the overhand mechanism of the baseball pitcher, who is the most player most injured in baseball. Softball pitching and its fluid, natural rotation of the shoulder, coupled with a forward stride, permit the softball pitcher to pitch with less risk of either injury or fatigue, while maintaining pitch velocity.
In baseball, it is common for modern pitchers to be relieved after six or seven innings of the standard nine inning game, with the pitcher resting for three days following the game. In softball, a dominant pitcher can often pitch with less rest. In the 1970s, the softball world's most dominant pitcher, Canada's Pete Landers, regularly pitched complete games in both ends of a doubleheader (two games played consecutively in a single day).
Pitching dominance and a less lively ball place a premium on what is sometimes referred to as "small ball." Batters seek to get the ball in play, where the fielder must make a throw and the batter hopes to cover the 60-ft (18 m) distance to first base in advance of the throw. With the same number of players on a surface that is at least 35% smaller than in baseball, coupled with the greater ability of the pitcher to dominate the hitter due to the reduced distance between the two opponents, the ability to hit the ball to a vacant area on the field is correspondingly reduced.
The game of slow-pitch is also governed in the United States by the National Softball Association, but the game has taken a developmental path that is strikingly different than that of its fast-pitch cousin. Slow-pitch has a tremendous recreational appeal due to the fundamental distinction as to the role of the pitcher: in slow-pitch, the unstated premise of the game is that the ball will be put into play by every batter. Given the greater emphasis on offense in slow-pitch, the game provides for 10 players, with an additional outfielder. The other equipment used by the players is similar to that of fast-pitch. At the elite levels of slow-pitch, the bases may be set 65 ft or 70 ft (20-21 m) apart.
soft·ball / ˈsôf(t)ˌbôl/ • n. a modified form of baseball played on a smaller field with a larger ball, seven rather than nine innings, and underarm pitching. The game evolved in the U.S. during the late 19th century from a form of indoor baseball. ∎ the ball used in this game.