Softball is a bat-and-ball sport played between two teams of nine to fourteen players. It is a direct descendant of baseball although there are some key differences: softballs are larger than baseballs, and the pitches are thrown underhand rather than overhand.
Softball is played on a smaller diamond than in baseball; a softball field’s average distances from home plate to the centre, left and right field fences are 220 feet (67 meters) for females and 250 feet (75 meters) for males (the corresponding baseball field average distances are 410 for centre field and 325 feet for left & right field).
The History of Softball
The earliest known softball game was played in Chicago, Illinois on Thanksgiving Day, 1887. It took place at the Farragut Boat Club to hear the outcome of the Yale and Harvard football game. When the score was announced and bets were settled, a Yale alumnus threw a boxing glove at a Harvard supporter. The other person grabbed a stick and swung at it. George Hancock called out “Play ball!” and the game began, with the boxing glove tightened into a ball, a broom handle serving as a bat. This first contest ended with a score of 41-40. The ball, being soft, was fielded barehanded.
George Hancock is credited as the game’s inventor for his development of ball and an undersized bat in the next week. The Farragut Club soon set rules for the game, which spread quickly to outsiders. Envisioned as a way for baseball players to maintain their skills during the winter, the sport was called “Indoor Baseball”. Under the name of “Indoor-Outdoor”, the game moved outside in the next year, and the first rules were published in 1889.
In 1895 Lewis Rober, Sr. of Minneapolis organised outdoor games as exercise for fire-fighters; this game was known as kitten ball (after the first team to play it), lemon 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 organised in Toronto in 1897.
The name softball had spread across the United States by 1930. By the 1930s, similar sports with different rules and names were being played all over the United States and Canada. The formation of the Joint Rules Committee on Softball in 1934 standardised the rules and naming throughout the United States.
Sixteen-inch softball, also sometimes referred to as “mushball” or “super-slow pitch”, is a direct descendant of Hancock’s original game. Defensive players are not allowed to wear fielding gloves. Sixteen-inch softball is played extensively in Chicago, where devotees such as the late Mike Royko consider it the “real” game, and New Orleans. In New Orleans, sixteen-inch softball is called “Cabbage Ball” and is a popular team sport in area elementary and high schools.
By the 1940s, fast pitching began to dominate the game. Although slow pitch was present at the 1933 World’s Fair, the main course of action taken was to lengthen the pitching distance. Slow pitch achieved formal recognition in 1953 when it was added to the program of the Amateur Softball Association, and within a decade had surpassed fast pitch in popularity.
The first British women’s softball league was established in 1952.
In 1991, women’s fast-pitch softball was selected to debut at the 1996 Summer Olympics. The 1996 Olympics also marked a key era in the introduction of technology in softball; the IOC funded a landmark bio-mechanical study on pitching during the games.
In 2002, sixteen-inch slow pitch was written out of the ISF official rules, although it is still played extensively in the United States under The Amateur Softball Association of America, or ASA rules
The Rules of Softball
One reason for the popularity of softball is the ease of modification of its rules, thereby allowing the game to be adapted to a variety of skill levels. For example, in some slow pitch softball leagues a batter starts at bat with a count of one ball one strike. In some leagues, the number of home runs that can be hit by a team are limited. In other leagues, stealing of bases is prohibited. Some groups allow for a more defensive game by making home plate a force out for first base. This reduces scoring evenly on both sides, and allows for some margin of error.
Co-recreational leagues, where men and women play on the same team, often adopt rules intended to reduce gender inequality, under the assumption that men will be generally more powerful and/or skilled. For example rules may stipulate that there must be an equal number of men and women on the team, or that batting order alternate male and female batters. One possible rule requires male batters to “switch hit”. Some leagues even use different balls for male and female batters. While these modified rules are common, there are questions as to their place in modern adult sports.
Some leagues require teams to use limited flight softballs. These softballs, when hit, will not go as far as regular softballs. Other leagues limit the number of runs which can be scored in an inning. Five is a common limit.
By allowing these and other modifications, softball can be enjoyed by children, teenagers, and adults. Senior leagues with players over the age of 60 are not uncommon.
An example of a rule modification is the “offensive pitcher” (or “self pitch”) often found in informal games where the emphasis is on the social rather than the competitive aspects of the game. The pitcher aids the batter by attempting to give the easiest pitch to hit. There are no walks, and a batter is normally given a fixed number of pitches to attempt to hit (usually 3 or 4). The batter is considered to strike out if she fails to hit the ball into fair territory after the given number of pitches. The pitcher does not act as a fielder, and a rule is often made that if a batted ball touches the pitcher, the batter is out.
In some leagues the number of pitches to walk or strikeout can be reduced. For instance, one strike is an out, and two balls is a walk. This is common in leagues where doubleheaders are played, or in late season leagues when reduced daylight is an issue. It results in shorter games, as players are more apt to swing, even at marginal pitches, rather than risk striking out on one pitch.
Many leagues also include a second first base immediately adjacent to the main one. This is usually orange and the batter running through first base is supposed to run straight through it. This minimises the chances of a collision. By the same token some leagues have an alternate home plate and rule that plays at home are always force plays. In these cases there is typically a white line drawn approximately 1/3 of the way down the baseline that is considered a point of no return. This is designed to reduce the “Pickle” which can put a great strain on the ankles and knees of older base-runners.
International Software Competition
The International Softball Federation holds world championships, held every four years, in several categories. The ISF is the international governing body. The Amateur Softball Association is the National Governing Body of Softball for the United States pursuant to the 1976 Amateur Sports Act. Due to the popularity of the sport, there are a multitude of governing bodies such as the United States Speciality Sports Association, International Softball Congress and the National Softball Association.
The ISF holds world championship tournaments in several categories. The tournament in each category is held every four years – 2 years from 2010. The most recent tournament was XII Women’s World Championship in June, 2010. All World Championships use a Page play-off system and are in fast-pitch. There are also several World Cups held at 4 year intervals in different categories.
Australia are the current Men’s World Champions, having won the title in 2009. Prior to that, New Zealand had won the previous three tournaments. The current Junior Men’s World Champion is Australia, which has won the last four championships. In the Women’s World Championships the United States is the most dominant team, having won three of the past four Olympic tournaments and the past seven World Championships. The current Junior Women’s World Champion is the United States.
Women’s softball made its first Olympic appearance in 1996 and made its final Olympic appearance in the 2008 games.
Softball is played in all states and territories in Australia and at all levels of academic education. The game is widely promoted to maintain fitness, health, personal achievements and pleasure. Australia has excellent softball teams which are a reflection of its coaching, education and training system.
Japan has had a long tradition of softball which is played at all levels in the country. Almost every high school and college has a sports program which includes softball. Like baseball, softball in Japan is intensely competitive. Japan’s win over the Americans at the 2008 Olympics, reflects the advanced level of play in this East Asian country.
China is fast becoming the team to watch in softball. Since the silver medal in the Atlanta Olympics 14 years ago, the Chinese have now made softball a priority at all levels. The game is played in most schools and with a 1.3 billion population; the number of great players is turning out to be a boon for China. The Chinese have frequently toured the USA and have now similar calibre coaching and training programs.
Softball is fast gaining popularity among the Malaysians. The softball squad of the First Residential College of University Malaya is considered the dark horse for the university’s games. The squad, led by Ah Beng, is composed of students from various faculties including medicine, engineering and built environment.
They had beaten the softball squad of the Eighth Residential College 7-1 and in the university’s games, they gone through a tough match against the heavily-experienced squad of the Fifth Residential College and defensively held the squad of the Third Residential College. In the latter match, one of the greatest safe in the history of softball occurs when a Biomedical Science student caught a tricky fly-ball, which resulted in the sending off of two players.