Softball is a game similar to baseball played with a larger ball (11 to 16 in. circumference) on a field that has base lengths of 60 feet, a pitcher's mound that ranges from 43–50 feet away from home plate, and a home run fence that is 200–220 feet away from home plate, depending on the type of softball being played. It was invented in 1887 in Chicago, Illinois, United States as an indoor game. The game moves at a faster pace than traditional baseball. There is less time for the base runner to get to first while the opponent fields the ball; yet, the fielder has less time to field the ball while the opponent is running down to first base. The name "softball" was given to the game in 1926 because the ball used to be soft; however, in modern-day usage, the balls are hard.
A tournament held in 1933 at the Chicago World's Fair spurred interest in the game. The Amateur Softball Association (ASA) of America (founded 1933) is one of the largest governing bodies for the game in the United States and sponsors annual sectional and World Series championships. Other national and regional governing bodies also exist, including the USSSA. The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) regulates rules of play in more than 110 countries, including the United States and Canada; before the WBSC was formed in 2013, the International Softball Federation filled this role. Women's fast pitch softball became a Summer Olympic sport in 1996, but it and baseball were dropped from the 2012 program; they were to be reinstated in 2020 but the 2020 Olympics were delayed due to the COVID-19 international pandemic.
There are two rules codes for softball generally. In the most common type, slow-pitch softball, the ball, which can measure either 11 inches, for a women's league, or 12 inches, for a men's league, in circumference, must arch on its path to the batter, and there are 10 players on the field at once. Bunting and stealing bases are not permitted. In fast pitch softball, the pitch is fast, there are nine players on the field at one time, and while bunting and stealing bases are permitted, leading off is not. Fast pitch being the most common in some states, such as Virginia, where fast pitch is the most common type of softball in high schools across the state. The Olympics features women's fast pitch softball. Softball rules vary somewhat from those of baseball. Two major differences are that the ball must be pitched underhand—from 50 ft (15.2 m) in slow pitch, or 46/43 ft (14/13.1 m) for men/women in fast pitch as compared with 60.5 ft (18.4 m) in baseball—and that seven innings, or 1-2 hours depending on the league, constitute a regulation game compared with nine innings in baseball.
Despite the name, the ball used in softball is not soft, unless using a foam practice softball. It is about 12 in (about 30 cm) in circumference (11 or 12 in for slow-pitch), which is 3 in (8 cm) larger than a baseball. Softball recreational leagues for children use 11-inch balls until around age 13. The infield in softball is smaller than on an adult or high school baseball diamond but identical to that used by Little League Baseball; each base is 60 ft (18 m) from the next, as opposed to baseball's 90 ft (27 m). In fast pitch softball the entire infield is dirt, whereas the infield in baseball is grass except at the bases and on the pitcher's mound which are dirt. Softball mounds are also flat, while baseball mounds are a small hill. Softballs are pitched underhand, but baseballs are pitched overhand. This changes the arc of the ball when approaching the plate. For example, depending if the pitcher pitches a fastball, in softball the ball would most likely rise while in baseball because the pitcher is on a hill, the ball would drop.
The earliest known softball game was played in Chicago, Illinois on Thanksgiving Day, 1887. It took place at the Farragut Boat Club at a gathering to hear the outcome of the Yale University and Harvard University football game. When the score was announced and bets were settled, a Yale alumnus threw a boxing glove at a Harvard supporter. The Harvard fan grabbed a stick and swung at the rolled up gloveGeorge Hancock, a reporter there, 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 a 17" 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 organized outdoor games as exercise for firefighters;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 (30 cm) in circumference, rather than the 16-inch (41 cm) ball used by the Farragut club, and eventually the Minneapolis ball prevailed, although the dimensions of the Minneapolis diamond were passed over in favor of the dimensions of the Chicago one. Rober may not have been familiar with the Farragut Club rules. Fire Station No. 19 in Minneapolis, Rober's post from 1896 to 1906, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in part for its association with the sport's development. The first softball league outside the United States was organized in Toronto in 1897.
The name "softball" dates back to 1926. The name was coined by Walter Hakanson of the YMCA at a meeting of the National Recreation Congress.(In addition to "indoor baseball", "kitten ball", and "diamond ball", names for the game included "mush ball", and "pumpkin ball".) 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. By 1936, the Joint Rules Committee on Softball had standardized the rules and naming throughout the United States.
Sixteen-inch softball, also sometimes referred to as "mush ball" or "super-slow pitch" (although the ball is not soft at all), 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 pitch 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 1953.
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 biomechanical 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 117th meeting of the International Olympic Committee, held in Singapore in July 2005, voted to drop softball and baseball as Olympic sports for the 2012 Summer Olympics, but will be back in the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Other sanctioning bodies of softball are PGF, TCS (Triple Crown Sports), USSSA, ASA, USA, PONY, NSA, and Pony.
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