What’s so soft about a softball?

By April 7, 2011

I’ve often pondered why the game of softball is called what it is.

The ball is anything but soft. Actually, the ball is extremely hard. Take it from me, the mom of a daughter who loves pitching.

My daughter was about 7 years old when she told me that she wanted to start pitching. Her coach at the time gave her a chance, and she pitched on her own until she really got serious about it and decided she would like to try to take a lesson with a pitching coach at about age 9. From that day on, she was hooked.

However, it was mom who had to catch for her. In the beginning, she was fairly wild and I never knew where the ball was going to go at any given time. Think Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from Major League or Nuke Laloosh from Bull Durham (“I wouldn’t dig in. I don’t know where it’s going. I really don’t.”).

She threw some good pitches, but they were few and far between. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after being hit in the shins so many times, but I guess I just had faith that, at some point, the accuracy would come. And, it did, but not before my shins had taken a beating.

So trust me, those softballs are HARD.

This got me thinking, why are softballs called softballs, when they are so darned hard?

I did some research and I found that there are a variety of reasons floating around for why the game of softball is called just that. The first reason that I found is that the core of the ball is made of either long fiber kapok, a mixture of cork and rubber, a polyurethane mixture or another approved material. In essence, the core of the ball is made of soft material, though you could have fooled me.

Another story of how softball got its name came from Thanksgiving Day, 1887. In Chicago, a group of about 20 young men had gathered in the gymnasium of the Farragut Boat Club in order to hear the outcome of the Harvard/Yale football game. After Yale’s victory was announced, and bets were paid off, a man picked up a stray boxing glove and threw it at someone who hit it with a pole.

At that point, a gentleman by the name of George Hancock, who is widely considered the inventor of softball, shouted, “Let’s play ball!” He tied the boxing glove so that it resembled a ball, chalked out a diamond on the floor (with smaller dimensions than those of a baseball field in order to fit the gym) and broke off a broom handle to serve as a bat. Now, 111 years later, that event is known as the first softball game.

A third possibility for the origin of the sport’s name is that at the time of its invention, in 1887, baseball was often called hardball. So it’s conceivable that this game that was similar to hardball, but is played with a larger ball and no grass on the infield, was given a similar sounding name: softball.

Though I wasn’t able to find out a concrete reason for the name of the game, I can tell you from a mom/catcher’s point of view that the ball is not soft by any stretch of the imagination. Maybe if the ball lived up to its name a little bit more, I wouldn’t have all the pretty marks on my legs.

Why do you think the game of softball got its name? Send me your feedback at the email address below.

— Cathy Price is the communications director of DYSA and can be reached at [email protected]

Cathy Price

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