Much as Chicagoans love baseball, it isn’t the only game in which citizens of this fair city shoulder a bat in hopes of whacking a round leather object out of the park. Way back in 1887, George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, tied the laces of a boxing glove together, handed a broomstick to his friends at the Farragut Boat Club, and challenged them to "Hit it if you can, boys!" That boxing glove evolved into a 16 inch ball, and the sport Hancock invented became known by names as varied as "Indoor-Outdoor", "Diamond Ball" and "Kitten Ball". Finally in 1926, YMCA official Walter Hakanson suggested the name "Softball" for the game, and the title stuck.
Softball is what this blog is all about. Softball, and the over 25 million people in the United States who play it, including the men in my family.
The pictures shown here of are my son Matt, a softball fanatic who plays the game year round. Unlike the baseball team mentioned above that cancelled its game due to an inch of snow, Matt and his teammates braved the ice and cold of a Chicago winter to play in this year’s Tinley Park Snowball Tournament. (That's Matt down on one knee catching a ball during warmups before one of the games.) The other photo above on the right shows Matt taking his cuts with the bat during another chilly softball game. That's a 12" ball he's aiming to hit, and it's yellow so it can be seen even during night games.
Most softball games today are played with a 12" ball, a mitt, and an aluminum rather than wooden bat. Chicago, though, is known for its 16" slow pitch softball played without a glove. People here took to the game because the 16" ball didn’t fly as far as its smaller counterpart. That made it the perfect size for school playgrounds, small neighborhood parks, and the empty lots Chicagoans called "prairies". Even when hit hard, the 16 incher seldom left the area in which you were playing.
The second thing that insured the popularity of the game was the fact that gloves weren’t needed to catch the ball. Oh, sure. Snagging a line drive off a player’s bat could sometimes leave you cradling a broken finger. But during the dark days of the Depression, when the sport really caught on in Chicago, a broken finger was a small price to pay compared to the cost of a glove.
The picture on the right shows my son John, another softball fanatic, with some of his teammates after they won the 2006 Illinois State 16" Softball Championship. The championship trophy is seen on the right, and John is holding the tournament MVP award given to him for his work as the team's pitcher. Like Matt, John lives and breathes softball. My oldest son Joe can hit a mean ball, too. He plays in family games, but he's too busy coaching soccer to join a softball team.
Whether it’s played with a 12" or a 16" ball, softball is as popular in Chicago today as it was in days gone by. My sons grew up playing it at the park with their Dad. Fred was the catcher for a local hospital softball team, and yes, he broke a finger during one game.
But that story will have to wait for another day. :)