The story behind softball

One autumn day in 1887, a bunch of guys were hanging out at a boating club waiting to hear the final score of a Harvard-Yale football game. When Yale was announced the victor, a Yale fan got all excited and chucked a boxing glove at a Harvard fan. The Harvard fan then tried to deflect it with a stick he was holding.

George Hancock looked on and must've thought something along the lines of, "Hmm. That looks like fun." Soon after, Hancock had split the group into two teams, tied a lace around the boxing glove to use as a ball, chalked out field markings on the floor of the boat club, and initiated the world's first softball game.

Over one hundred years later, softball is a hugely popular community team sport. First played as an indoor, smaller-scale alternative to baseball, softball has come into its own. Slow-pitch, fast-pitch, office leagues, little leagues, seniors' leagues, an Olympic team - softball is a sport for all ages and abilities. The ball may be a bit smaller than the original boxing-glove design, but the spirit of the game remains the same: it's always been a fun, accessible way to keep fit.

The benefits of softball

  • Eye on the ball. Softball challenges the hand-eye coordination part of your brain. You exercise your cerebellum every time you're at bat and the ball is pitched your way. You apply these reflexes when you raise your glove high to catch that lazy pop-fly soaring in an arc through the sunny sky. And when you shift in the midfield, reach your glove to the grass, and let a ground ball hop into your glove, you're using and improving your hand-eye coordination.
  • Upper cut. Throwing, running, and pitching can give you a more muscular upper body. Softball calls on you to use your arms, shoulders, back, and your core strength to keep you in the game.
  • Catch some cardio. All the actions and reactions of softball can really get your heart pumping. Play an hour's worth of softball and you can burn about 350 calories. Depending on the style of softball you play, you'll be sprinting anywhere from 40 to 65 feet between bases. You may hit a triple and hustle 180 feet, or wallop a homerun over the back fence and jog a proud 240 feet.
  • Strike up friendships. Team play strengthens your community connections as much as it strengthens your body. Playfully struggling through nine innings together can bring you closer to neighbours, coworkers, or church pew-mates. Sure, some leagues are super-serious and competitive, but lots of teams play for the laughs and good times. And it's hard to take yourselves too seriously after watching each other whiff at pitches or awkwardly come up short in a slide attempt at second base.

The warnings about softball

  • Rusty hinges. Regardless of which position you play, softball can really do a number on your joints
    • Pitchers and fielders can be hit by "little league elbow," caused by overuse of the tendons in the forearms, elbows, and wrists.
    • Catchers shift from standing to kneeling to squatting positions over and over during the course of a game. All of this up-and-down motion can lead to knee tendonitis. Kneepads provide some cushion but don't eliminate the risk.
    • Pitchers shoulder a burden, too. So much of the power of an individual pitch comes from the shoulder strength and wrist control of the pitcher. Shoulder tendonitis and torn rotator cuffs are unfortunately common among pitchers.
    • As a precaution, those with existing joint conditions or prior injuries should consult their doctor before playing softball.
  • Aches, pains, and sprains. Softball players may get banged-up as they tumble, run, or overstretch. Muscle sprains and strains can occur, like wrist sprains when a player lands on their outstretched hand, or like when a shortstop lands wrong on their ankle after an off-balance leaping throw to first base.
  • Conditioning counts. Practice, conditioning, and care can help you to prevent most softball injuries. Warm up with a jog around the bases. Swing the bat around a bit to loosen up your joints. Take a few practice pitches. Stretching should wait until you've awakened your body and warmed up your muscles a bit. Cold muscles are more prone to stretching injuries.
  • The ball isn't that soft. Impact injuries from getting hit by a softball do happen. Children are especially vulnerable to these sorts of injuries, so protective gear is an absolute must for little leaguers. Most softballs measure about 12 inches in circumference and weigh in at 4 ounces, and even the softer 16-inch Chicago-style "mushball" can cause some pain when hit well. Keep your head under a helmet when you go up to bat, and if you're playing catcher, wear chest and neck protectors.

What you need for softball

  • Tools of the game. As mentioned above, softballs aren't actually soft and are usually made of combinations of cork, rubber, or plastic. A softball glove is bigger than a baseball glove to accommodate the larger ball and to make catching a bit easier.
  • Shield yourself. No matter how casual your game, get that helmet on your head when you're up to bat. Why risk a head injury? Catchers should suit-up with more protective gear, including helmets with masks, neck and chest protectors, and knee pads.
  • A team and some time: Softball can be a fun, leisurely activity, or it can be an intense, all-out competition. Gather up a team of likeminded players so you're all playing with the same spirit. You'll need nine players on the field to cover all positions, or some handy Johnny-on-the-spots to fill in the gaps.

Inspiration to get you going

  • "Never let the fear of striking out get in your way." - George Herman "Babe" Ruth
  • "My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging." - Hank Aaron
  • "The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime." - Babe Ruth

Amy Toffelmire