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What is softball and why is it getting popular?

BY Matt Ng

3rd Oct 2022 Sport

What is softball and why is it getting popular?

Matt Ng takes a deeper look at softball, a sport that’s on the rise in Britain, with this complete beginner’s guide to the sport

“THUNK!” The batter swings with her bat, making a satisfying sound as it cracks the ball high into the air. 

The batter drops her bat and dashes towards the first base. An outfielder tracks the flying ball, ready to catch it with his glove. It looks to go past him, but in one fluid motion, he turns and starts sprinting to where it’ll eventually land. The ball is nearly on him now. He jumps high and stretches up with the glove. 

The edge of the ball kisses the tips of the fielder’s glove, before tumbling onto the grass. No catch. 

The batter, meanwhile, has passed second base and is turning toward third base. She takes a glance at where the ball is. The outfielders are still scrambling to collect the ball and relay it back into the infield. “I can make it,” she thinks. She starts to cross third base and make her way to home plate. It’s going to be close.  

"This is softball. It’s a game similar to baseball and rounders, but with its own rules and equipment"

One infielder throws the ball to the catcher at home plate, who instinctively moves to tag the batter out, with the ball now in their glove. The batter drops onto the grass and kicks out her leg, letting her momentum take her the rest of the way to the home plate. The slide kicks up a thick cloud of dust. 

The umpire makes his call. “SAFE!” he shouts, while gesturing with his arms outstretched. The home run scores. 

This is softball. It’s a game similar to baseball and rounders, but with its own rules and equipment. 

The premise of the game is to score runs by batting a ball and running around a set of four bases, in a diamond shape. A team also needs to stop the opposing side from scoring runs by getting batters out, whether catching hit balls or getting them out at bases. 

What’s the history of softball? 

Girl playing softball

Softball is a highly accessible sport

Softball’s roots span all the way back to 1887, when university graduates from Yale and Harvard met in Chicago and challenged each other to hit a rolled-up boxing glove with a stick. 

Despite these humble beginnings, George Hancock, a Chicago journalist, holds the honour of being the father of softball. Shortly after that first game, he designed a 17-inch ball and bat for players to use. Before players called it softball, the pastime had a wealth of different names, including indoor baseball, kitten ball, mush ball and pumpkin ball. 

"Despite its popularity, softball has had a tumultuous relationship at Olympic level"

It’s an unusual sight to see this side of the Atlantic, but softball is played up and down the country, with around 18,000 registered players in the UK, spread over dozens of clubs. 

Despite its popularity, softball has had a tumultuous relationship at Olympic level. It wasn’t until Atlanta’s 1996 games when the sport was finally added to the roster, but it was dropped for London 2012. And despite the Olympic Committee welcoming it back for 2020, they look set to snub it again for 2024. However, campaigners are seeking its reinstatement. 

What is softball’s mass appeal? 

Softball team huddle

Softball is about teamwork and tactics rather than individual strength

Softball’s appeal lies in its easy-to-pick-up yet hard-to-master gameplay. 

Unlike the 100mph “fastballs” of baseball you may have seen in the odd Hollywood movie, in slow pitch softball, the ball is pitched in an arc, resulting in a slower ball. This makes the sport a more team-focused game, as there’s usually a lot of hits and much action both in the infield and outfield.  

Importantly, the fielding team needs to work together to secure outs, while the batting team needs to tactically think to advance runners on base and get them “home” to score runs. This makes the game much less about individual speed, strength or stamina, but more about technique and coordination. Some softballers might say that yoga enthusiasts and climbers, with their strong cores, have the optimal starting advantage in the game.  

Additionally, the game heavily rewards teamwork and communication. This removed focus from athleticism makes softball highly accessible for just about anyone. Indeed, take a look at any typical softball game, and you can see a hugely diverse range of players of all sorts of genders, sizes, ethnicities and ages. 

"The game is less about individual speed, strength or stamina, and more about technique and coordination"

Julie Lott, a softballer based in Liverpool, has been playing softball for 11 years. “All my family play, including me, my husband, daughter and son. I play mainly for the joy of the sport—I like the competitiveness, but most of all, the people I play with are great.” 

And with tournaments up and down the country, plus a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere, it’s no wonder that softball season regularly features road trips, as squads travel across the tourney circuit. 

“The softball community is very welcoming,” says Julie. “We play each other in our respective teams, and we get to hang out and socialise, which is great and enables you to meet new people.” 

To find a club near you, visit: baseballsoftballuk.com/finder

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