Softball is a popular sport played recreationally and competitively around the world. Despite its name, the softball itself is not actually soft – it has a hard exterior shell made of leather or synthetic leather. This leads many to wonder, if softballs are not soft, why are they called “softballs”?
The name softball developed in the early 20th century to differentiate the sport from baseball. In baseball, the ball used is small and hard, with tightly wound interior strings. In softball, the ball is larger but not as dense. This gives it a softer feel when hit, despite having an exterior shell. The name softball was coined to reflect the ball’s relative softness compared to a baseball.
Some key differences between softballs and baseballs:
|Ball size||12 inches||9 inches|
|Weight||6.25-7.0 ounces||5.0-5.25 ounces|
|Interior||Tightly wound strings||Solid rubber/cork core|
As the table shows, softballs are larger and lighter than baseballs. This gives them a “softer” feel coming off the bat, despite having a hard leather cover like a baseball.
History of the Softball Name
The origins of softball date back to 1887 in Chicago. A group of men were waiting to play an indoor baseball game but did not have a ball. One of the men wrapped up a boxing glove to create an improvised ball. It was larger than a baseball and had a softer feel when hit. This makeshift ball worked so well that games continued using it or similar balls.
The new sport grew in popularity and spread across the United States over the next few decades. As it differentiated itself from baseball, names like “mush ball,” “pumpkin ball,” “kitten ball,” and “indoor baseball” were used. The name “softball” started appearing in 1926 and gained dominance in the 1930s.
Some key moments in the history of the softball name:
|1887||First indoor “baseball” game played with a soft improvised ball in Chicago|
|1895||Lewis Rober creates the “Rob Ball” made of stitched leather|
|1926||“Softball” name first appears in print|
|1934||Joint Softball Congress formed to organize softball leagues and standardize rules|
|1939||“Softball” officially adopted as the standard name|
The softball was created out of necessity but grew into a popular sport requiring specialized equipment and organization. The name distinguished it from baseball to reflect the larger, lighter ball that was easier to hit indoors.
Softball Ball Construction
So if softballs are not actually soft, what are they made of and what gives them their unique qualities?
The outer shell of a softball is made from leather or synthetic leather. This forms a durable exterior that allows the ball to be thrown and hit without breaking apart. Inside the leather shell is a core that provides the bulk of the mass.
Traditional softball cores contain:
– Tightly wound nylon or polyester strings
– Cushioning layers of wool or cotton yarn
– A center “pill” of rubber, cork, or other material
This string core gives the ball a softer feel than a baseball with a more solid interior. However, advanced technology has led to new materials for modern softball cores:
|Polyurethane||Light, durable plastic with flexibility|
|Proprietary composites||Mix of synthetic materials to optimize ball properties|
|Liquid, gel, or foam center||Lighter and more forgiving feel when hit|
So while softballs do not contain soft materials, advancements in synthetics and polymer chemistry allow manufacturers to produce optimized cores with the ideal properties.
Reasons for “Soft” Name
There are several key reasons why the name “softball” has endured even though the balls are hard:
1. Soft feel when hit – The larger size and lighter weight give softballs a softer tactile feel coming off the bat. This was the original distinction compared to baseballs.
2. Soft sound off the bat – Due to its construction, a softball does not generate the loud “crack” of a baseball. The sound is more muted, akin to the name.
3. Soft allowed more indoor play – Balls with softer properties were safer for indoor recreation spaces. This enabled the sport’s growth in urban areas.
4. Distinction from baseball – The name clearly differentiates it from baseball and its equipment. This allowed softball to flourish independently.
5. Tactile association with name – The name “softball” accurately reflects the tactile experience of the ball in the hand. This creates intuitive association.
6. History and tradition – After 100+ years, softball has a strong history and tradition behind the name. Changing it could cause unnecessary confusion.
While softballs are not actually soft, the name accurately captures the experience of the ball while differentiating the sport from baseball in a tactile, intuitive way. After a century of history, softball is here to stay!
Regulations on Softball Specifications
There are certain regulations governing the allowed specifications for softballs to ensure fairness, safety, and consistency:
|Ball circumference||11.875-12.125 inches|
|Ball weight||6.25-7.0 ounces|
|Compression||Maximum 350 pounds|
|Coefficient of restitution||.44 maximum|
Governing bodies like the International Softball Federation, NCAA, and league organizations regulate the properties, construction, and performance of softballs. This guards against potential hazards of balls that are too hard while preserving the integrity of the sport. Manufacturers must meet these guidelines.
Breaking Down Softball Parts
Let’s do a deeper breakdown of the different components that make up a softball:
|Cover||Outer shell||Leather or synthetic leather|
|Windings||Tension layers around core||Poly/nylon yarn|
|Filler||Cushioning material||Cotton, wool, or synthetic fibers|
|Core/pill||Center sphere||Cork, rubber, polyurethane, etc.|
|Liner||Inside leather coating||Leather or fabric|
While softball seems simple, there is actually complex engineering behind the scenes. Each layer and component contributes to the overall performance, feel, and durability of a softball for today’s competitive play.
Softball Grade Levels
Not all softballs are created equal. There are different grades of softballs designed for different levels and ages of play:
|Professional||Elite competitive||Professional leagues|
|Championship||Advanced competitive||High school varsity, NCAA, etc.|
|Modified||Intermediate competitive||Middle school, youth|
|Practice||Beginner recreational||Children 12 and under|
Higher grade softballs are more rigid and durable for elite levels of pitching and hitting. Lower grades prioritize safety and ease of play for casual recreational use. Selecting the proper softball provides the right experience for each context.
Softball Bat Construction
Like softballs, softball bats have evolved technologically over the decades while adhering to certain regulations.
The key standards for softball bat construction include:
– Maximum length of 34 inches
– Maximum diameter of 2.25 inches
– No composite handles allowed for metal bats
– BBCOR performance standards for youth bats
Common bat materials:
|Aluminum||Traditional; durable, stiff, good response|
|Composite||High-performance; light, balanced swing, greater flex|
|Alloy/hybrid||Tuned metal alloys for optimal strength and response|
|Two-piece||Distributes energy and vibration better for comfort|
Innovations in bat technology aim to create lighter, stronger, and better performing bats. But regulations ensure they do not create an imbalance or compromise safety.
Innovations in Softball Equipment
Beyond balls and bats, other softball equipment has improved with advanced materials and engineering:
– Breathable, flexible synthetics replace heavier leather
– Ergonomic wrist, hand, and finger designs
– Lightweight mesh webbing is more durable
– Tank tread and bladed outsole patterns for traction
– Carbon fiber plates for power and energy return
– Flex grooves and articulated soles conform to feet
– Realistic ball movement with varied pitch types
– Adjustable speeds, arcs, spins for fielding practice
– Programmable for solo practice routines
Bags & gear
– Ultra-strong, lightweight carbon fiber bags
– Advanced foam padding for maximum protection
– Breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics
The drive for ever better performance has led to softball gear being engineered and constructed to the highest technical standards while remaining safe and regulation compliant.
The Symbiosis of Balls and Bats
Softballs and bats evolved in tandem over decades of the sport. As bats became stronger, balls were developed to be more durable. And as balls became softer for safety, bat regulations were tightened to prohibit unsafe performance gains. It demonstrates the symbiosis between the two pieces of core equipment in softball and baseball.
Manufacturers must constantly balance three factors:
1. Bat performance – How far balls travel when hit, requiring better bats.
2. Ball safety – Avoiding overly hard balls that cause injuries.
3. Competitive balance – Not giving batters an unfair advantage over pitchers and fielders.
Advancing both balls and bats together maintains equilibrium and progression in the sport while maximizing athletic achievement, spectator enjoyment, and safety. If either equipment lags behind, it can create issues.
Softball will continue evolving technologically but always remain true to its origins. No matter how engineered the equipment, the name softball endures as a nostalgic nod to simpler times chasing makeshift balls in Chicago over a century ago. And guessing by softball’s enduring popularity, that little improvised ball created a legacy primed to last well into the next century too.
While softballs are not actually soft, the name originated over a hundred years ago to distinguish the sport from baseball due to the larger, lighter ball and its softer tactile feel when hit. Advancements in materials have allowed softballs to become highly engineered for optimized performance and safety while retaining properties worthy of the traditional name. Regulations ensure equipment stays consistent with the competitive balance and enjoyment of the game. Softball has come a long way from improvised balls in Chicago, but the name softball appropriately nods to the sport’s humble beginnings.