In 1916 a group of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway employees made some changes in the rules and the ball used for indoor and outdoor baseball. They began playing a unique game that evolved into softball. It is quite possible that softball is a Kansas invention.
The story begins when employees of Topeka's Motive Power Building wanted to do something that would provide both competition and exercise. At the time there was a game of indoor baseball with equipment and rules that had been altered from the outdoor version to fit a smaller space. Because they had only a small area in which to play, the men decided to use the indoor rules even though they were playing outside.
They purchased an indoor baseball bat and ball and began playing in what was then a vacant space just south of their building, the present location of the Santa Fe Motive Power Building. Because of space constraints, the bases were placed about 34 feet apart. The indoor balls in use at that time were soft so they could be caught without gloves; they measured about five and a half or six inches in diameter. The indoor bats were shorter and smaller than the outdoor varieties, thus long hits were infrequent.
The following year interest grew, and employees from other Santa Fe departments joined in. The games were moved to a nearby park. The strength of the Santa Fe employees showed in the fact that the indoor balls were quickly demolished by the heavy hitters, many of whom began using regular outdoor bats.
To solve the problem, workers went to the Santa Fe's upholstery shop and tried to create a ball more suited to the game. They rebuilt the center, repacked the outside with hair and other materials, and tried to sew a cover that would satisfy their needs.
By 1917 formal teams were being formed and games were starting to be scheduled. The following year players were picked on the basis of ability. By 1919 the game had become much faster. More of the indoor rules were discarded, but the rule permitting only underhanded pitching was retained. Bases were set at 36 feet apart.
The year 1920 saw four teams, 40 games, and an organization with a secretary-treasurer. The problem with the ball remained, however. The players discussed the matter with a local hardware store, and the firm asked a representative of equipment manufacturer A. G. Spalding & Brothers to come to Kansas and investigate. The man arrived, checked out the game, its rules, and the ball problem. Spalding responded by sending several prototypes to Topeka for trials. Ultimately the players picked a ball that was larger than a regular baseball but smaller than the indoor baseball they had been using. It was lively but could still be caught without gloves. Spalding used an elkhide cover and employed raised seams that protected the threads from being torn by bats and the playing surface. Spalding later marketed these under the name "playground" balls, one of several early names for softballs.
Pitchers and catchers complained that baserunners had an undue advantage and were virtually unstoppable. This led to the modification of baseball rules so that no runner could leave a base until the ball was released from the pitcher's hand.
The next year a lunch-hour league was formed with six teams, one of them African American storehouse dock employees, featuring two-inning games. Game and player statistics were published in the Topeka State Journal. In 1921 the league played five games a week for nine weeks.
By 1922 the league found it necessary to draft new rules to govern players. Teams were limited to 12 players, and no player could sign with more than one team. The Santa Fe league operated until 1924, when the railroad stopped active sponsorship. Later teams of Santa Fe employees competed against other softball teams in a city league.
It is possible, and even probable, that indoor baseball was modified for outside play in confined spaces by players in other places besides Topeka. It is interesting, however, that A. G. Spalding found the game in Kansas unique enough to send an employee to Topeka to observe the sport that had been devised. Although Kansas might not have been the only birthplace of softball, its status as a significant source of the game cannot be disputed.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: January 2013
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