Indoor Baseball

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Indoor Baseball

The sites and sounds of Chicago on a lazy, sultry summer day frequently include a friendly game of softball. Whether you're watching an actual league game with players resplendent in uniforms and cleats, you're part of a work softball team, or simply at a picnic that has a pickup game, softball has been a uniquely integral part of the life of Chicago.

Softball is a Chicago invention and Pullman played a part in the spread of its popularity.

Origins

Softball-- or, as it was known, Indoor Baseball-- was invented on Thanksgiving day, 1887. George Hancock, reporter at the Chicago Board of Trade, had gone to the Farragut Boat Club at 3018 S. Lake Park (demolished, now part of the Michael Reese Hospital complex) to learn the score of the Harvard-Yale football game. Yale lost the game. As bets were being paid off, a Yale alumnus playfully threw a boxing glove at the gathered Harvard alumni, which was promptly batted away. In a flash of genius, George Hancock instantly recognized the potential of an indoor game. He retrieved the glove, tied it into a ball, and broke a broom handle to form a bat. He created impromptu rules, used chalk to outline a diamond and bases, and divided the gathered assembly into 2 teams. The game lasted an hour and ended with a score of 41-40 (Harvard!).

The popularity of this game spread rapidly among the members of the small but influential rowing community, in particular, members of the Mississippi Valley Amateur Rowing Association. Their annual regattas were conducted on Lake Calumet for many years; Pullman, a rowing powerhouse at the time, played host. The Market Hall was the site of many a rowing award and testimonial banquet.

The game appealed to rowers because, during winter months, it gave the teams a way to stay in shape and something to do within the confines of the clubhouse. The soft ball and short base lines meant it could be safely played in a medium-sized hall such as a gymnasium or dining hall. It grew in popularity with other groups who were also confined by winter to indoor spaces such as militias and firemen. In fact, modern softball was developed by a Minneapolis fire chief in 1895, Lewis Rober. His innovations, among which was shortening the game to 7 innings, made it fast-paced and high scoring and able to be played in 1-2 hours in a small field.

The town of Pullman had all three groups-- rowers, a fire department, and a militia. Naturally, Pullman developed several teams. From the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 7, 1890, p. 30: "The Pullman and Athletic Association indoor base-ball teams played a game in Market Hall Wednesday night before 250 spectators. The Athletics won by a score of 7 to 3." Another Pullman team, the All-Americas, also played at the Market Hall: "The Ashlands will play the All-Americas at Market Hall, Pullman, Thursday night, Jan.15" (Tribune, Jan. 14, 1891, p. 2). Sadly, the All-Americas went down in defeat 12-10. A return match was scheduled for "sometime in the future."

The Ashlands continued their dynasty and Pullman contributed yet another of its famous institutions -- the Pullman Marching Band -- to an annual (and important) charity match they played in 1892. From the Chicago Tribune, Jan. 9, 1892, p. 3: "Tonight will see the second annual indoor baseball game for charity at the auditorium. The contest will be between the Ashlands and the Careltons... The Second Regiment Band will open the entertainment with a concert and at 9:15 the two teams will appear on the floor ready for the contest." The Second Regiment Band was the last incarnation of the Pullman Marching Band. Among the many notable people in attendance at the charity event was George M. Pullman and Marshall Field.

The American Memory Project has published a number of early baseball guides (from Spaulding) online. Search for "indoor baseball" and have a look at the players and teams from a bygone era.

A plaque honoring the invention of softball is at Michael Reese on the site of the old Farragut Boat Club

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