How is Softball Still a Thing?

Women don’t play soccer with a larger, softer ball. Women don’t have to shoot basketballs underhanded. How is softball still a thing?

Why do some women play baseball (including the USA women’s team) while others play softball?

Women have played baseball from the beginning.

Thanks to A League of Their Own, we know that during World War II there was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Overhand pitching was introduced, and eventually the only difference between the men’s and women’s games was the size of the diamond (the women’s league had a shorter distance between bases). Sadly, the league folded in the 1950s.

Where did softball enter the picture?

As it turns out, the sport has a parallel history. The idea started primarily as a way to play baseball indoors without breaking stuff. As the story goes, in 1887 in Chicago, a group of men were waiting impatiently for the results of the Harvard-Yale football game to come over the wire. While waiting, they tied a glove into a large, soft ball, and used a broomstick as a bat. This “softball” thing actually caught on across America, and over time evolved into a sport that looks a lot like baseball, but has significant differences, including underhand pitching.

For men, softball is something played recreationally (often in adult leagues) while baseball is a sport with a professional avenue. The distinction isn’t as clear for women.

The year 1972 brought us Title IX, the law requiring gender equity in federally funded education programs. It was a great boon for women’s sports (and spawned a chain of women’s sporting gear/clothing stores by the same name), but didn’t do much for women’s baseball—because men’s baseball was deemed equivalent to women’s softball under the law, schools were within their rights in denying baseball (funding and scholarships) to girls and women. Equity achieved! Or was it?

One can definitely make the case that softball is its own thing, a worthwhile sport enjoyed by both men and women, and should not be part of any discussion about the separate sport of women’s baseball. And that’s true in the abstract. Unfortunately, the reality is that women baseball players usually pay a big price in terms of lost playing and scholarship opportunities under Title IX.

Professionally, softball is largely a dead-end for women, and today’s female baseball players are less visible than female soccer and basketball players. Given this, wouldn’t it be better to make men’s baseball equivalent to women’s baseball, rather than to women’s softball?

Perhaps only time, and a lawsuit, will tell.

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