George Hancock is recognized as both the inventor and the early developer of the game of softball.
The story of how the first softball game was created is well established in the history of American sport. On the Thanksgiving weekend of 1887, a group of young men who were either graduates or supporters of the Harvard and Yale institutions were gathered at the gymnasium located at the Farragut Club in Chicago. They were awaiting word, by way of telegraph, as to the outcome of the Yale-Harvard football game played that afternoon. College football, although only in existence for approximately 12 years, had become popular with the American sporting public. As was customary at that time (and prevalent today), many of the men in attendance at the Farragut Club had a wager placed on the outcome of the game, among them George Hancock, who worked as a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade.
When the Yale victory was announced, one Yale supporter picked up a boxing glove lying nearby and threw it towards a Harvard supporter, who struck the glove with a stick. Hancock was so taken with the action of the two men that he declared that there should a ball game played then and there. Hancock bound the boxing glove tightly, to create a soft, oversized baseball. Using a cut down broom handle for a bat and foul lines marked with chalk on the gymnasium floor, the first ever game of softball was played inside the Farragut Club gymnasium.
Hancock was so enthused by his invention and its potential for play as indoor baseball that he had a more symmetrical oversized ball constructed within a few days following the Thanksgiving game. Permanent foul lines were painted on the floor of the Farragut Club gymnasium, and Hancock had a small, rubber tipped bat made for indoor use. Hancock created a set of written rules to govern a baseball game played with in the confines of a gymnasium. These rules were formally published in 1888, as the new game devised by Hancock gained popularity in the Chicago area.
The critical features of Hancock's game were the smaller playing surface and the corresponding reduction in the batter's ability to hit the pitched ball with significant force. It is clear form the game constructed by Hancock that he wanted the players in his indoor game to value tactics, such as where the batter might be able to put the ball in play, over brute hitting strength. Although there have been considerable variations in how the game has been played after it was adapted for outdoor contests, those features applied by Hancock have remained constant through the evolution of softball.
Other players, taken with what Hancock had created, modified the softball game for outdoor use within the year, playing on a diamond smaller than that required for baseball. In response, Hancock developed the rules for what he described as Indoor-Outdoor baseball in 1889. In less then two years, Hancock's rather spontaneous invention at the Farragut Club was being played in various cities and towns in Illinois and Minnesota.
The name softball was given to Hancock's invention, but it was not the only name; depending upon the locale, the game was also known as kittenball, pumpkinball, and mushball.
The first woman's game of softball was played in 1895. Softball became the standard from of women's baseball through-out America and the world in the twentieth century. Softball also evolved into two distinct formats, as determined by how the pitcher was permitted to deliver the ball to the batter. Softball (sometimes called fast pitch) permitted the pitcher to deliver the ball as fast as desired, using a windmill type pitching motion; slow-pitch (or lob ball) requires the pitch to be delivered at a specified arc and height so as to reduce the speed of the pitch and to encourage putting the ball in play in the field.
A remarkable feature of the story of George Hancock and his invention of softball is that very little is known of his life after the publication of his indoor-outdoor rules of 1889. It is unclear whether Hancock played a role in the further development of the game after that time. It is also noteworthy that George Hancock is not enshrined in the National Softball Hall of Fame, as might otherwise befit the inventor of a sport now played in at least 100 countries in the world.