The teams take turns batting. Each team bats until three players have been put out, as described below. An inning consists of a turn at bat by each team, with the home team batting second. Seven innings constitute a game.
Play begins with the pitcher attempting to throw the ball to the catcher past the batter at home plate. The throw, or pitch, must be made with an underarm motion – the ball must be released below the hip when the hand is no farther from the hip than the elbow.
A strike is called if the pitch crosses home plate between the batters' armpits and the top of his or her knees without being hit by the batter. A strike is also called if the batter hits the pitch but it falls to the ground anywhere in foul territory (unless two strikes have already been called) or if the batter swings at any pitch and misses. A batted ball hit into foul territory is called a foul ball.
A pitch which is not a strike and which the batter does not swing at is a ball (an uncaught foul ball with two strikes on the batter is neither a strike nor a ball). The number of balls and strikes is called the count. The number of balls is always given first, as 2 and 1, 2 and 2, and so on. A count of 3 and 2 is a full count, since the next ball or strike will end the batter's turn at the plate (see next). If the catcher drops the ball on the 3rd strike, the batter may try to advance to 1st base.
If three strikes are called the batter is out. If four balls are called the batter advances to first base. The batter may also advance after hitting the ball into fair territory without being put out.
A batter is also out if a ball he or she hit is caught before touching the ground. After hitting the ball into fair territory, the batter must run to first base. He or she will be out if touched by the ball or by a glove holding the ball while away from a base (off base), or if a fielder holding the ball touches a base which is the only base towards which he or she may run before the batter arrives there (a force out or force play), and in certain other circumstances.
The most common type of force play is made at first base. When a batter drives a ball forward into fair territory his or her only choice is to run to first base. If the ball is thrown to first base (that is, to a fielder standing on first base) before the batter can reach it, the batter is out. If the batter reaches first base without being put out and stays there, he or she can then be forced at second base the next time a ball is driven into fair territory. That is, he or she must vacate first base to allow the batter to reach it, and consequently can only go to second base, where a force out may be recorded.
If the player hits the ball and advances to a base without being put out, he or she has achieved a base hit. The bases must be reached in order counterclockwise, starting with first base. After hitting the ball the batter may advance as many bases as possible. An advance to first base on a hit is a single, one to second base is a double, one to third base is a triple, and one to home plate is a home run. Home runs are usually scored by hitting the ball over the outfield fence, but may be scored on a hit which does not go over the fence.
The batter stands facing the pitcher inside a batter's box (there is one on each side of the plate). He or she holds the bat, with both hands, over the shoulder away from the pitcher. The ball is usually hit with a full swinging motion in which the bat may move through more than 360 degrees. The batter usually steps forward with the front foot as he or she swings. However, a bunt is made by holding the bat stationary over the plate and stabbing at the ball so it strikes the ground in front of home plate.
A batted ball hit high in the air is a fly ball. A fly ball hit upward at an angle greater than 45 degrees is a pop fly. A batted ball driven in the air through the infield at a height at which an infielder could play it if in the right position is a line drive. A batted ball which hits the ground within the diamond is a ground ball.
A player on base is called a runner. When on first, second, or third base the runner may be retired by being forced out, by being touched with the ball while away from a base, and in certain other circumstances (being hit by a batted ball, for example).
A run is scored when a player has touched all four bases in order, proceeding counterclockwise around them. They need not be touched on the same play; a batter may remain safely on a base while play proceeds and advance at his or her own risk. The runner must be on base until the pitcher releases the ball. He or she may advance as many bases as possible.
A runner may advance:
The team with the most runs after seven innings wins the game. The last (bottom) half of the seventh inning or any remaining part of the seventh inning is not played if the home team is leading. If the game is tied, play continues until a decision is reached. In tournament play, to avoid embarrassing weaker teams, mercy rules award the contest to a team which has taken a lead of a specified size before seven innings have been played.
- on a hit by another player
- automatically, when a base on balls advances another player to his or her base
- by stealing a base (running to the next base on the pitch and reaching it before being tagged with the ball)
- after a fly ball has been caught, provided the player was touching his or her base at the time the ball was caught or after
- automatically, on a balk (illegal delivery or non-delivery of a pitch which could deceive the baserunner)
- on an error by a fielder
Decisions about play are made by umpires. There must be at least one umpire. If there is only one umpire, he or she stands behind home plate to call balls and strikes, or behind the pitcher facing home plate if there is a runner on base. Additional umpires are stationed at other bases; when there is more than one umpire the home plate umpire remains behind home plate.
The International Softball Federation holds world championship tournaments in several categories. The tournament in each category is held every four years.
As of February, 2004 the defending world champion of men's fast-pitch softball is New Zealand, while the current women's champion is the United States.
The current world champion of men's slow-pitch softball is the United States, while the mixed champion is Great Britain.
Origins and development
The first version of softball was invented in Chicago in 1887 by George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, as a winter version of baseball. The game, known as indoor baseball, was first played at the Farragut Boat Club. Hancock took a boxing glove and tied it into a ball. A broom handle was used as a bat. The ball, being soft, was fielded barehanded rather than with gloves like those which had been introduced to baseball in 1882. The Farragut Club soon set rules for the game, which spread quickly to outsiders.
In 1895 Lewis Rober, Sr of Minneapolis organized outdoor games as exercise for firefighters; this game was known as kitten ball (after the first team to play it) or diamond ball. Rober's version of the game used a twelve-inch ball rather than the sixteen-inch ball used by the Farragut club, and eventually the Minneapolis ball prevailed (although the dimensions of the Minneapolis diamond were passed over in favour of the dimensions of the Chicago one). Rober may not have been familiar with the Farragut Club rules. The first softball league outside the United States was organized in Toronto in 1897.
The softball name dates from 1926 (in addition to indoor baseball, kitten ball, and diamond ball, names for the game included mush ball, and pumpkin ball). Standard rules were agreed on only after the formation of the Amateur Softball Association in 1933.
Sixteen inch softball, also sometimes referred to as "Mush Ball" is a direct descendant of Hancok's original game. Defensive players are not allowed to wear fielding gloves, and thus must catch the ball with their bare hands. Sixteen inch softball is played extensively in Chicago, Illinois.
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