If you’ve ever picked up a softball, you probably realized that the name is a misnomer. There's nothing soft about an 11- or 12-inch sphere weighing 6 to 7 ounces that can be delivered into the batter’s box—or, if things go south, your face—at nose-smashing velocity.
So why do people call a softball a softball?
It has a lot to do with the “ball” the game originated with. In 1887, some alumni of both Harvard and Yale were socializing in the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago, Illinois, awaiting the results of a football game being contested between the two schools. When Yale earned the victory, one of the school’s supporters picked up a boxing glove and playfully tossed it at a disappointed Harvard man, who swatted at it with a stick.
A reporter named George Hancock saw possibilities in their interaction. He cinched up the boxing glove so it was more aerodynamic and encouraged club members to begin playing a baseball game indoors, with chalk marking off home plate and the bases.
This lighter, looser version of baseball grew popular and eventually migrated outdoors. Other versions incorporated a small medicine ball; the game itself was known regionally by different names, including indoor ball, diamond ball, playground ball, and kitten ball—the latter because the ball was sometimes made of yarn wrapped in leather. Then, in 1926, YMCA official Walter Hakanson proposed recognizing the game at a meeting of the National Recreation Congress. Hakanson also gave the game a dedicated name—softball.
By the 1930s, the game was being contested among hundreds of leagues across the United States, where its popularity has never abated.
While earlier versions were sometimes softer and cushioned, modern balls are usually made with a kapok fiber or polyurethane or other material. Balls meant for youth play might be made with cork. In either case, a synthetic or natural leather covering is applied.
It’s likely that the ball simply adopted the name of the game itself, which in turn was inspired by the soft or yarn-stuffed balls of years past—though obviously Walter Hakanson had never taken one to the shin before coming up with "softball."