The Cat Fight Over Kittenball: The contested origins of softball in the Upper Midwest

2017.0620.004a-b A

An early kittenball, or softball, mold from the collections of Hennepin History Museum.

Minnesotans are generally nice, polite people. We don’t always like stirring up trouble by offering a contrary opinion and we’re usually happy to share our hot dish with others. However, there are some points of pride that Minnesotans take quite seriously, one of which was brought to the fore in 1938 when a math teacher at Cretin High School refuted the commonly held belief that softball originated in a Minneapolis fire station.  

 According to popular lore, a firefighter named Lewis Rober organized the first game of softball in 1895, hoping to develop a sport that would keep firefighters occupied and fit in-between calls but that did not require excessive time, space, or equipment to play. The game took off quickly and soon the firefighters at Station 19—currently the site of a Buffalo Wild Wings in Stadium Village—were regularly playing with the “Whales” of Engine 4, the “Rats” of Engine 9, the “Salisburys” of a nearby mattress factory, the “Pillsburys” from the flour mills, and the “Central Avenues.” Rober called the sport kittenball, named after his own team: the “Kittens.”   

 After nearly forty years of letting Rober bask in the spotlight, Brother Lewis Sixtus came forward with a different story. An article published in the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune on March 20, 1938 stated that Sixtus had played the game indoors at school in Chicago three years before its supposed birth. Sixtus went on to reveal that he had coached a well-established kittenball team at Cretin that had played against St. Paul Athletic club members, national guardsmen, and even professional baseball players—all prior to Rober’s publication of the game’s official rules in 1906.  

Unfortunately for Minnesotan pride, Sixtus’s story checks out. A version of softball was invented in Chicago in 1887 at the Farragut Boat Club when a Yale alum learned that his team had won the annual Yale-Harvard football game and chucked a boxing glove at a Harvard fan who tried to hit it with a bat.  

Since the 1938 article, Minnesotans have tried recovering their claim to fame. Late in the 1970s, the old Station 19 firehouse was repurposed and turned into office and retail space. The architects in charge of the project hired historians to research the building and the kittenball story was unearthed. Soon after, Barbara Flanagan published an article in Minneapolis Star about the birth of kittenball, completely omitting Sixtus and the Chicago boathouse. A year later, Joe Hennessy followed suit, writing about the station, “that was the year and the place softball—then called kittenball—was invented.”  

 How do we reconcile these two stories? Typical Minnesotans, we have found a way to compromise. While most softball historians around the country and Wikipedia agree that Chicago invented softball, today Lewis Rober is widely known as the father of the outdoor version.  

 So the next time you’re scarfing down some Bdubs before heading over to the football game, remember that another great sport was born practically at your feet—and that superior to Chicago as always, we played it outside first.  

 Author Bio 

Carson Backhus is a Collections Intern at the Hennepin History Museum. She has a bachelor’s degree in history and French from Grinnell College in Iowa. Her primary historical interests are in the French Revolution and sensory history.  

 Resources 

http://www.startribune.com/softball-started-in-minnesota-or-did-it/429130543/ 

http://www.extraalarm.org/ltrober.htm 

http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/58/v58i04p210-223.pdf 

https://startribune.newspapers.com/image/191090272/?terms=kittenball 

https://startribune.newspapers.com/image/191100154/?terms=kittenball 

https://startribune.newspapers.com/image/182979792/ 

https://www.athleticscholarships.net/history-of-softball.htm 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Softball 

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